In Depth

Strange conspiracy theories: from 5G to Meghan Markle

The Week investigates the most intriguing and bizarre theories

People have long been puzzled why, in the face overwhelming evidence to the contrary, a small minority choose to believe in an alternative truth.

Developmental psychologists have found that feedback, rather than hard evidence, boosts people’s sense of certainty when learning new things or trying to tell right from wrong.

According to research from the University of California, Berkeley, published in the journal Open Mind in 2018, people’s beliefs are more likely to be reinforced by the positive or negative reactions they receive in response to an opinion, task or interaction, than by logic, reasoning and scientific data.

In practice, this means that “if you think you know a lot about something, even though you don’t, you’re less likely to be curious enough to explore the topic further, and will fail to learn how little you know”, says the study’s lead author Louis Marti.

“This cognitive dynamic can play out in all walks of actual and virtual life, including social media and cable-news echo chambers, and may explain why some people are easily duped by charlatans,” says Berkeley News.

Here are some of the most intriguing and bizarre conspiracy theories:

Hollow Earth

While Flat Earthers get all the attention in the mainstream media, Popular Mechanics notes that there is also a conspiracy that says the “Earth is hollow and that there might even be a whole other civilization of advanced beings living in it”.

“The theory is rooted back in the 17th century when Edmond Halley - who has a comet named after him - proposed that the Earth must be hollow because of changing magnetism,” the science news site adds.

Even back then, the idea of a hollow Earth was “hardly a new one”, says Wired, which notes that “it appears in folklore the world over, not to mention elsewhere in Europe in Halley’s time”.

A German scholar called Athansius Kircher, for instance, published a textbook in 1664 “ in which he claimed the Earth contains a central fire (kinda true, really) and vast underground lakes and lava chambers,” the site adds.

“At the North Pole is a gaping vortex that sucks water down to the central fire, where it’s heated and expelled out the South Pole.”

Paul McCartney is dead

One of the most unusual pop-culture conspiracy theories concerns a member of the Fab Four. Beatles legend has it that Paul McCartney secretly died in 1966, at the height of the band’s fame, and that the other three members covered it up by hiring someone who looked and sang like him.

Beatlemaniacs point to numerous clues in the band’s later albums as proof of this. The Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album is, they claim, awash with “Paul is dead” clues such as the lyrics to A Day in the Life, which featured the line “He blew his mind out in a car” and the recorded phrase “Paul is dead, miss him, miss him,” which becomes evident only when the song is played backward. Lennon also mumbled, “I buried Paul” at the end of “Strawberry Fields Forever” although he later denied there was any hidden meaning in the lyrics and what he was actually saying was “cranberry sauce”.

Much is also made of The Beatles’ use of imagery after 1966. The original cover of 1966’s Yesterday and Today album featured the Beatles posed amid raw meat and dismembered doll parts - “symbolising McCartney’s gruesome accident” says Time Magazine. The magazine also claims that “if fans placed a mirror in front of the Sgt Pepper album cover, the words Lonely Hearts on the drum logo could be read as “1 ONE 1 X HE DIE 1 ONE 1”.

Most famously, there is the Abbey Road album cover in which John Lennon, dressed in white, leads a ”funeral“ procession across the street. Ringo follows in black as a mourner with George in jeans representing a grave digger. Paul McCartney walks out of step with the rest of band and barefoot as, some had it, he would have no need of shoes in the afterlife.

Elvis is alive

Music legend Elvis Presley died on 16 August 1977 - or did he? If the latest conspiracy theory is to be believed, the King of Rock and Roll faked his own death and now works as a groundsman in Graceland.

Grainy footage of a bearded man has been posted on YouTube by “The Shadow”, who claims the figure is an 81-year-old Elvis.

In the caption for the video, which has been viewed nearly 2.2 million times, The Shadow writes: “He raises his 2 fingers to the top of his left head as a proof of life signal. In Chaldean Numerology the numerical value of V sign in Numerology is: 9. Proof of life!!!....he told us he is alive with the simple V sign. Number 9 ,‘I’m Alive’ He is giving us a clue that he knows we are all there watching him and to his most loyal fans that he is indeed with us.”

While some say the claims are “idiotic” and Elvis should be left to “rest in peace”, the belief that the King is out there looks unlikely to fade away.

The CIA and Aids

Ever since HIV/Aids was first identified in the US in 1981, rumours have persisted as to its cause and origin.

One of the most outlandish theories that has nevertheless captured the imagination of conspiracists is that the deadly virus was created by the CIA to wipe out homosexuals and African Americans on the orders of US president Richard Nixon.

