The Economics of Conspiracy Theories

SAM VAKNIN, UPI Senior Business Correspondent

SKOPJE, Macedonia, April 10 (UPI) -- Barry Chamish is convinced that Shimon Peres, Israel's wily old statesman, ordered the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin back in 1995 in collaboration with the French. He points to apparent tampering with evidence. The bloodstained song sheet in Mr. Rabin's pocket lost its bullet hole between the night of the murder and the present.

Rabin's bodyguards should have immediately recognized the murderer, Yigal Amir. He had publicly attacked his quarry before. Israel's fierce and fearsome internal security service, the Shabak, had moles and agents provocateur among the plotters. Chamish published a book about the affair. He travels and lectures widely, presumably for a fee.


Chamish's paranoia-larded prose is not unique. The transcripts of Senator Joseph McCarthy's inquisitions are no less outlandish. But it was the murder of John F. Kennedy, America's youthful president that ushered in a golden age of conspiracy theories.

The distrust of appearances and official versions was further enhanced by the Watergate scandal in 1973-74. Conspiracies and urban legends offer meaning and purposefulness in a capricious, kaleidoscopic, maddeningly ambiguous and cruel world. They empower their otherwise helpless and terrified believers.


New Order one world government, Zionist and Jewish cabals, Catholic, black, yellow, or red subversion, the machinations attributed to the freemasons and the illuminati -- all flourished yet again from the 1970s onwards. Paranoid speculations reached frenzied nadirs following the deaths of celebrities such as "Princess Di".

Tony Blair, Britain's ever-righteous prime minister, denounced the "Diana Death Industry". He was referring to the books and films which exploited the wild rumors surrounding the fatal car crash in Paris in 1997. The Princess, her boyfriend Dodi al-Fayed, heir to a fortune, as well as their allegedly inebriated driver, were killed in the accident.

Among the exploiters were The Times of London, which promptly published a serialized book by Time magazine reports. Britain's TV networks, led by Live TV, capitalized on comments made by al-Fayed's father to the Mirror alleging foul play.

But there is more to conspiracy theories than mass psychology -- they are also big business. Voluntary associations such as the Ku Klux Klan and the John Birch Society are past their heyday. But they still gross many millions of dollars a year.

The monthly Fortean Times is the leading observer in the field of "strange phenomena and experiences, curiosities, prodigies and portents." It is widely available on both sides of the Atlantic. In its 29 years of existence it has covered the bizarre, the macabre and the ominous with panache and open-mindedness.


It is named after Charles Fort, who compiled unexplained mysteries from the scientific literature of his age (he died in 1932). He published four bestsellers in his lifetime and lived to see Fortean societies established in many countries.

A 12-month subscription to Fortean Times costs about $45. With a circulation of 60,000, the magazine was able to spin off Fortean Television -- a program on Britain's Channel Four. Its reputation was further enhanced when it was credited with inspiring the TV hit series "X-Files" and the movie "The Sixth Sense."

Lobster Magazine -- a biannual publication -- is more modest at $15 a year. It is far more "academic" looking and it sells CD-ROM compilations of its articles at between $80 (for individuals) and $160 (for institutions and organizations) each. It also makes available back copies of its issues.

Its editor, Robin Ramsay, said in a lecture delivered to the Unconvention 96, organized by the Fortean Times, "Conspiracy theories certainly are sexy at the moment ... I've been contacted by five or six TV companies in the past six months -- two last week -- all interested in making programs about conspiracy theories. I even got a call from the Big Breakfast Show (Britain's top rated morning show), from a researcher who had no idea who I was, asking me if I'd like to appear on it ... These days we've got conspiracy theories everywhere, and about almost everything."


But these two publications are the tip of a gigantic and ever-growing iceberg. Month in and month out, Fortean Times reviews books, PC games, movies and software concerned with its subject matter. There is an average of eight items reviewed per issue with a median sale price of $20 per item.

There are more than 86,600 Web sites dedicated to conspiracy theories in the Google search engine's database of 1.6 billion pages. The "conspiracy theories" category in the Open Directory Project, a Web directory edited by volunteers, contains hundreds of entries.

There are 1,077 titles about conspiracies listed by Amazon and another 12,078 in its individually-operated zShops. A new (1996) edition of the century-old, anti-Semitic propaganda pamphlet faked by the Czarist secret service, Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, is available through Amazon. Its sales rank is a respectable 64,000 -- out of more than 2 million titles stocked by the online bookseller.

In a disclaimer, Amazon states, "The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion is classified under 'controversial knowledge' in our store, along with books about UFOs, demonic possession, and all manner of conspiracy theories."

