The CIA Campaign to Smear Skeptics of the Government’s JFK Conspiracy Theory Losing Potency After 50 Years

by lizard

The last piece of legislation that John F. Kennedy signed into law was the Community Mental Health Act:

On Oct. 31, 1963, President John F. Kennedy signed a bill meant to free many thousands of Americans with mental illnesses from life in institutions. It envisioned building 1,500 outpatient mental health centers to offer them community-based care instead. The bill would be the last piece of legislation Kennedy would ever sign; he was assassinated three weeks later.

Kennedy’s vision was never fully realized, and instead of community-based care, jails and prisons are now the default institutions that warehouse those suffering from mental illness.

It’s ironic that a bill trying to address mental illness would be the last bill JFK signed into law, ironic because the last 50 years has been steeped in a national paranoia due to a broad public disbelief of the government’s explanation of the events that transpired on November 22nd, 1963.

To counter the public’s disbelief in the conclusions of the Warren Commission, the CIA popularized the term “conspiracy theorist” as a pejorative term to smear those who didn’t accept the government’s preferred conspiracy theory. Here is Kevin Ryan describing the roots of the CIA’s conspiracy smear method:

This cultural phenomenon goes back to 1967. At that time, in response to questions about the Warren Commission Report (which President Ford helped create), the CIA issued a memorandum calling for mainstream media sources to begin countering “conspiracy theorists.”[13] In the 45 years before the CIA memo came out, the phrase “conspiracy theory” appeared in the Washington Post and New York Times only 50 times, or about once per year. In the 45 years after the CIA memo, the phrase appeared 2,630 times, or about once per week.

Before the CIA memo came out, the Washington Post and New York Times had never used the phrase “conspiracy theorist.” After the CIA memo came out, these two newspapers have used that phrase 1,118 times. Of course, in these uses the phrase is always delivered in a context in which “conspiracy theorists” were made to seem less intelligent and less rationale than people who uncritically accept official explanations for major events.

After a half-century of CIA inspired ridicule by devout believers of government lies and propaganda, it appears the tides are turning:

Recent studies by psychologists and social scientists in the US and UK suggest that contrary to mainstream media stereotypes, those labeled “conspiracy theorists” appear to be saner than those who accept the official versions of contested events.

The most recent study was published on July 8th by psychologists Michael J. Wood and Karen M. Douglas of the University of Kent (UK). Entitled “What about Building 7? A social psychological study of online discussion of 9/11 conspiracy theories,” the study compared “conspiracist” (pro-conspiracy theory) and “conventionalist” (anti-conspiracy) comments at news websites.

The authors were surprised to discover that it is now more conventional to (believe) so-called conspiracist comments than conventionalist ones: “Of the 2174 comments collected, 1459 were coded as conspiracist and 715 as conventionalist.” In other words, among people who comment on news articles, those who disbelieve government accounts of such events as 9/11 and the JFK assassination outnumber believers by more than two to one. That means it is the pro-conspiracy commenters who are expressing what is now the conventional wisdom, while the anti-conspiracy commenters are becoming a small, beleaguered minority.

Perhaps because their supposedly mainstream views no longer represent the majority, the anti-conspiracy commenters often displayed anger and hostility: “The research… showed that people who favoured the official account of 9/11 were generally more hostile when trying to persuade their rivals.”

Additionally, it turned out that the anti-conspiracy people were not only hostile, but fanatically attached to their own conspiracy theories as well. According to them, their own theory of 9/11 – a conspiracy theory holding that 19 Arabs, none of whom could fly planes with any proficiency, pulled off the crime of the century under the direction of a guy on dialysis in a cave in Afghanistan – was indisputably true. The so-called conspiracists, on the other hand, did not pretend to have a theory that completely explained the events of 9/11: “For people who think 9/11 was a government conspiracy, the focus is not on promoting a specific rival theory, but in trying to debunk the official account.”

I’m providing all this context because last night I watched a really fascinating documentary, Room 237; an in-depth examination of Stanley Kubrick’s cinematic interpretation of The Shining.