It boasts a number of high-profile supporters including former South African president Thabo Mbeki who once touted the theory, “disputing scientific claims that the virus originated in Africa and accusing the US government of manufacturing the disease in military labs”, says Time magazine. Meanwhile, a number of prominent scientists, including former Nobel Peace Prize Kenyan ecologist Wangari Maathai, have also backed the theory.

There is evidence that the CIA connection was, in fact, created by the KGB as part of a Cold War disinformation campaign to discredit the US.

Dubbed Operation Infektion, the USSR published letters from ”anonymous US official sources“ in scientific journals and newspapers throughout the 1980s claiming that virus was a CIA experiment gone wrong. This initially remained within the medical community but as the epidemic grew, the theory took hold and persists to this day.

Despite this, most scientists and doctors agree that the virus jumped from monkeys to humans somewhere in the Congo during the 1930s.

Big Pharma is withholding the cure for cancer

A long-standing favourite among conspiracists suggests medical professionals, led by major pharmaceutical companies, discovered the cure for cancer but have not made it available to the wider public.

The argument goes that given the amount of money generated by cancer treatment around the world, a cure would seriously impact revenue for drugs companies - not to mention put many doctors and researchers out of business.

“While Big Pharma has not made itself many friends among the public, there is no evidence that such a vast conspiracy is possible as it would require the participation of thousands if not millions of people in both for-profit and non-profit sectors,” says Big Think.

In fact, “it makes more sense that selling the cure would actually make more money”, it says.

Forbes reports that “medical insurance companies and the federal government would love nothing better than to substitute a $100 cancer treatment for one that costs $1,000,000 like CAR-T immunotherapy”.

Furthermore, adds the finance magazine, “Cancer researchers are human. Humans cannot keep important secrets. Cancer cures cannot be suppressed, not even for one month.”

CrowdStrike

CrowdStrike is a California-based cybersecurity company that was hired to investigate hacks against the Democratic National Committee (DNC) during the presidential election contest between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in 2016.

Vox reports that it “concluded that Russia was responsible”, but Trump has continued to obsess over “the server” involved and peddled a conspiracy theory that CrowdStrike itself may have been party to election meddling.

During the now-infamous phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky – during which the US president allegedly proposed a quid pro quo arrangement that has seen him become the subject of impeachment proceedings – Trump reportedly said: “I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine, they say CrowdStrike… I guess you have one of your wealthy people… The server, they say Ukraine has it.”

In a footnote to their complaint, the whistleblower who initially broke the case wrote: “I do not know why the President associates these servers with Ukraine,” CNN reports.

In mid-November, Trump phoned in to cable news show Fox & Friends and claimed that the DNC “gave the server to CrowdStrike, which is a company owned by a very wealthy Ukrainian. I still want to see that server.”

As stuff.co.nz says: “Every part of what Trump said was false.”

Aliens helped build Stonehenge

The series of boulders that make up Stonehenge have long puzzled experts and provided material ripe for conspiracy theorists.

Most pertinent is the question: how were the stones - some weighing 50 tons - transported and arranged to where they sit today?

Without basic transportation technology, such as wheels (which were invented more than five centuries after Stonehenge is believed to have been built), there is no obvious answer to how the biggest stones were moved.

Much of what scientists do know about the construction of Stonehenge is from educated guesses and constantly evolving research, the newest of which suggests that in fact two of the largest boulders that make up Stonehenge have always been “more or less” where they sit today

Alternatively of course, scientists could shun the research and read Erich von Däniken’s seminal book Chariots of the Gods?, “which makes the argument that many ancient megastructures such as Stonehenge, the Egyptian pyramids, and the Moai heads of Easter Island were built using know-how passed down from God-like aliens to mankind”, says The Independent

Though why the extraterrestrials would pass on the knowledge of how to build Stonehenge but not the wheel is anyone’s guess...

Reptilian Elite

The “reptoid hypothesis” is a conspiracy theory which advances the argument that reptilian humanoids live among us with the intention of enslaving the human race. It has been championed by former BBC sports presenter David Icke, who believes the likes of Bob Hope, members of the royal family and former US presidents George W Bush and Bill Clinton are part of the ”Anunnaki“ race who came to earth for “monatomic gold”.

Critics accused Icke of anti-Semitism, alleging that his talk of reptiles was code for Jews – but he clarified that the lizards to which he referred were literal, not metaphorical.  

Prince Charles is a vampire

Like all good conspiracy theories, this one has some basis in fact.

