Conspiracy theories: liberal edition
December 29, 2020 2:54 PM   Subscribe

I'll be teaching a class on conspiracy theories and rhetoric, and most of my examples are aligned with the fringe elements of the Republican party. Obviously there is a lot of low hanging fruit. I'm wondering if there are any conspiracy theories that the left is prone to believe in?

I'm not looking so much for stuff that the the conservative fringe sees as "fake news" like the Mueller investigation, but for examples of the kind of stuff that progressives might be drawn to that qualifies as a conspiracy.
posted by mecran01 to Education (46 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
If you’re against vaccinating your child, there’s a good chance you’re a college-educated white woman making decent money.

The rebel forces in America’s latest culture war — the so-called anti-vaxxers — are often described as middle- and upper-class women who breast-feed their children, shop at Whole Foods, endlessly scour the web for vaccine-related conversation, and believe that their thinking supersedes that of doctors. Typically their families earn more than $75,000 a year.

posted by sebastienbailard at 2:58 PM on December 29, 2020 [20 favorites]

the entire constellation of stuff surrounding GMOs
posted by fingersandtoes at 3:05 PM on December 29, 2020 [36 favorites]

A recent article on the Washington Post suggested that conspiracy theories from either side of the political spectrum tend to revolve around certain themes, and a general mistrust in the institutions that we tend to be taught constitute democratic society. Such as:
- Much of our lives are being controlled by plots hatched in secret places,
- Even though we live in a democracy, a few people will always run things anyway
- The people who really ‘run’ the country are not known to the voters.
- Big events like wars, the current recession, and the outcomes of elections are controlled by small groups of people who are working in secret against the rest of us.

Also, alternative therapy suppression. Ie. Believing that the FDA/other regulatory bodies suppress evidence that natural therapies are effective at treating illness.

The one where Queen Elizabeth was communicating in code with her choice of brooches at various national visits is a benign and hilarious example.
posted by unstrungharp at 3:06 PM on December 29, 2020 [8 favorites]

9/11 truthers were, at least in my experience, far more likely to be from left wing circles than right.
posted by furnace.heart at 3:06 PM on December 29, 2020 [19 favorites]

I have leftwing friends who doubt that the moon landing was real. I gently mock them about it.
posted by umbú at 3:07 PM on December 29, 2020 [4 favorites]

Anti-GMO conspiracy theories should count. Some of the people on that boat are right-wing, but a lot are left-wing.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 3:07 PM on December 29, 2020 [2 favorites]

posted by teremala at 3:13 PM on December 29, 2020 [16 favorites]

Seconding furnace.heart in that 9/11 truthers are politically full spectrum at the least. (The left-ish folks believing that the whole thing was engineered to get us into a war for oil and/or a religious war because some apocalyptic christians (many in the administration) believe that a war in the Middle East is a necessary precursor for the return of Christ.)
posted by soundguy99 at 3:15 PM on December 29, 2020 [1 favorite]

Vaccine/GMO theories were probably more common on the left at one point but they're unfortunately pretty popular on both sides of the aisle.

Back in June there was an extremely widespread theory on progressive Twitter that police departments were distributing or setting off fireworks to terrorize people. I don't want to defend the cops but as far as I know, no actual evidence for that ever turned up.

In very far-left circles there's a fair amount of stuff about how the Chinese treatment of the Uyghurs is exaggerated or even fabricated by the West.
posted by theodolite at 3:18 PM on December 29, 2020 [5 favorites]

Most CIA-related conspiracy theories, including JFK, are at least full-spectrum.

On preview: agreed about Uyghurs. Not even necessarily that it’s fabricated/exaggerated but that the media attention is focused to produce certain outcomes.
posted by stoneandstar at 3:18 PM on December 29, 2020

There were some pretty out-there ideas about the Mueller investigation, like the baseless claims pushed by Louise Mensche and Claude Taylor

The idea that the 2016 primary was rigged/stolen from Sanders

Often distrust of big pharma tips over into condemning modern medicine in general, hence stuff like anti-vax, homeopathy, and Goop
posted by Rhaomi at 3:25 PM on December 29, 2020 [9 favorites]

COINTELPRO never ended and everything bad you hear about has something to do with it. A friend sent me an innocuous-seeming lefty podcast that was a mix of real stuff and unsubstantiated bullshit. I forget the name but it’s a popular one.
posted by freecellwizard at 3:26 PM on December 29, 2020 [1 favorite]

you can talk a bit about some of the math involved in keeping a secret as it is relevant to all sides.
posted by th3ph17 at 3:40 PM on December 29, 2020 [3 favorites]

posted by Slinga at 3:46 PM on December 29, 2020 [3 favorites]

The left one that I’ve the most experience with is the notion that banks, as a cartel, exercise political power to suit the interests of the ultra rich. A statement which is both tritely true, but shades way too easily into the crassest and most classically conspiratorial (i.e. literally from the Protocols) anti-Semitic tropes about ‘financiers’.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 4:03 PM on December 29, 2020 [8 favorites]

5G seems popular among both left and right.
I know lefties/ Bern-ers who believe that Hilary and/or Bill Clinton committed murders, nad, of course, many on the Right believe this.
I don't know anyone who believes Epstein committed suicide, the left thinks Trump engineered it, the right thinks the Clintons did.