I think we can all agree that Stanley Kubrick was an extremely talented film maker, but for many people, it would be absurd to posit that those talents were employed by the government to help stage moon landing footage.

That, though, is one of the interpretations of Kubrick’s version of The Shining. Here’s the basic premise:

The U.S. government hired director Stanley Kubrick to film the fake moon landing and, to protect the lives of himself and his wife, he made 1980’s “The Shining” as a veiled confession of his part in the secret project. This would have seen Kubrick filming the landing conjointly with “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

That’s the argument Internet conspiracy theorist Jay Weidner makes on his webpage “Secrets of the Shining.” Yes, all the new age advertisements, Egyptian fonts and Alex Grey illustrations along the rail make this a very hard sell on the discerning reader. But the whole theory (like the best of them) is strangely fascinating. Weidnere grasps onto various bits of imagery in the film and deviations from Stephen King’s novel as Kubrick revealing his secrets to the unsuspecting audience.

The basic premise is that, in the film, the protagonist Jack Torrance and his son Danny both represent different aspects of Kubrick, the pragmatist and the artistic visionary. Jack (Kubrick’s practical side) makes a deal with the manager of the Overlook Hotel (America) to protect it through the coming winter (the Cold War). Weidner also points out that the Overlook, like America, is new, garish and built on the bones of Indians.

All of this builds on the notion that the moon landings were faked as a show of strength to the Soviet Union. But Weidner waves his crackpot flag a little more fervently by stating it was all necessary to “hide the advanced U.S. saucer technology from the Soviet Union.”

As the half-century smear campaign against conspiracy theorists loses its potency, people will latch on to all kinds of alternative explanations for historical events. Unfortunately that conspiratorial terrain is littered with misinformation, disinformation, and other bits of delusional flotsam.

That said, I still find conspiracy culture fascinating, and will continue writing about it because I think it’s important.

  1. Those sound like truly atrocious social scientists/psychologists. First, to a take online comments as a representative sample of anything whatsoever, and second, to posit that the beliefs of a majority of people have any bearing on the plausibility of those beliefs.

    • lizard19

      angrily attacking these scientists and their exhaustive study because they are showing you an uncomfortable truth you don’t want to hear?

      just kidding, you make a good point, but after 50 years of ridicule, a kernel like this gives us hope ;)

    • Steve W


      The NSA collects all that internet data and a lot more because it is useful data. They apparently believe it is a representative sample of something worth studying and analyzing.

      To assert it is useless is easy – easy and also incorrect.

      Now as the whether this particular study is great or is rotten i can’t say. I haven’t read it. Have you?

      Also, where did anyone posit that believe by a majority constitutes proof? That is a straw-man. The proof is in the pudding, not in how many people eat the pudding.

      But i can tell you that according to a recent associated press poll 59% of Americans believe the assassination of the President was a conspiracy. I’m a part of that majority.

      If you are in the minority and disbelieve the US Congressional findings, then that’s OK.

      Some people will disregard the evidence no matter what.

      It’s just gratifying to know that truly ‘you can’t fool all of the people all of the time!’ -Abe Lincoln.

      Let me ask you this, TPW;

      Do you believe Oswald was a US government intelligence asset? Or do you believe he wasn’t a US government intelligence asset? or do you believe that isn’t germane?

      Because if he was, the CIA/FBI/DIA/NSA? Navt intel, etc has been lying about that for 50 years. That’s a conspiracy to obstruct justice, prima facia. (or maybe it’s “national defense” eh?)

      i guess it comes down to who you are going to believe?

      Are you going to believe Allen Dulles and Jerry Ford?

      Or are you going to believe Lee Harvey Oswald and Robert Kennedy’s children and Russ Baker over at “WhoWhatWhy?”

      Here’s Lee Oswald’s story and he’s sticking to it:

      • Steve W

        Opps, that was one of Oswald’s other stories. sometimes he was pro-cuba and sometimes he was anti-cuba. . That’s telling me he wasn’t particularly ideological, but was instead working with another purpose.