According to genealogy records, Prince Charles is believed to descend from Vlad the Impaler, the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. First revealed in Iain Moncreiffe’s 1982 book Royal Highness, the Prince can trace his lineage back through his great grandmother Queen Mary, the consort of George V, to Vlad IV, the half-brother of the notorious ruler.

The heir to the throne has even appeared in a promotional video for the Romanian National Tourist Office, joking “Transylvania is in my blood”.

In 2017, it was reported that Charles had even been offered the honorific title of ‘Prince of Transylvania’ because of his links to the region and promotion of Transylvania as a tourist destination.

All this has proved fertile ground for conspiracy theorists who claim, like the rest of the royal family, Prince Charles is not all that he seems and may in fact have more in common with his infamous ancestor than just a drop of blood.

Harper’s Bazaar says that one of the reasons this theory carries weight is because the disease Porphyria is present amongst the royals. Porphyria is an iron-deficiency disease that makes skin sensitive to sunlight.

“Spooky” says New Idea.

Princess Diana was assassinated

Another conspiracy involving the British royal family centres around the theory that Princess Diana did not die by accident in Paris in 1997, but was deliberately murdered.

Numerous investigations, experts and an inquest have all agreed with the official account of events: that the Princess of Wales was killed because of the “grossly negligent” driving of her chauffeur Henri Paul, who had been drinking.

Conspiracists, however, believe what happened was not a tragic accident but rather a hit carried out by agents of the British state.

The then Harrods-owner Mohamed al-Fayed, whose son Dodi died in the crash, claimed the killings were ordered because the royal family did not want the mother of the future king having a child with his son who was a Muslim.

“Helped by the Daily Express, those conspiracies were so convincing and so widespread that the Met Police were forced to launch Operation Paget, an inquiry to establish whether there was any truth in the theories,” The Independent reports. It lasted years, cost millions of pounds and ultimately found no foundation for the claims.

Nevertheless, a 2013 YouGov poll found that 38% of the British people still believe Diana was assassinated.

A new survey by international polling firm IFOP found that this is roughly similar to the percentage of the French public, although it pales in comparison to the nearly six out of ten self-professed gilets jaunes who think Diana’s death was a “masked murder”.

“The astonishingly high figure among ‘yellow vests’ was part of a study looking at ten conspiracy theories widely circulated on social media since the start of the movement in mid-November,” says The Daily Telegraph.

“It found that 40% of ‘gilets jaunes’ believed in at least half of the theories. In most cases, they were more than twice as likely to believe a theory than the national average.”

Finland doesn't exist 

The nation of Finland is actually part of the Baltic Sea and people who claim to live there are really from eastern Sweden, western Russia or northern Estonia, according to a theory born on Reddit in 2016. What began as a joke quickly gained traction online, spawning numerous subreddits and websites explaining why Russia and Japan made up the fictional country in 1918.

“The notion goes that the two nations created Finland so that Japan could fish the sea that truly exists there without any environmental complaints or repercussions,” explains Vice. “The fish that are caught are then shipped via the Trans-Siberian railway (the real reason it was built by the way) from the Eastern Russian coast to Japan under the disguise of Nokia products.” 

But surely other countries would have cottoned on to this by now? Yes, they have, according to theorists, but they’ve agreed to keep it a secret and allow “Finland” to serve as a model for a better world. “No real country could so consistently place first in education, healthcare, gender equality, literacy rates, national stability, the least corrupt government in the world, freedom of the press,” reads the theory. “It’s a concept for countries and people to aspire to.”

Meghan Markle is a robot

This one has been doing the rounds on the internet ever since a clip emerged in June apparently showing Meghan Markle and Prince Harry at the finale of Britain’s Got Talent.

The clip, which has since gone viral, shows the royal couple sitting in the audience and applauding, while their faces remain motionless, not even blinking.

It sparked wild speculation that the Duke and Duchess of Sussex are robots, or at least have android doubles they use for royal engagements.

In fact, the creepy royal cameo was a stunt to promote the new Live Figures exhibit at Madame Tussauds London, the company revealed on its official website.

The new feature, which is expected to include other famous celebrities in the Madame Tussauds collection, will allow visitors to view and interact with the royals’ wax clones much more closely than usual.

Harper’s Bazaar says “it appears the ‘Harry and Meghan’ in the viral video were just two audience members wearing masks of the royals’ faces”.

Jesus married Mary Magdalene

Sometimes the best conspiracy theories are the oldest – and prove they existed well before the invention of the internet.

For those who take the stories of Jesus Christ as matters of historical fact, there remain some aspects of his life that are highly contentious. Central among these is the personage of Mary Magdalene. Discovered in 1945, and still disputed by religious scholars, the Gospel of Phillip refers to Magdalene as Jesus’s koinonos, a Greek term for ”companion“ or ”partner“.

