Coincidences and Conspiracy Theories
One of the central questions that our discussions have begun to broach is when and why conspiracy theories emerge. While structural conditions can inspire and influence the materialisation and development of conspiracy theories, such theories also commonly arise around particular events. These events are frequently physically violent in nature – such as assassination attempts, terrorist attacks, armed uprisings – or violate existing knowledge and trust – such as the public revelation of information that was formerly concealed, and which by its uncovering threatens to harm the relationship between groups, notably state and society. An example of the latter can be found in the public disclosures of WikiLeaks and, most recently, Edward Snowden’s divulgences about the US National Security Agency’s mass surveillance programmes. Coincidences such as these are regularly seen by conspiracy theorists as irrefutable evidence of a malign plot.
According to proponents of conspiracy theories, there is no such thing as coincidence. As events unfold, the incidents are appropriated as proof of subversive, usually far-reaching design. For instance, in the German Empire in the summer of 1878, when two attempts within three weeks were made on the life of Kaiser Wilhelm I and provided the political pretext for the dissolution of Parliament and the eventual passing of the anti-socialist laws supported by the Iron Chancellor, the suspicion spread that perhaps the assassins had been instigated by Bismarck to attack the German sovereign. Similarly, in the 1960s and 1970s, conspiracy theories that surfaced in the immediate aftermath of US President John F. Kennedy’s 1963 assassination appeared increasingly plausible in the light of the subsequent murder of Malcolm X, and later the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and then Robert F. Kennedy in 1968. Against the conflict-ridden backdrop of the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War and the Cold War, paranoia about a government plot grew, culminating in 1975 with the US Senate Select Committee’s uncovering of evidence of CIA involvement in state-sponsored assassination plots abroad.
The relationship between coincidences and conspiracy thinking will surely prove one of many variables for our project to dissect in the coming years.