One of the many images used to advertise the popular and semi-self-aware "Birds Aren't Real" conspiracy theory.

Please note that the content that appears below also appears in the UnTextbook chapter titled "The Secrecy Situation"

One of the reasons to study the rhetoric of secrecy is that it helps us to understand the logic of conspiracy theories. Conspiracy theories are common ways of creating a spectacle of secrecy in public and personal communication. They also describe how secrets acquire a specific kind of performative force when they circulate in public. Conspiracy theories use rhetoric to attract audiences and capture them within a web of faulty reasoning.

Required Secondary Readings for UMN-TC

Jodi Dean, "Declarations of Independence"

  • According to Jodi Dean,  political conspiracy theories give believers an imagined sense of "independence" from institutions and government and grant them the power to "read between the lines" or to see what others cannot. Are conspiracy theories logical fallacies that allow believers to exercise mastery over the worlds they inhabit? What might it mean to define the psychological function of conspiracy theories without getting caught up in proving their truth or falsehood?

Recordings for this Entry

Although it may seem like conspiracy theories are especially prevalent today, they have a long history in the United States. This section offers a short history of conspiracies, offering some context for how and why conspiracy thinking has been part of America's common sense for the past two centuries.

According to the United States federal legal code, a criminal conspiracy is an agreement by two or more people to commit criminal fraud through illegal actions. Importantly, the plan to commit conspiracy does not have to be conducted in secret to be punishable by law – conspiracies can and do happen out in the open. The Mueller Report on the Investigation into Russian Interference in the 2016 Presidential Election cites two conspiracy statutes in discussing whether to bring charges to Donald J. Trump for election interference involving the Russian government and WikiLeaks in 2016. One of these, 18 U.S.C. § 371, creates an offense ...

... "[i]f two or more persons conspire either to commit any offense against the United States, or to defraud the United States, or any agency thereof in any manner or for any purpose.”

As a kind of rhetoric, conspiracy theories are a repetitious form of disinformation that produces a paranoid mindset in an audience. For example, Peter Knight describes post 9/11 “outrageous conspiracy theories” as an “infinite regress of suspicion" in which "the location of the ultimate foundation of power is endlessly deferred.” (193) Many conspiracy theories resemble a “slippery slope” fallacy of reasoning in which secret information is presented as an unfolding pattern of exposure. Richard Hofstadter calls a common rhetorical organization of conspiracy theories in the 20th century "the paranoid style":

The typical procedure [of the paranoid style] is to start with defensible assumptions and with a careful accumulation of facts, or at least of what appear to be facts, and to marshal these facts toward an overwhelming “proof” of the criminal conspiracy. It is nothing if not coherent – in fact, the paranoid mentality is far more coherent than the real world, since it leaves no room for mistakes, failures, or ambiguities. It believes that it is up against an enemy who is as infallibly rational as he is totally evil, and it seeks to match his imputed total competence with its own, leaving nothing unexplained and comprehending all of reality in one overarching, consistent theory.

It’s this “mentality” that Hofstadter identifies in the late 1950s, and which he argues has emerged out of major events in the past two centuries. These ‘events’ include the anti-masonic movement, the rise of evangelical and political demagogues in the United States, and the mainstreaming of Joseph McCarthy,  Robert Welch, and the anti-communist John Birch Society.

The Anti-Masonic Movement (early 19th century)

The Freemasons are a secret society with a long medieval and European history. They are commonly associated with secrets because of the use of esoteric symbols, rituals, and hierarchy. Although their social and political significance has declined substantially over time, they still remain commonly associated with secrecy and conspiracy theories.