        This was his last story: It’s only 46 seconds, unlike his radio show, and was what I intended to post.


      • I have honestly no idea what happened to Kennedy except that he was shot. What I’m saying is this – looking at online comments is an extreme example of a selection bias. I could do the same thing to prove that an enormous proportions of Americans are racist, homophobic, and sexually involved with other commenters’ mothers. Those commenting want attention – controversial comments get attention, therefore there will be a bias towards them (and if you’re not saying anything particularly ‘edgy’, you have to make it even more vitriolic to get the same amount of attention.).

        • Steve W

          TPW, if you followed the methods and procedures of the researchers I doubt you could prove ….”that an enormous proportions of Americans are racist, homophobic, and sexually involved with other commenters’ mothers.”

          You are just jumping to conclusions and making statements of opinion without any factual basis to have an opinion on.

          Having an uninformed opinion is not the same thing as critical thinking.

          Here, read first talk later.

          • Right, because they pull out only the ‘persuasive’ comments. That eliminates the majority of the insults, but the point remains – there is no reason to post something that most people already believe. You’ll find that comment sections always attract more conspiracy theorists than exist in the general population. Look at a comment thread about vaccines and you’ll see plenty of autism theories; look at a thread that touches on Obama and you’ll see a very large percentage of them believing that he is a socialist born in Kenya, a much larger percentage than the overall population.

            Moreover, in general, the media cited accept the ‘official’ version of the story. Now, who is more likely to comment on a news story – someone who disagrees forcefully with the conclusions of the article, or someone who broadly agrees?

            • NamelessRange

              The fact of the matter is a sampling of comments made on articles or blogs as a representation of the population as a whole is garbage.

              This is the type of thing you learn in the first week of a statistics class. It’s incredibly easy to mislead with statistics when the methodology used to attain a sample is flawed.

              Publication bias is very real, and many of today’s “scientists” don’t understand math. Luke Muelhauser, the Executive Director of the Machine Intelligence Research Institute and a Fellow at the Center for Applied Rationality wrote an excellent article on just this a few years ago


              • Steve W

                Two points here Nameless;

                TPWs red herring about how inherently crazy it would be for anyone to believe they could garner any useful scientific data from a discussion board clearly demonstrates that he commented on the study before he bothered to read what the study was about, how it was run, and what problems the study was meant to resolve.

                From your comment it also appears that you don’t realize what the study is about.

                Where in the study do the authors claim that their sampling of commentators on 4 news sites about the 9/11 conspiracy or lack there of is representative of the populace as a whole?

                I await your answer which I’m sure you can provide, since we all learned in grade school that if you don’t know what you are talking about perhaps you should keep quiet.

                And 2; From your link Nameless:
                “Publication bias is the term for what occurs whenever the research that appears in the published literature is systematically unrepresentative of the population of completed studies. Simply put, when the research that is readily available differs in its results from the results of all the research that has been done in an area, readers and reviewers of that research are in danger of drawing the wrong conclusion about what that body of research shows.”

                Are you claiming that the results of the UK study are uniquely distinct or nearly so, from other studies in the same area? Can you provide a couple that conflict?

                Now while it’s debatable whether the news article written about the study accurately reflects the results of the study, I don’t believe either you or TPW have shown the study to be flawed.

                My usual reaction to new studies is to read them before commenting on whether they are well done or poorly done. Or at least to read reviews by people who have actually read them.

                One of the findings I find particularly interesting is the finding that the conventionalists appear to display greater hostility than do the conspiracists.

                I’ve found that to be true, anecdotally speaking. And by the way Nameless, if you know of research that contradicts that finding i’d love to see it. I;m looking forward to the body of research which contradicts this study and thus renders it “Publication Bias” as you say and as your link defines.


