The World’s Most Persistent Conspiracy Theories

With “truthers,” “birthers” and “deathers” in back in the news, here’s a look at five conspiracy theories the won't go away.

By , a former associate editor at Foreign Policy, and
394261 15: A fiery blasts rocks the World Trade Center after being hit by two planes September 11, 2001 in New York City. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)


Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The theory: Al Qaeda was not (or was not solely) responsible for the 9/11 attacks. The U.S. government either allowed the attacks to happen or orchestrated them.

The details: Dubious theories about what really occurred on Sept. 11, 2001, began to circulate almost immediately after the attacks took place. For instance, one Arab satellite network reported that 4,000 Jews had skipped work on the day of the attacks. Several books released in the following months in Europe and the Middle East postulated that the attacks had been a “false-flag” operation orchestrated by neoconservatives within the U.S. government to drum up support for the war in Iraq.

It’s hardly surprising that such misinformation would spread in the wake of such a catastrophic event. What’s more shocking is that a recent poll of 17 countries showed that a majority of people still aren’t convinced that Al Qaeda was responsible.

Many “truthers” take issue with other aspects of the official explanation. The popular 2005 documentary “Loose Change” argues that airliners could not have caused the twin towers to collapse in the way they did and that the lack of debris at the Pentagon and Flight 93 crash sites is inconsistent with what a destroyed jet would create. Popular Mechanics devoted an entire special issue to debunking the theories but “Loose Change” remains as popular as ever, with a host of sequels and spinoffs proliferating online.

The “truther” controversy hit the Obama administration this month when “climate czar” Van Jones was forced to resign after it was revealed that he had signed a petition calling for further investigation into who was behind the 9/11 attacks. Other signatories included erstwhile presidential candidate Ralph Nader, historian Howard Zinn, and Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney. Actor Charlie Sheen has also emerged as a prominent advocate for the “truther” movement.

The truth: The bipartisan 9/11 Commission thoroughly investigated the events of September 11 and found conclusively that Al Qaeda was responsible for the attacks. Osama bin Laden himself claimed responsibility for the attacks in 2004, saying they were in retaliation for U.S. policies in the Middle East.


Chris Hondros/Getty Images

Theory: Jews control the world financial system and caused the financial crisis

The details: Theories that a shadowy cabal of Jewish bankers controls the world have been around for centuries and have been used to justify violence against Jews by everyone from the Russian czars to the Nazis to Al Qaeda. But the global financial crisis has caused these theories to rear their ugly head once again, but this time their being propagated by a new and unlikely source. 

The latest version of the Jewish banker theory comes from China, where IT consultant and amateur historian Song Hongbing published in 2007 a book entitled “Currency Wars.” Hongbing claims that a small group of Jewish bankers have controlled the world’s private and public banking systems since the days of Napoleon, and then goes on to write that this group not only caused the 1997 collapse, but is now targeting China by encouraging Beijing to open up the country’s financial system and buy more Western debt, with the knowledge that bond prices will continue to decline.

The book became a surprise bestseller that fall, with many Chinese seeing the book as a way to make more money on the stock market — and it offered a convenient explanation for the 1997 collapse. After last year’s worldwide financial crisis and the shakiness of American Treasury bond prices, though, the book gained a new measure of legitimacy in China, and apparently even some of the country’s highest-level financial leaders have read it.

The truth: The causes of the financial crisis are myriad, from the popping of the housing bubble to the proliferation of over-leveraged financial interests. Millions of Jews lost money along with everyone else.



The theory: A small group of transnational elites is secretly plotting to establish a world government

The details: Many have long suspected that secret societies like the Freemasons or the Illuminati were secretly controlling national governments from behind the scenes. But the economic globalization of recent decades, along with the transnational organizations it has spawned, has only convinced more people than ever that we are headed toward world government, or that a secret one already exists.