In the United States, the Freemasons were influential in the 18th and 19th centuries. Their activities were only partly secret because the fact of their hidden activities was public knowledge, particularly with the anti-Masonic movement. According to rhetorical and social movement theorist Leland Griffin, this movement emerged in the early 1800s. Here is how Griffin sets up the context for the fraternity of freemasons in the early 19th century:

“The conflict between secrecy and democracy would appear to be a recurrent phenomenon in our national history. Indeed, since the flowering of the modern secret society in the eighteenth century, anti-secretism as a state of mind has been an enduring fiber in the pattern of Western culture. In countries where the totalitarian climate prevails, the spirit of anti-secretism readily suppresses the secret order by the application of brute force. Where the question of suppression is left to the arbitrament of public opinion, however, the spirit of anti-secretism relies on persuasion. Throughout the century following the Revolutionary War, sentiment against the secret society was strong in America. During this period three attempts to arouse Public Opinion to the destruction of secret societies - and the Masonic Society in particular - may be noted. The second of these movements, which flourished from 1826 to 1838, roughly spanning the Jacksonian period, was by far the most noteworthy of the three.” (145-146)

We might note the following three points about this long passage:

  1. Griffin, who is writing in 1958, has no better word than “anti-secretism” to describe the counter-movement to the freemasons, which refers fundamentally to a movement-like injunction for the masons to disclose their secrets to the public. In fact, the word "transparency" is a recent addition to our political, legal, and public vocabulary. As recently as the 1960s, politicians, and academics referred to "disclosure" instead of "transparency" as an important feature of a healthy political sphere.
  2. The Masons are a significant group at the start of the 19th century, and that they dwindled in stature over time thanks to the efforts of a counter-movement of “anti-masons.”
  3. Anti-secretism “relies upon persuasion” and is therefore rhetorical. As Griffin notes, “the most significant figure in the band of aggressor rhetoricians was the political orator.” (152)

In the fall of 1826, a rumor was circulated among Freemasons of western New York. Allegedly, a former member of the lodge at Batavia, a bricklayer named William Morgan, was planning to publish the secret signs, grips, passwords, and ritual of Ancient Craft [Blue Lodge] Masonry. Morgan was imprisoned on a false charge and abducted from his cell by a small band of Masons. He was then taken to an abandoned fort above Niagara Falls. Shortly thereafter, all historical trace of him vanishes. Morgan's disappearance triggered a public backlash in many states which Griffin describes as the "anti-Masonic movement," which sought to expose the Freemasons as a not-so-secret criminal conspiracy.

When attacking the Freemasons, the anti-Masons relied upon “a ‘fund’ of public argument via various channels of media circulation, such as newspapers, tracts, public lectures, and sermons. In response, the Freemasons used rhetorical strategies that fell into two categories:

  • The first strategy the Freemasons used was to counter-attack “the character and motives of Anti-masons. This strategy was a disaster. Griffin argues that it led the anti-Masons to extend their agenda to the complete destruction of Freemasonry itself, and later, “the destruction of all secret orders then existing in the country.”
  • The Freemasons’ second rhetorical response … [was] “‘dignified silence’ in the face of the opposition’s attack.” According to Griffin, “states began to pass laws against extra-juridical oaths. Lodge charters were surrendered, sometimes under legal compulsion but often voluntarily, Phi Beta Kappa abandoned its oaths of secrecy, Masonic and Odd Fellows’ lodges began to file bankruptcy petitions, and membership rolls in the various orders began to dwindle to the vanishing point.”

Ultimately, the anti-Masonic movement disappeared, but the Freemasons remained. They have persisted through the late 20th and early 21st century, although their membership and public influence have diminished significantly. According to Joshua Gunn, the Freemasons were once a powerful organization because they laid claim to an “inexhaustible secret.” The community was sustained through the secrecy enmeshed with the organization’s hierarchy, its sacred rituals, and its guarded texts. But in the 20th century, in a flawed effort to get more members into the organization, the Freemasons began publicizing these texts. In this case, secrecy held that organization together and transparency pulled it apart. To sustain a public, the inexhaustible secret requires “a continuous dynamic obligation and commitment, achieved by a fetishized object whose information, meaning, or symbolism can never be fully revealed.” By giving up on secrets, the Masons also ‘gave up’ on what bound them together.

The Dreyfus Affair (late 19th - early 20th century)

On the Dreyfus Affair, also see: Ryan Skinnell, "History tells us forged pro-Trump ‘election documents’ should sound alarm bells," Washington Post, January 18, 2022.