While there is scant evidence elsewhere in the scriptures to support the claim that Jesus and Magdalene were married, this has not stopped a host of theories springing up.

Most famous of these is undoubtedly Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci code which also wraps in conspiracy shibboleths like The Illuminati, Opus Dei and the Knights Templar for good measure.

Yet, dismissed as a mostly-fictional thriller, it could be that Brown was nearer to the truth than even he knew after a 1,500 year-old manuscript was recently unearthed at the British Library which appears to reveal Jesus not only married the prostitute Mary Magdalene but had two children with her.

Dubbed ‘The Lost Gospel’, it also made the startling claim that the original Virgin Mary was Jesus’ wife and not his mother.

Area 51

In 1947 claims that an “alien spacecraft” had landed in Roswell, New Mexico, were dismissed by the US military, which said the alien craft was merely a weather balloon.

Ufologists believe the spacecraft was taken into Area 51 – a division of Edwards Air Force Base – and the US government has been researching alien technology and life forms on the site ever since.

Video footage of an alleged ”alien autopsy“ has been shown to be fake, but Area 51 is known to be a secretive and heavily guarded base. The reasons, however, may be more earthly than the conspiracy theories suggest: the U-2 spy plane, and several other top-secret aircraft, were developed and tested here. 

9/11

On 11 September 2001, four planes were hijacked by al-Qaeda and two of them were flown into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York, killing 2,996 people.

However, some believe that the attack was an inside job, orchestrated in order to cement the US’s place as the top global power or to secure the oil reserves in the Middle East.

Another theory is that the building’s owners were responsible for the event (they stood to gain $500m in insurance profits). For more detail, read our feature on the top ten 9/11 conspiracy theories.

Mass shootings are staged by the government

While school massacres tend to spark nationwide debate and increased calls for tighter gun controls, some believe mass shootings are actually orchestrated by the government as an excuse to restrict the sale of firearms.

Many survivors of the Parkland massacre in Florida in February 2018 have been vocal about gun control, leading to accusations they are not really students at all. Memes and videos on YouTube claim some of the students are “actors” working for anti-gun groups who travel around the country to the sites of mass shootings.

One video alleging Parkland survivor David Hogg, 17, was a “crisis actor” who’s been “coached” on anti-gun talking points, was one of the top trending videos on YouTube.

In response, Hogg thanked all the conspiracy theorists and detractors he believes have helped amplify his real message.

“These people that have been attacking me on social media, they’ve been great advertisers. Ever since they started attacking me, my Twitter followers are now a quarter of a million people. People have continued to cover us in the media. They’ve done a great job of that, and for that, I honestly thank them,” Hogg told CNN’s Brian Stelter.

Yet effort by social media companies to crack down on false stories claiming teenage survivors are actors hired to promote gun control “shines a light on a seemingly intractable problem of the modern conspiracy theory epidemic: that censoring the content can reinforce and enhance false beliefs and that there is no easy way to change the mind of a conspiracy theorist”, says The Guardian.

The Holocaust did not happen

One of the most contentious conspiracy theories concerns the systematic extermination of six million Jews by the Nazis during the Second World War.

Evidence for the Holocaust is overwhelming - consisting of thousands of photos, films and first-hand accounts. Yet that has not stopped a number of people questioning its validity.

Most Holocaust deniers claim, either explicitly or implicitly, that the Holocaust is a hoax – or at best an exaggeration – arising from a deliberate Jewish conspiracy designed to advance the interest of Jews. While most deniers agree that some killings were orchestrated by the Nazis, they claim the figures have been greatly inflated.

One of the most famous cases is the 2000 trial, later dramatised in the film Denial, in which historian David Irving sued author Deborah Lipstadt for her description of him as a denier.

The landmark case effectively put the Holocaust itself on trial, with the judge eventually ruling that Irving was “an active Holocaust denier; that he was anti-Semitic and racist and that he associated with right-wing extremists who promoted neo-Nazism”.

Irving was later sentenced to three years in prison in Vienna after admitting to denying the Holocaust. Some countries, including Austria and Germany, have made Holocaust denial a criminal offence.

However, this has not stopped the theory from entering the mainstream, garnering support across the world.

According to a large 100-country survey by the Anti-Defamation League, only 54% of the world’s population has heard of the Holocaust, and of these just a third believe it is portrayed correctly.

