With studies suggesting that six out of ten Britons endorse at least one conspiracy theory, the chances are someone you know harbours doubts about the moon landings or believes Area 51 houses alien spacecraft. You don’t have to be a basement-dwelling tin-hat wearer to be a believer; the power of social media means previously underground or left-field whispers can quickly amass thousands of followers and go mainstream.
But before we’re too quick to sneer at the more outlandish theories circulating on the Internet, it’s worth remembering that throughout history powerful people and organisations have been tempted to secretly manipulate events for their own advantage, be it the US government’s Prohibition-era use of toxic additives in industrial alcohol to deter drinkers, or Volkswagen’s decade-long conspiracy to conceal excess emissions from its diesel cars.
For crime and thriller writers, the strange world of conspiracy theory can be a rich seam of inspiration because sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction…
Government Mind Control
The tin foil hat is a common conspiracy trope - and with good reason. During the 1950s and 60s, the CIA, in co-ordination with the US Army Biological Warfare Laboratories, tested procedures that could be used in interrogations to weaken the individual and force confessions through mind control. The program, known as MK-ULTRA, used LSD and other hallucinogenic drugs, sensory deprivation and torture on Americans in top-secret experiments at 80 institutions, including colleges and universities, hospitals, prisons and pharmaceutical companies. Other abandoned projects included efforts to erase memory through sub-aural frequency blasts or to control minds through hypnosis. Many individuals never gave consent for these experiments, which have been implicated in deaths and long-term mental impairment. With many of the records destroyed on CIA orders in the 1970s, the full truth may now never be known.
Companies are no strangers to conspiracy when it comes to covering up transgressions that could impact profits. Perhaps one of the longest running cover-ups concerns the link between smoking and lung cancer, which was first proven in the 1950s. The tobacco lobby spent millions of dollars, however, seeking to bury, discredit and distort the research and it wasn’t until the late 1990s that big tobacco finally admitted there could be a link. More recent scandals include Volkswagen’s emissions-tests cheating, and it recently emerged that as far back as 1980 Exxon and Shell knew fossil fuels would release high levels of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, pushing up global temperatures. Who knows what other dirty secrets big business is hiding from us?
Some of the more harmful conspiracy theories currently circulating relate to medical research, whether it’s debunked claims that HIV is a government creation to control population or that vaccination programmes are responsible for autism. These claims are dangerous, leaving populations vulnerable to serious illness and death. Yet a mistrust of public health programs can be traced back to dark episodes in the past, when unethical experimentation on vulnerable populations left people sick, maimed or dead.
Perhaps the most notorious and reprehensible of these is the Tuskegee syphilis scandal, which saw the cure for syphilis withheld from infected African-American sharecroppers in the rural South. The program ran from 1932 to 1972 and it’s estimated that more than 100 of the subjects died of tertiary syphilis as a result of not being treated with penicillin in direct contravention of federal law. President Bill Clinton made a public apology to the victims and their families in 1997, and the episode has cast a long shadow over public health programmes in the United States.
False Flag Operations
Whenever there’s a terror attack or catastrophic accident, it doesn’t take long for shadowy forces on the Internet to claim a false flag attack, either staged by the government or some other group to win support for their aims. It doesn’t help that governments have a history of trying to manipulate public support, with the Gulf of Tonkin confrontation between the North Vietnamese and USS Maddox now widely thought to be a false flag exercise to deepen US engagement in the Vietnam War. The Pentagon of the 1960s certainly had form: Operation Northwoods, for example, envisaged fabricating acts of terrorism on US soil to trick the public into supporting a war against Cuba. President John F Kennedy pulled the plug on that one.
For authors plotting dastardly conspiracies in their next book, sometimes it’s worth donning a tin-foil hat and exploring some of the murkier episodes of history…or the present. Conspiracies yet to revealed are almost certainly unfolding around us right now…
Black Thirteen by Adam Hamdy.
An exiled agent. A growing threat. A clandestine war. The world is changing beyond recognition. Radical extremists are rising and seek to enforce their ideology globally. Governments, the military and intelligence agencies are being outmanoeuvred at every step. Borders are breaking down. Those in power are puppets. The old rules are obsolete. To fight this war a new doctrine is needed. In a world where nothing is at it seems, where trust is gone, one man will make the difference. Meet Ex-MI6 agent and man in exile, Scott Pearce. It’s time to burn the espionage rule book. Watch Pearce light the fire.
Adam Hamdy’s conspiracy thriller, Black Thirteen, will be published by Pan Macmillan in November 2019. He is currently collaborating with James Patterson on a new book in the Private series, which is due to be published in 2020. He is the co-founder of Capital Crime, London’s new crime and thriller festival.