Just fyi, if you haven't seen the movie Sneakers, you might really like it.
posted by theora55 at 4:05 PM on December 29, 2020 [7 favorites]

Also, I am basically lefty and Dem. Docialist, and my conspiracy theory Right Wing Lie Machine - the Right generates a lot of social engineering/ slanted news to drive the public agenda.
posted by theora55 at 4:07 PM on December 29, 2020 [1 favorite]

I saw some people on Quora enthusiastically touting the theory that Trump faked his bout with COVID to manipulate the election in some way.
posted by space snail at 4:14 PM on December 29, 2020 [2 favorites]

Monsanto holding patents on marijuana, or alternately, Big Tobacco holding patents on marijuana, and therefore supporting marijuana legalization to profit.
posted by gingerbeer at 4:18 PM on December 29, 2020

On my Facebook feed is one guy, a British far-leftist, who refuses to believe anything bad about Russia. So Russia didn't poison the Skripals or Navalny; intelligence services of "the West" did it to discredit Russia.

If there's a threat of reality contradicting his dearly held theories, then it's obviously because "the media" are deliberately lying to you, it's all a cover-up. (Outright rejection of all major media sources, rather than taking the trouble to read critically, interrogate biases and check sources, is a hallmark of both the far right and far left.)

The British far left also has a real problem with Jewish-centred conspiracy theories. Jonathan Freedland in the Guardian:
[...] But that misses the fact that huge chunks of the egregious anti-Jewish racism spewed out in left circles and on social media has nothing to do with Israel or Palestine: it’s all bankers and Rothschilds, control of the media and Holocaust denial. Of course, sometimes “Zionism” is deployed as a handy codeword, but today’s anti-Jewish racists have often left the Middle East behind. It’s Jews they’re obsessed with.

Which brings us back to populism. For antisemitism is populism in perhaps its purest and most distilled form. It says that politics is indeed a battle between the virtuous masses and a nefarious, corrupt elite – and that that elite is “the Jews”. That’s why antisemitism carries so many of populism’s distinguishing features, from the fear of an enemy within, to its insistence that the media is bent on distorting reality.
I saw a bit of this play out in real time as people I knew shared Facebook meme from groups like We Support Jeremy Corbyn. Amid the usual "He is NOT an antisemite, it's all a smear!!!" memes appeared others: "He is NOT an antisemite, it's all an Israeli smear!!!" Then there would be posts linking the allegations of antisemitism to "Zionists" who (of course) control the media and manipulate all other politicians.

(To be clear, I don't think Corbyn started this; it's more to do with the most toxic of his fans. Jeremy Corbyn himself is just an old white guy with old-white-guy blind spots who was crap at recognising antisemitism, and crap at calling it out when it came from his old allies.)

However, his brother, Piers Corbyn, is a whole nother kettle of fish. He has in the past called himself a Marxist and, I think, would still identify as radical left. Among his loudly promoted beliefs:

-- earthquakes are caused by solar activity (flares, sunspots, etc)

-- global warming isn't real, the world is actually cooling

-- vaccines are bad for you and "cause death"

-- COVID-19 is a "psychological operation to close down the economy in the interests of mega-corporations"

-- "Bill Gates wants vaccinations to control you and to control women's fertility to reduce world population. That is his game and he's going to get loads of money off it, and you will pay with your money and your life."
posted by Pallas Athena at 4:20 PM on December 29, 2020 [14 favorites]

The Atlantic had an interesting article about "Pastel Qanon" and MLMs recently. LOTS of MLM participants are of a liberal bent, especially your aromatherapy, new age health MLMs. Apparently much of the magical thinking of MLMs is aligned with Qanons magic theory of the world and Qanon hads been picking up followers from anti-vaxx and alternative health people.. It is a really interesting article. My own next door neighbor, an MLM aromatherapy alternative health family, went from dyed in the wool liberals to gun toting concealed carry "Trump is a genius" in a matter of a few short months. It was shocking to see.
posted by jcworth at 4:25 PM on December 29, 2020 [12 favorites]

Bilderberg Group/Trilateral Commission
posted by catquas at 4:43 PM on December 29, 2020 [1 favorite]

I have a friend who is a political scientist who researches the the political psychology of conspiracy theories. I sent her a text asking for some examples. She says "While there tends to be fewer left leaning CTs, the left still believes them as adamantly as the right. So, popular ones: JFK assassination stuff re: Lee Harvey Oswald; during Hurricane Katrina, poor, black neighborhoods were intentionally flooded to protect well-off areas; Reps stole the 2000 and 2004 elections (extrapolated to 2016 too); big banks and corporations operate to take advantage of the other 99% or lie about the health of the economy; manipulation of insurance markets to make Obamacare look bad; and all sort of Trumpy stuff."

if you want me to ask her to elaborate, I could; that's my transcription of her text, and then we started texting about the Trump piss tape.
posted by dismas at 5:21 PM on December 29, 2020 [1 favorite]

This article is on the fringe of the OP's question. It's not so much about what CT's the left believes in, but about the whole left/right being just an illusion or an artificial dichotomy. It's kind of a meta-CT. It's not that long a read, so you might want to skim it in case your class gets very polarized, and you want to have something in your back pocket to get them actually "thinking".
posted by forthright at 5:37 PM on December 29, 2020 [3 favorites]

Back in June there was an extremely widespread theory on progressive Twitter that police departments were distributing or setting off fireworks to terrorize people. I don't want to defend the cops but as far as I know, no actual evidence for that ever turned up.