Yet cinema and TV did more to propagate modern nightmares than all the books combined. The Internet is starting to have a similar impact compounded by its networking capabilities and by its environment of simulated reality -- "cyberspace." In his tome, Enemies Within: The Culture of Conspiracy in Modern America, Robert Alan Goldberg comes close to regarding the paranoid mode of thinking as a manifestation of mainstream American culture.


According to the Internet Movie Database, the first 50 all-time hits include at least one "straight" conspiracy theory movie (in 13th place) -- "Men in Black" with $587 million in box office receipts. "JFK," in 193rd place, grossed another $205 million. At least ten other films among the first 50 involve a conspiracy theory disguised as science fiction or fantasy. "The Matrix," in 28th place, took in $456 million. "The Fugitive" closes the list with $357 million. This is not counting "serial" movies such as James Bond, the reification of paranoia shaken and stirred.

"X-Files" is to television what "Men in Black" is to cinema. According to Advertising Age, at its peak, in 1998, a 30-second spot on the show cost $330,000 and each episode raked in $5 million in ad revenues. Ad prices declined to $225,000 per spot two years later, according to CMR Business to Business.

Still, in its January 1998 issue, Fortune claimed that "X-Files" (by then a five-year- old phenomenon) garnered Fox TV well over half a billion dollars in revenues. This was before the eponymous feature film was released. Even at the end of 2000, the show was regularly being watched by 12.4 million households -- compared to 22.7 million viewers in 1998. But "X-Files" was only the latest and most successful of a line of similar TV shows, notably "The Prisoner" in the 1960s.


It is impossible to tell how many people feed off the paranoid frenzy of the lunatic fringe. I found more than 3,000 lecturers on these subjects listed by Google alone. Even assuming a conservative schedule of one lecture a month with a modest fee of $250 per appearance, we are talking about an industry of around $10 million.

Collective paranoia has been boosted by the Internet. Consider the computer game "Majestic" by Electronic Arts. It is an interactive and immersive game, suffused with the penumbral and the surreal. It is a Web reincarnation of the borderlands and the twilight zone, centered around a nefarious and lethal government conspiracy. The game invades the reality of its players. It leaves them mysterious messages and "tips" by phone, fax, instant messaging, and e-mail. A typical round lasts 6 months and costs $10 a month.

Neil Young, the game's 31-year-old, British-born producer, told recently: "... The concept is of blurring the lines between fact and fiction, specifically around conspiracies. I found myself on a Web site for the conspiracy theory radio show by Art Bell ... the Internet is such a fabulous medium to blur those lines between fact and fiction and conspiracy, because you begin to make connections between things. It's a natural human reaction - we connect these dots around our fears. Especially on the Internet, which is so conspiracy-friendly. That was what was so interesting about the game; you couldn't tell whether the sites you were visiting were Majestic-created or normal Web sites..."


Majestic creates almost 30 primary Web sites per episode. It has dozens of "bio" sites and hundreds of Web sites created by fans and linked to the main conspiracy threads. The imaginary gaming firm at the core of its plots, "Amin-X," has often been confused with the real thing. It even won the E3 Game Critics Award for best original product.

Conspiracy theories have pervaded every facet of our modern life. In Making Money the Telefunding Way (published on the Web site of the Institute for First Amendment Studies), A.H. Barbee describes how conspiracy theorists make use of non-profit "para-churches." They deploy television, radio, and direct mail to raise billions of dollars from their followers through "telefunding." Under section 170 of the IRS code, they are tax-exempt and not obliged even to report their income. The Federal Trade commission estimates that 10 percent of the $143 billion donated to charity each year may be solicited fraudulently.

Lawyers represent victims of the Gulf Syndrome for hefty sums. Agencies in the USA debug bodies -- they "remove" brain "implants" clandestinely placed by the CIA during the Cold War. They charge thousands of dollars a pop. Cranks and wackos -- many of them religious fundamentalists -- use inexpensive desktop publishing technology to issue scaremongering newsletters. Remember Mel Gibson in the movie "Conspiracy Theory"?


Tabloids and talk shows -- the only source of information for nine-tenths of the American public -- propagate conspiracy "news." Museums -- the UFO museum in New Mexico or the Kennedy Assassination museum in Dallas, for instance -- immortalize it. Memorabilia are sold through auction sites and auction houses for thousands of dollars an item.

Numerous products have been adversely affected by conspiratorial smear campaigns. In his book, How the Paranoid Style Flourishes and Where it Comes From, Daniel Pipes describes how sales of the Tropical Fantasy soft drink plummeted by 70 percent following widely circulated rumors about the sterilizing substances it allegedly contained -- put there by the KKK. Other brands have suffered similar fates: Kool and Uptown cigarettes, Troop Sport clothing, Church's Fried Chicken, and Snapple soft drinks.

It all looks like one giant conspiracy to me. Now, here's one theory worth pondering.

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