              • Steve –

                No link was provided to the study, only to the discussion of it, which included the line “Perhaps because their supposedly mainstream views no longer represent the majority”. So I suppose my incredulity should be directed not at the authors of the study, but rather at the others of the article lizard cited who took that study and extrapolated from it that conspiracy theorists are a majority of the population. What can I say, it’s a blog post. I’ll click the links, but I’m not going to track down the original study to make sure the articles linked to accurately represent those studies (especially as a quick scan of the original article yields no link to the study). Indeed, essentially the entire explanation for the results of the study can be found right here-

                ” it may have been less necessary for conventionalists to summarize the conventional account themselves.”

                If they felt less need to explain their beliefs, doesn’t it make sense that they would also feel less need to comment? And thus, while the Wood and Douglas seem to be doing legitimate work, Barret is woefully misinterpreting it. I suppose thanks are in order for clearing that up, as I had (foolishly) trusted the article in question to accurately interpret the study it cites.

  2. TIME’s cover story this week is on the anniversary and theories surrounding it.

    I was surprised to hear somewhere else that Jackie-O’s pink dress is still around but upon wishes of her daughter won’t be displayed until 2103.

    I still love that bench scene in JFK between Kevin Costner and Donald Sutherland.

  3. What I want to know is how there is not a stronger group of conspiracy theorists talking about A website with billions of dollars and untold political consequences riding on it just happens to be impossible to get working? I mean, it’s possible, but it seems at least even odds that some number of people are being employed to make it harder to fix and run than you would expect.

  4. NamelessRange

    “The authors were surprised to discover that it is now more conventional to (believe) so-called conspiracist comments than conventionalist ones: “Of the 2174 comments collected, 1459 were coded as conspiracist and 715 as conventionalist.” In other words, among people who comment on news articles, those who disbelieve government accounts of such events as 9/11 and the JFK assassination outnumber believers by more than two to one. That means it is the pro-conspiracy commenters who are expressing what is now the conventional wisdom, while the anti-conspiracy commenters are becoming a small, beleaguered minority.”

    Conventional wisdom: the body of ideas or explanations generally accepted as true by the public or by experts in a field

    I don’t have access to the actual study, but, much like the term “conspiracy theorist”, the conclusions presented aren’t useful. I can see that the article referencing the study is fatally flawed, as can be seen in the last sentence of the paragraph I quoted. Comments on articles in No Way represent Conventional Wisdom. If conventional wisdom is defined as: “What the majority of people who comment on articles tend to comment about”, then sure, the conclusion follows. But that’s not what people mean when they refer to conventional wisdom.

    Another flaw in the data is the coding of “Conventionalist or Conspiracist”. For one, attacking “Conspiracist” theories in no way implies a belief in “conventionalist” theories. For example, I think it is patently ridiculous to say there were no planes on 9/11, and will write comments contradicting those who support the CGI theory. Am I a “conventionalist”? Because I also think here is a high probability that 9/11 was a government job.The data would reflect my beliefs incorrectly in this study, and code me under a binary based category that doesn’t apply.

    Obviously, individual comments do not reflect the commenter’s beliefs as a whole regarding any individual conspiracy theory. If the data cannot accurately represent a subset of the population, it cannot describe the larger population the subset is a part of.Again, if we use the words “conventional wisdom” in a way which we never do, then sure, the study tells us that people who comment on news articles typicaly write comments in support of accounts in contradiction to the Government line, but that’s it.

    Beliefs are rarely binary, yet this study is nothing but, and commits itself to the same sort of thinking as those who parse the populace into “conspiracy theorists”. There are advantages and disadvantages inherent in observational studies as opposed to experiments. This is an observational study that holds conclusions that are not that useful.

    • NamelessRange

      Publication bias was the wrong term to reference. I should have referred to the media’s bias in referencing published studies that do not support what the article is trying to say, because of a lack of statistical understanding. Like the one referenced in the post above

  5. Jack Ruby

    How does the study account for trolling? The whole premise that you can judge the civility of internet commenters and come up with a worthwhile conclusion seems goofy.

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