Conspiracy theorists such as U.S. filmmaker and radio host Alex Jones argue that organizations like the Trilateral Commission, the Bilderberg Group, the Council on Foreign Relations, and the World Economic Forum are used by elites to unduly influence world events from wars to financial markets.  These theories, of course, do contain a grain of truth — powerful decision-makers do meet, network, and make decisions at these events — which only makes it easier for theorists to formulate outrageous theories about occult rituals and mind control.

New World Order conspiracies took a small step into the political mainstream with the presidential candidacy of Texas congressman Ron Paul. Paul — who has appeared as a guest on Alex Jones’s radio show — regularly assailed the Council on Foreign Relations and warned of a “conspiracy of ideas” to give up American sovereignty, beginning with a supposed “NAFTA superhighway” connecting the countries of North America into a single economic unit. Concerns about world government have also driven congressional opposition to a number of U.N. treaties like the Law of the Sea. Nationalist groups have argued, misleadingly, that the law would lead to international taxes or even an international military force.

The truth: The emergence of a global power elite has been described by writers from Karl Marx to FP’s own David Rothkopf. But if said elites were really so powerful, it would be a lot easier to get free trade agreements passed.  


Alex Wong/Getty Images

The theory: Barack Obama was not born in the United States and is therefore ineligible for the presidency

The details: With his mixed-race background, family from three continents, and meteoric rise to prominence, Barack Hussein Obama has proved an attractive target for conspiracy theorists, who wonder if he isn’t hiding something about his true identity from the American people. During the Democratic primary, an online whisper campaign began alleging that Obama was secretly a Muslim. (A bit strange given the parallel attention focused on his preacher, Jeremiah Wright.) The number of Americans believing this theory did not decline after his election and as of March, 11 percent of the public still thought the president was Muslim, according to a Pew Research poll. Only 48 percent were sure that he was Christian.

The second major conspiracy theory about Obama is that he was born outside the United States, either in his father’s home country, Kenya, or his stepfather’s, Indonesia.  Despite a host of evidence that Obama was born in Hawaii, including a certificate of live birth and a story in a local newspaper, the theory has not gone away. A poll taken in July showed that only 77 percent of Americans (42 percent of Republicans) were confident that Obama was born in the United States.

The theories continue to spread online on Web sites like the right-wing WorldNetDaily, but more mainstream media figures like CNN host Lou Dobbs have also called upon Obama to release his birth certificate and supply proof that he was born in the U.S. While no members of Congress have explicitly endorsed “birther” theories, Rep. Bill Posey of Florida did so implicitly by sponsoring a bill requiring presidential candidates to produce a birth certificate.

The truth: Barack Obama was born on Aug. 4, 1961 in Honolulu, Hawaii. While a number of his family members are Muslim, he is a practicing Christian.


Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

The theory: AIDS was manufactured by the U.S. government and authorities aren’t telling the truth about how it is spread

The details: AIDS conspiracy theories have been around since at least the mid-1980s, when the discredited East German biology professor Jakob Segal argued that it had been created in a U.S. government lab. AIDS conspiracy theories have proved particularly popular among African Americans. A 2005 poll found that more than 25 percent of black Americans believed that the U.S. government had engineered the virus and intentionally spread it in the black community.

Some fringe scientists also claim that AIDS is not, in fact, caused by a virus and is simply a condition brought on by lifestyle factors like recreational drug use. While these theories have been thoroughly debunked and discredited, they have earned a number of high-profile supporters, including former South African President Thabo Mbeki, who argued for years that the international consensus on HIV/AIDS was wrong and that the disease was caused by poverty and poor hygiene, rather than sexual transmission.

His health minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, urged those with HIV to eat garlic and beetroot. Mbeki’s successor Jacob Zuma finally sacked Tshabalala-Msimang, but lest you think he’s any better informed about the disease, he once claimed to have prevented HIV infection by showering after sex.

The truth: A mountain of scientific evidence shows that HIV/AIDS is transmitted through human-to-human exchange of bodily fluids. Scientists believe the virus originated in Africa in the early 20th century. 

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @joshuakeating

James Downie is an editorial researcher at FP.

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