The highest levels of awareness and trust in the historical accounts of the Holocaust exist in Western Europe (77% believe it has been accurately described in history) while just 23% of people in Asia and 12% of sub-Saharan Africa believe the historical accounts are accurate.

Moon landings

Neil Armstrong’s giant leap kicked off one of the most persistent conspiracy theories of the 20th century - that the 1969 landings, and all those that followed, were faked by Nasa and that no human being has ever set foot on the surface of the moon.

Even though there is substantial evidence to the contrary (including moon rocks brought back to Earth and manmade objects left on the moon) some remain adamant that film director Stanley Kubrick was hired to produce the footage after his experience on 2001: A Space Odyssey

JFK

In November 1963, John F Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. Lee Harvey Oswald, a former US Marine who defected to the Soviet Union before returning to the US, was accused of the crime but was shot dead before he could stand trial. But was he just a scapegoat? Did the real killers get away with murder?

No official investigation was able to definiively confirm a conspiracy, but theories implicating everyone from the KGB to Jackie Kennedy continue to circulate. Read more about the JFK conspiracy theories here.

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The Hadron Collider will open the gates of hell

Conspiracy theorists the world over were made nervous by the installation of Cern’s Large Hadron Collider on the French-Swiss border. When it was first switched on in 2008, some feared that the massive underground loop, which sends particles crashing into each other at lightning speed, would create a black hole that would immediately swallow up the Earth.

When this didn’t happen, theories moved on to the possibility that the Large Hadron Collider would open up a portal between Earth and another kind of existence. Some scientists, including Stephen Hawking, have said that “bending space-time is theoretically possible”, leading many conspiracy theorists to expand on their musings in every direction. Specific hypotheses around Cern range from the fact that a wormhole to another universe will be opened, to the idea that the underground ring will open the gateway to hell. These fears were further fuelled in 2016 when photos emerged of a lightning storm over the general region of the Hadron Collider, Metro reported.

Some believe the scientists at Cern, who discovered the Higgs Boson – often dubbed “the God particle” – use that ruse to cover up the fact that they are actively working to summon god. Mostly the god referred to is not a benevolent one, but Shiva The Destroyer. The proof? There is a Shiva statue (a gift from India) outside the centre, and the four letters of “Cern” appear at the front of “Cernunnos” – the Celtic horned god of the underworld. Cern actually stands for Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire.

Grand Unified Conspiracy Theory

To the most dedicated conspiracy theorists, none of these plots on their own is sufficient to explain the sustained malevolence of the world in which we live. Instead, each one is a manifestation of what RationalWiki describes as “an interlocking hierarchy of conspiracies”, in which all the world’s events are controlled by a single evil entity.

It is a complex and self-reflexive premise: if it is correct, then it must be the case that awareness of the Grand Unified Conspiracy Theory is itself a part of the conspirators plan – and so, of course, is this list. 

Time Cube

The Time Cube is a pseudo-scientific theory of time and space developed by Gene Ray, a former electrician. He insisted that academics around the world were purposefully concealing the fact that four simultaneous days occur during a single rotation of the Earth, rather than just one.

Ray even gave lectures at the Massachusetts and Georgia Institutes of Technology on the matter. On his self-designed website - a stream of consciousness with intermittent capitalised words - he offered a $1,000 reward to anyone who could successfully disprove his theory.

He died at the age of 87 on 18 March 2015 (or, as his own Wikipedia page suggests, could be interpreted as any dates from 16 to 20 March inclusively). But his theory - and website - have remained a source of fascination for many.

The Verge calls it “arguably one of the most notorious single web pages online: an endless wall of text about the conspiracy to suppress an absurdist mathematical model of time”.

5G causes coronavirus

Rumours that 5G mobile technology is linked to the coronavirus outbreak have been rubbished by scientists, governments and broadcasters.

Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove added that it was “dangerous nonsense”, reports The Independent, while the BBC says that scientists have labelled the rumours “complete rubbish” and biologically impossible.

Dr Simon Clarke, associate professor in cellular microbiology at the University of Reading, told the broadcaster: “The idea that 5G lowers your immune system doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.”

Adam Finn, professor of paediatrics at the University of Bristol, added: “Viruses and electromagnetic waves that make mobile phones and internet connections work are different things. As different as chalk and cheese.”

One origin of the conspiracy, a Daily Star article headlined “Fears 5G wifi networks could be acting as ‘accelerator’ for disease”, quotes an “activist and philosophy lecturer at the Isle of Wight College” rather than a scientist, says fact-checking website FullFact.

A study by the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) earlier this year concluded that there was no evidence that mobile networks cause cancer or other illnesses, adds Computer Weekly.

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