Ripped from the headlines, these fabrications were spread by politicians, pundits and social media.
Conspiracy theories are like bellybuttons, everyone has one but some are just out there more than others. This year, the Internet was rife with vile gossip and wild beliefs; I couldn’t even possibly list all the wacky new chemtrail and illuminati theories in just one article. And let’s just quickly drive a stake through the rumors that Ebola victims are rising from the dead, reptilians disguised as humans run the U.S. government, and Pharrell, Keanu Reeves and Madonna are actually vampires.
I’ve found that the conspiracy theories spread most widely — and the ones that seem plausible to many, unfortunately — are those based on current headlines and often propagated by public figures such as politicians, celebrities and media figures. They travel by word-of-mouth at light speed and become “a known fact.” These theories are often believed by those who assume there must be a coherence behind world events and occurrences don't just happen randomly. Using that as our criteria, here are the most insidious conspiracy theories of 2014.
1. MH370 landed at a U.S. military installation. The continuing lack of firm evidence about the fate of the missing Malaysian Airways jetliner has conspiracy theorists wagging their tongues. Speculation ranges from alien abduction to the airplane entering into a lost dimension. This speculation has been, in part, spurred by the inexplicable sequence of flight events leading to the plane’s disappearance and the nonstop coverage of the story by the news networks, particularly CNN, whose anchors even began to entertain wild theories on the air while there was little news to report.
Ironically, CNN conducted a poll months after MH370 disappeared from radar in March. It found that some 10% of Americans believe that “space aliens, time travelers or beings from another dimension” played a part in the airliner's disappearance. Moreover, 21% of poll respondents believe that at least some of the people on the flight survived and they may have landed or crash-landed in some remote area.
One of the more popular theories is that the plane landed on Diego Garcia, a small British atoll in the Indian Ocean where the U.S. operates several strategic military facilities. Conspiracy theorists have long contended that the site has been used by the CIA for “black ops” missions, including the detainment, interrogation and torture of terrorists and political enemies.
Inspired by conspiracy blogger Jim Stone, theorists continue to insist that MH370 was diverted to Diego Garcia because some “high-value” targets were on the flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. Some believe the plane was diverted to keep 20 employees of Freescale Semiconductor from arriving in Beijing, because they held U.S. intelligence secrets the CIA feared would fall into the hands of the Chinese government. Other versions of the conspiracy theory say that the Freescale employees had been working on a drone smaller than a housefly that could used in biochemical warfare.
Conspiracy theorists, however, cannot seem to agree on the ultimate fate of the plane’s crew and passengers. Some speculate they have all become permanent detainees on the island, while others claim that only the high-value targets on the plane were spared and could even be secretly working on U.S. defense projects from Diego Garcia.
To further solidify their Diego Garcia theory, conspiracy theorists quickly acknowledged a claim found on the Internet that an American passenger, Philip Wood, sent GPS coordinates and an image over a cellphone text message, proving the plane had landed on the atoll. Not long after the Philip Wood theory was introduced it was quickly debunked by numerous tech-savvy Internet users who now believe the origin of the text was likely some tomfoolery by users of 4Chan, an Internet subculture site.
2. MH370 and MH17 were the same airplane. Unhappy that the Diego Garcia theory didn’t pan out, other conspiracists were quick to jump on the notion that MH17, the Malaysian Airways airliner widely assumed to be shot down over the Ukraine by Russian-backed separatists in July, was actually MH370 and the passengers on that plane were actually the corpses from the missing plane.
This theory took hold on Twitter only minutes after news broke of the Boeing 777’s mid-air explosion and crash and later spread like wildfire on YouTube. The theory is that the first Malyasian airliner was hijacked and taken to a secret destination for storage, where it was rigged with explosives. It was then flown over the Ukraine/Russian border where it was blown up to implicate one party in the ongoing civil war. Some speculate that the CIA was behind this elaborate “false flag” plot, while others point to the New World Order — a shadowy power elite that secretly controls the world — as staging this to instigate a third world war.
While both planes were Boeing 777s, MH17 was built in 1997 and MH370 five years later, and there are subtle differences in the designs of the planes. Proponents of the idea that the planes were switched say the photographs they saw of MH17 show a newer version of the Boeing 777 with an extra window behind the second exit.
The theory was further promoted by pro-Russian rebels who told the media that the bodies they saw in the wreckage soon after the crash had been dead for many days. The separatists also claimed their passports were “pristine” and looked like they had been planted on the bodies.