The second example of early-20th century conspiracy theories is the Esterhazy Scandal, more commonly known as the Dreyfus Affair. On July 24th, 1894, Major Esterhazy, a French officer, offered to sell important French military secrets to the German military attache in Paris, Lieutenant Colonel Maximilian von Schwartzkoppen.  Esterhazy gave him an artillery manual and a memorandum he had written on the subject of the new short 120 millimeter cannon being developed by the French, French troop positions and modifications in the battle order of artillery units, and plans for the imminent invasion and colonization of Madagascar. Shortly after it was received by the German attache, this information was leaked back to the French through planted French spies at the German embassy. After making incorrect deductions about where the information could have come from, a Lieutenant Colonel in the French army created a list of artillery officer trainees. The name “Alfred Dreyfus” was quickly singled out.

Portrait of Alfred Dreyfus

Dreyfus was a Jewish artillery officer. Those above him in the chain of command were openly anti-Semitic and Dreyfus was the only Jewish trainee. When news of his arrest was leaked, it was explained that Dreyfus had just finished training in the general staff, which is why he could obtain so much information. The evidence that resulted in his conviction was also markedly racist: it made Dreyfus the subject of suspicion because he was Jewish. Even Dreyfus's handwriting did not match the handwriting on the leaked document from Germany. He was imprisoned on devil's island in French Guiana where he spent about five years. Widely publicized around the world, the Dreyfus arrest strongly intensified antisemitic attitudes in France and Europe. The word “Dreyfusard,” a supporter of Dreyfus’s innocence, would have a familiar reference to the scandal in the early 20th century. Some famous supporters of Dreyfus included Queen Victoria, Henri Poincare, Mark Twain, and the Pope.

While he was in prison Dreyfus naively believed in the army's ability to establish his innocence. He was unaware of the efforts to free him, his enemies in the general staff, and was convinced that high-ranking military officials were making efforts to find the real traitor. In 1896 new evidence emerged that identified the real culprit as Ferdinand Esterhazy. When officials suppressed the new evidence, a military court unanimously acquitted Esterhazy after a trial that lasted only two days. The army put additional charges against Dreyfus, which were based on forged documents. During this time, French novelist, playwright, and journalist Emile Zola published six open letters on Dreyfus’s behalf. In 1898 he published the famous letter titled “Je Accuse!,” – which was itself followed by seven more letters. This public pressure on the government to return to the case.

In 1899 Dreyfus returned to France for another trial. The new trial resulted in another conviction and a 10-year sentence, but Dreyfus was pardoned and released. In 1906 Dreyfus was exonerated and reinstated as a major. He served during the whole of World War I. He ended his service at the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and died in 1935.

The case is instructive for the way it communicates the role of racist ideologies in conspiracy theories. Max Horkheimer, who wrote “The Authoritarian Personality” in the wake of World War II, sought to establish a social-scientific basis for measuring and identifying the core traits of the anti-Semitic ideologies.

In The Authoritarian Personality, Horkheimer finds that antisemitism is characterized by contradictory attitudes that cannot be easily reconciled. For example, anti-Semitic ideology made Dreyfus out to be both too strong and too weak, too secretive and also too intrusive, as assimilating both too much and not enough. Dreyfus was accused on the basis of having fabricated his own handwriting. It was the contradictions of his character that were the telltale evidence that led him to be imprisoned. Dreyfus's story is a warning because it was such a widespread source of misinformation. It also demonstrated how both racism and conspiracy theories were intertwined at the outset of the 20th century.

Required Secondary Readings for UMN-TC

Jodi Dean, "Declarations of Independence"

  • According to Jodi Dean,  political conspiracy theories give believers an imagined sense of "independence" from institutions and government and grant them the power to "read between the lines" or to see what others cannot. Are conspiracy theories logical fallacies that allow believers to exercise mastery over the worlds they inhabit? What might it mean to define the psychological function of conspiracy theories without getting caught up in proving their truth or falsehood?

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