As global crises give rise to new conspiracy theories online, a long-held belief persists on social media: the CIA coined the term “conspiracy theorist.”
However, the evidence shows that the allegation is false. “Conspiracy theory” predates the creation of the Central Intelligence Agency by at least 79 years, while the earliest uses of the term “conspiracy theorist” which AAP Fact Check could identify having no discernible association with the US government spy agency.
The claim, made in a post on a New Zealand Facebook page, likely stems from a decades-old theory that the CIA invented the “conspiracy theory” in a 1967 memo to discredit critics of the Warren Commission, the official investigation into the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. Similar claims are here and here.
Several history experts say that claim is a mistaken belief, with one pointing out that the CIA only used the phrase “conspiracy theorists” once in the memo.
Assistant Professor Stephen Andrews of the Department of History at Indiana University in Bloomington, said AAP Fact Check: “There is overwhelming evidence that the term ‘conspiracy theory’ was used long before the creation of the CIA in the 1940s.”
While the CIA was created in 1947, a Library of Congress online search for the phrase “conspiracy theory” in newspapers prior to that year yields 294 results, with the oldest dated April 9, 1868.
Nor is there any credible evidence that the CIA coined the term “conspiracy theorist.” The use of “conspiracy theorist” dates back to at least 1956 – seven years before JFK’s assassination – in a review of John Beaty’s book, The Iron Curtain Over America. It was also used in a 1960 doctoral dissertation.
A milder version of the claim acknowledges that the CIA did not invent the “conspiracy theory” or the “conspiracy theorist”, but points to the “Countering Criticism of the Warren Report” memo to claim that the CIA deliberately popularized it – see here and here. This has also been the subject of debate among some scholars. Florida State University Professor Emeritus Lance DeHaven-Smith argued in his book, Conspiracy Theory in America, that the CIA mounted a successful campaign to popularize “conspiracy theory”, making believers a target of ridicule.
However, the American professor of literary and cultural history Michael Butter, of the University of Tübingen, criticized this argument in an article for The Conversation. Professor Butter said AAP Fact Check in an e-mail: “There is no indication that the CIA memo had any impact on the popularity of the concept. Indeed, the casual way the memo uses the phrase just once implies that the concept was already very popular in the 1960s.
Similarly, University of California history department professor Davis Kathryn Olmsted said AAP Fact Check in an email that although the CIA used “conspiracy theory” in internal documents in the late 1960s to discredit critics of the Warren Report, “the term was already widely used by then”.
Professor Andrews, Professor Butter and Professor Olmsted all agreed that ‘conspiracy theory’ was popularized as a pejorative term by philosopher Karl Popper after World War II.
“Discussion of the issue of conspiratorial thinking has become widespread following the rise of fascism and the McCarthyist hunt for communists in the US government,” Professor Andrews said in an email.
In his 1945 book The Open Society and Its Enemies, Popper criticized the “conspiracy theory of society”, which Professor Andrews described as an attack on “what he saw as simplistic and emotional theories of change history that assumed secret bad actors were behind the story”. events”.
The claim that the CIA created the term “conspiracy theorist” is false. The earliest uses of the term had no association with the CIA and date back to the 1800s.
Related theories that the CIA popularized the phrase to discredit Warren Commission critics are also false, as “conspiracy theory” was already widely used as an insulting term before the assassination of US President John F. Kennedy in 1963.
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