Calling something a ‘conspiracy theory’ is a way to dismiss it as untrue. The term immediately calls to mind tin foil hats and UFOs.
But this is unfair—history is full of examples of outlandish conspiracies that turned out to be real. Take the famous Zinoviev Letter. In 1924, four days before parliamentary elections in the UK, the Daily Mail newspaper published a letter supposedly from the head of the Comintern in Moscow to the Communist Party of Great Britain encouraging it to engage in ‘seditious activities’. The backlash from this was credited with gifting the election to the Conservative Party. The letter was a fake. But there was a conspiracy, just not the one the Daily Mail reported: historians now agree that Russian monarchists and the British Secret Service wanted to discredit the British Labour party and damage Anglo-Soviet relations. Few now doubt that this theory about a conspiracy is true.
Is Trump’s collusion with the Russians another Zinoviev Letter? The answer seems to depend on whether you are a Republican or a Democrat. In this age of political polarization and social media speculation, knowing the difference between a real conspiracy and a fake ‘conspiracy theory’ is more important than ever. But what exactly is the difference?
Quassim Cassam is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Warwick. His new book Conspiracy Theories is now available from Polity.
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