Aviation bloggers, many of them pilots themselves, were quick to debunk the extra window theory, and the pro-Russian separatists have not been the most trustworthy sources with other information about the shooting down of the MH17, making their claims dubious at best.
Conspiracy theorists are fond of arguing that it's naïve to accept coincidences. It seems more naïve to assume that any organization or government would have the necessary resources and competence to steal an airplane without a leaving a trace, keep it hidden for four months during a massive search operation, and later substitute it for another plane many witnesses saw take off from Amsterdam earlier that day after being boarded by its passengers.
3. The feds blanketed the South with fake snow. After the Polar Vortex created uncharacteristically Arctic-like conditions in the South in the early months of the year, several websites and YouTube videos pushed a conspiracy theory that the white stuff falling from the sky was not snow, but a plastic impostor engineered by the federal government for nefarious reasons that were never really explained.
A spate of videos cropped up in January and February showing people unsuccessfully trying to melt this snow with their butane lighters. Instead of becoming water, the snow changes to a gas with the remaining solid becoming tinged with black. In some of the videos, the video bloggers claim the snow gives off a toxic smell. They insist it’s not real snow, but a chemical geo-engineered by the government and dumped on southern states for nefarious reasons.
Except it wasn’t. Meteorologist Mike Stone, who works for CBS affiliate WTVR, explained that what the video bloggers reported was nothing unusual.
“When you heat something like this, it goes from a solid to a gas. It’s called sublimation. It doesn’t go from a solid to a liquid, i.e. melting,” he said.
Meanwhile, other YouTube users posted their own videos debunking the fake snow reports.
“Bottom line, if you don’t want to waste five minutes watching this video, butane burns dirty. The smell is not from the snow, the black on the snow is not because it’s plastic; it’s because of the butane,” said one video blogger.
Many of the videos attempting to expose the snow conspiracy have either been taken down or made private since we first reported this in February, but geo-engineering conspiracy sites are still promoting the myth of plastic snow.
4. The Ebola outbreak is a government plot. Conspiracy theorists like to blame President Obama for a lot of crazy things, but this one takes the cake. Soon after the Ebola outbreak in Africa began to make headlines in August, websites were quick to accuse the Obama administration of all sorts of crazy things that would together lead to some totalitarian dystopia for the U.S. It was an amazingly intricate plot: First the government would use misinformation about Ebola to lull the American public into a false sense of security; then they would use the disease for deliberate population control, impose martial law and the survivors would be given a mandatory Ebola vaccine that would contain an RFID chip to track everyone’s whereabouts. The only thing that seems to be missing from this string of theories is President Obama’s Nehru jacket and Persian cat.
Let’s begin with Sen. Rand Paul, who likes to play the card that he’s a board-certified ophthalmologist whenever a healthcare issue comes up. Sen. Paul got this parade of crazy rolling when he insinuated the Ebola virus was metamorphosing into an airborne virus and that the government knew of it and was covering it up. Even when public health officials contradicted him, Paul declared that Americans shouldn’t trust government types and that Ebola was a highly communicable disease despite their assurances.
Paul even called Glenn Beck’s radio show to warn that the world was on the verge of a worldwide pandemic and that Ebola is “an incredibly transmissible disease that everyone is downplaying, saying it’s hard to catch.”
Sen. Paul layered on the crazy, telling a CNN audience that the Obama administration was deliberately dishonest with the public and that people can get Ebola just by being near someone who has the disease. "If someone has Ebola at a cocktail party they're contagious and you can catch it from them," he said.
Not to be outdone, other conservatives began to insist that Ebola could become a bioterrorist threat, even weaponized, according to Fox News. Some conservative websites conflated the dual messages of government mistrust and virus weaponization to mean that the Obama administration would use the virus against large U.S. cities. Freedom Outpost, a popular Tea Party news site, said that “Obama is free to have the weaponized version released on the population centers, and he will also shut down certain parts of the power grid in these highly infected areas. This will create a pandemic fast.”
The site claimed the Obama administration’s ultimate and nefarious goal is to create martial law, a theory it shares with Naomi Wolf. The progressive author and journalist also claimed that Obama was using the disease as a convenient pretext for martial law. On her popular Facebook page, which has more than 100,000 likes, Wolf has insisted that the Ebola crisis is being engineered. “Ebola here or 'here' means excuse for mass lockdowns,” says Wolf.
This rant is nothing new for Wolf, who has insisted for nearly a decade that the country is on the verge of martial law. But on September 5, she went on an unhinged Facebook rant, insisting that the decision to bring Rick Sacra, an aid worker in Western Africa, back to the U.S. for treatment was a deliberate step toward totalitarianism.
