They range from the absurd to the intriguing, but these conspiracy theories have proved remarkably resilient, some of them for decades. Regardless of their improbability, they provide an unsettling glimpse of human curiosity and gullibility – and, paradoxically, our reluctance to trust authority.
The top ten conspiracy theories
10. Obama’s birthplace
As far back as 2008, some Americans began to claim that Barack Obama was not born in the United States, but in Kenya. These claims have been promoted by fringe theorists, known as ‘birthers’, some of whom have sought court rulings to prove that Obama is ineligible to be the president. None of these attempts has been successful. Obama has released the full version of his birth certificate, which shows he was born in Hawaii. However, birthers claim it is a forgery. There has been what the Daily Telegraph describes as “a persistent campaign of misinformation on the subject”, led at one stage by Donald Trump, the property mogul and current frontrunner in the race to become the Republican’s presidential nominee. According to a recent poll by New York Daily News, 61 per cent of self-identified Trump supporters said they believed the president was not born in the US. Obama has nevertheless made light of the conspiracy and in 2011, during an address at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, even went so far as to release his “birth video”: a scene from Disney’s The Lion King.
9. MH370 and MH17 are the same plane
Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 disappeared on 8 March 2014 and has yet to be found despite an extensive search operation. Just over four months later, on 17 July 2014, another Malaysia Airlines flight, MH17, crashed in eastern Ukraine, near the Russian border after apparently having been shot down by a missile. To most people the two tragedies looked like a terrible coincidence, but to conspiracy theorists there are no coincidences – and MH370 and MH17 were in fact the same plane. Worldtruth.tv is one of the many sites that argues that MH370 was hijacked and flown to US military base Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. The “US propaganda machine” then staged the shooting down of MH17 so that the Russians would lose credibility. The theory fails to explain why the same propaganda victory could not have been achieved, assuming it was desired, simply by shooting down any passenger aircraft over the Ukraine-Russia border. Read our in-depth article on MH370 conspiracies here.
8. Project MKUltra: the CIA’s Mind ControlProgram
Although initially seen as another fanciful conspiracy theory, this one turned out to be true. The CIA really did run secret mind-control experiments on American citizens from the 1950s until 1973, using “electronics, hypnosis, sensory deprivation and verbal and sexual abuse”. In 1995, President Bill Clinton issued a formal apology for Project MKUltra, as it was known. It is believed that ‘Unabomber’ Theodore Kaczynski was part of these experiments, although that detail has yet to be confirmed.
7. Reptilian Elite
The ‘reptoid hypothesis’ is a conspiracy theory which advances the argument that reptilian humanoids live among us with the intention of enslaving the human race. It has been championed by former BBC sports presenter David Icke who believes that deceased American comedian Bob Hope, members of the Royal Family and former US Presidents George W Bush and Bill Clinton are part of the “Anunnaki” race who came to earth for “monatomic gold”. Some critics accused Icke of anti-Semitism, alleging that his talk of reptiles was code for Jews – but he clarified that the lizards to which he referred were literal, not metaphorical.
6. Elvis Presley faked his death
In 1977, the world mourned the King as Elvis Presley died at the age of 42 – or did he? Many Elvis fans believe that he went into hiding and really died in the 1990s, although sightings continue to the present day. American rapper Tupac Shakur, whose 1996 murder remains unsolved, is another celebrity whose death is believed to have been overstated.
5. Area 51
In 1947 claims that an “alien spacecraft” had landed in Roswell, New Mexico, were dismissed by the US military, which said the alien craft was merely a weather balloon. Ufologists believe that the spacecraft was taken into Area 51 – a division of Edwards Air Force Base – and the US government has been researching alien technology and life forms on the site ever since. Video footage of an alleged “alien autopsy” has been shown to be fake, but Area 51 is known to be a secretive and heavily guarded base. The reasons, however, may be more earthly than the conspiracy theories suggest: the U-2 spy plane, and several other top-secret aircraft, were developed and tested here.
On 11 September 2001, four planes were hijacked by al-Qaeda and two of them were flown into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York, killing 2,996 people. However, some people believe that the attack was an inside job, orchestrated in order to cement America’s place as the top global power or to secure the oil reserves in the Middle East. Another theory is that the building’s owners were responsible for the event (they stood to gain $500m in insurance profits). For more detail, read our feature on the top ten 9/11 conspiracy theories.
3. Moon landings
Neil Armstrong’s giant leap kicked off one of the most persistent conspiracy theories of the 20th century. The sceptics claim that the 1969 landings – and all those which followed – were faked by Nasa and that no human being has ever set foot on the surface of the Moon. Even though there is substantial evidence to the contrary (including Moon rocks brought back to Earth and manmade objects left on the Moon) some people remain adamant that film director Stanley Kubrick was hired to produce the footage after his experience on 2001: A Space Odyssey.
In November 1963, John F Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. Lee Harvey Oswald, a former US Marine who defected to the Soviet Union before returning to America, was accused of the crime but was shot dead before he could stand trial. But was he just a scapegoat? Did the real killers get away with murder? No official investigation has turned up evidence of a conspiracy, but theories implicating everyone from the KGB to Jackie Kennedy continue to circulate. Read more about the JFK conspiracy theory here.
1.Grand Unified Conspiracy Theory
To the most dedicated conspiracy theorists, none of these plots on their own is sufficient to explain the sustained malevolence of the world in which we live. Instead, each one is a manifestation of what RationalWiki describes as “an interlocking hierarchy of conspiracies”, in which all the world’s events are controlled by a single evil entity. It is a complex and self-reflexive premise: if it is correct, then it must be the case that awareness of the Grand Unified Conspiracy Theory is itself a part of the conspirators plan – and so, of course, is this list.