Sacra, a UMass Medical School faculty member who contracted the disease working in Liberia, never did infect anyone in the U.S. and was released from a Nebraska hospital weeks later.
Why would President Obama want to create national chaos and impose martial law? Because his administration had the cure all along, say his critics, and they want to force people to get the vaccine. But according to conspiracy theorists, there’s a little catch; with the injection comes the insertion of an RFID chip, which will allow the government to track your every movement.
The Obama-mandated RFID chip is based on the well-traveled theory that the Affordable Care Act would mandate those in the program to have electronic trackers implanted under their skin. Not only will one's movements and activities be monitored, the chip will have direct access to its host's bank account for Obamacare payments. But like Y2K, this conspiracy theory came and went, only to be supplanted by this new, more nefarious conspiracy theory about forced vaccination.
It began when the National Report, a mock-news website that somehow manages to fool most of the people most of the time, reported that a CDC whistleblower exposed a heinous plan to use the pandemic to implant RFID technology through a life-saving vaccine. Unfortunately, this theory was picked up by Chicken Littles on social media before other news sites could expose it as a hoax. It continues to make the rounds.
5. The Scottish independence referendum was fixed. Soon after the Scottish independence referendum failed in mid-September, conspiracy theories by some disappointed pro-independence Scots started to fly on social media. Some claim the vote was suppressed, while others say the results were rigged. These theories continue to gain momentum, and as result, a Change.org petition demanding a new vote now has more than 100,00 signatures.
The leaders of the “Yes” (Independence) campaign and the referendum’s officers accept the results of the vote and refute all accusations of irregularities. Not a single voter or poll officiant raised a red flag during the well-scrutinized polling, verification, vote counting and adjudication processes.
The first conspiracy of the referendum originated in Russia, a country not really known for running a tight electoral ship. Its government observers said the referendum "did not meet international standards," because the counting rooms were in aircraft hangars with observers watching from the perimeter. The Russian observer, Igor Borisov, complained in his report that the U.S. and Great Britain had browbeat the Russians over their voting procedures in the past, so the complaint appeared to be little more than a rhetorical tit-for-tat for Western criticism of Russian elections. Besides, Russian president Vladimir Putin was anxiously rooting for Scotland to gain its independence, as the Kremlin apparently saw a successful referendum as a way to rationalize its impulsive takeover of Crimea from the Ukraine earlier in the year.
The other "proof" conspiracy theorists provide are two short videos, one of a supposed election worker using a writing tool to mark on one sheet of paper and another of a woman moving two ballots from the “yes” pile to the "no" pile and one ballot from the “no” pile to the “yes” pile, perhaps to correct a mistake she had made. The second video was played in a loop to make it seem like the woman was actively shuffling votes, the first video shows a standard counting procedure, says referendum officials.
Never one to back down from a conspiracy theory, Naomi Wolf joined the fracas, claiming to have spreadsheets that could prove the referendum was rigged. On her Facebook page, Wolf wrote that she had the names of 400 Scottish voters who say they did not have a Unique Identifying Number, or a barcode, on the back of their ballots that are used to prevent impersonation. Oddly, there was no record of any person bringing this to the attention of a referendum official as balloting took place.
Still, Wolf eventually presented 500 names of those who said the backs of their ballots were blank. But on Vice, Scottish freelance writer Liam Turbett voiced his doubts about Wolf’s allegations:
"As it happens, I know my ballot paper did have a barcode, but I can’t remember many other details about voting, like what color the wallpaper was or the kind of pen I used. People generally go to the polling station to vote rather than play tedious memory games, so it seems astonishing that lots of voters have suddenly remembered a fairly minor detail about what the reverse of their ballot looked like."
Later, Wolf's protest, as well as those of others, was rejected by Lawyers for Yes, a legal group that supported Independence. On examining the evidence presented by Wolf the group said that “of the 3429 ballot papers rejected at the 32 local counts, not one was rejected on the ground that the back was blank or anything like this.” Further, Lawyers for Yes stated that the allegations were an “impressive collection of misunderstandings, conspiracy theories, and legal howlers...usefully collected by Naomi Wolf...”
Responding to criticism about her energetic role in propagating conspiracy theories, Wolf wrote on her Facebook page, "All the people who are attacking me right now for 'conspiracy theories' have no idea what they are talking about… people who assume the dominant narrative MUST BE TRUE and the dominant reasons MUST BE REAL are not experienced in how that world works."