This thread from the Blue this summer might be of interest, if you want to read more about the fireworks thing.
posted by DingoMutt at 5:37 PM on December 29, 2020

The GMO issue is complicated. There are kooks who freak out about them because of science-conspiracy-crazy. But the entire industrial-farming/agribusiness is something that really should be examined critically. GMOs get tossed around like a nutty football in an argument while real concerns about overall land-use is the actual issue.

Arguments about GMOs get conflated together from very different aspects. This is something worth discussing in conspiracy theories and rhetoric.
posted by ovvl at 6:18 PM on December 29, 2020 [14 favorites]

IME a lot of the 9/11 truthers were/are on the left. I mean the "jet fuel can't melt steel beams" people, not simply those of us who were capable of noticing that the Bush admin was full of shit.
posted by aspersioncast at 6:30 PM on December 29, 2020 [2 favorites]

posted by skewed at 6:31 PM on December 29, 2020 [11 favorites]

posted by Toddles at 8:18 PM on December 29, 2020 [2 favorites]

Is Occult Features of Anarchism by Erica Lagalisse on your radar? It might be a fantastic contextualizing text, and it's free online in .pdf form (which was an explicitly negotiated part of the author's contract with PM Press, where you can also buy the book for $14).

From a different angle, I remember reading a history of American feminism (I can probably find a source if you're interested in digging deeper on this) in which the author discovered in FOIA'ed declassified FBI files that many of the agents who'd infiltrated early-seventies consciousness-raising circles were certain that this emergence of the women's movement was actually just a complicated secret code relating to Black liberation. (Many of the surveilled groups had alliances with the Black power movement, and had emerged out of it because women involved in civil rights organizing found themselves repeatedly relegated to admin work rather than on the front lines, even in an ostensibly liberatory, radical movement.) Because the informants couldn't conceive that women actually wanted a more equitable division of labor (for instance), they assumed these discussions were highly-encoded and related to only radical Black empowerment.
posted by knucklebones at 10:02 PM on December 29, 2020 [3 favorites]

The “we don’t have streetcars anymore because General Motors wanted to sell more cars” thing. Like all the best conspiracy theories it’s got a kernel of truth but GM’s impact on transit+cities is often wildly overstated.
posted by ripley_ at 10:58 PM on December 29, 2020 [2 favorites]

That everything bad in autocratic "left wing" governments, including mass protest movements, are the work of the CIA
posted by wooh at 11:43 PM on December 29, 2020 [4 favorites]

There was a belief in 1970s Feminist circles that Gloria Steinem was a secret agent for the CIA subverting the Movement. This was based on the fact that back when she was a teenager in the 1950s, she went on a government-paid trip to a youth festival in Europe which was sponsored by the Soviet Communist Youth front, to represent American freedom. (Keep in mind this was at a time when the USSR was invading Eastern European countries to suppress peoples' uprisings, and young lefty Americans hadn't lost faith in their government.)
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 2:10 AM on December 30, 2020 [1 favorite]

After you point & laugh at all the crazy people on all points of the political compass ...

You could have made your point without assuming bad faith on the part of the OP if you had started your comment at "I hope your class also ... ."
posted by virago at 4:06 AM on December 30, 2020 [3 favorites]

Fluoride in municipal water.

Portland, Oregon has voted to prevent water fluoridation for years. There are major undercurrents of conspiracy theory to fears about water fluoridation (the classic scene in the movie Dr. Strangelove is a great example).
posted by forkisbetter at 6:46 AM on December 30, 2020 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you for all of these wonderful answers! Some of my poorly curated links are here

@knucklebones I have Occult Features of Anarchism sitting on my desk! Sadly, I cannot locate the liberated version, but there is this chapter.
posted by mecran01 at 7:20 AM on December 30, 2020 [1 favorite]

I would add:

Doctors know the simple, “natural” cures for everything, cancer especially; they conceal that information to keep their jobs and profits. More generally, Big Pharma is an all-powerful villain.

The CIA invented crack and distributed it in poor Black neighborhoods to destroy them.

I had a lefty friend happily share the Wayfair hoohah not long ago, because “800,000 children go missing every year in this country.” Of course it’s a back door to QAnon, but everyone goes along with the ludicrous factual distortions around child abduction.

What the DNC wants, the DNC gets; e.g., the DNC chose Biden.
posted by argybarg at 8:01 AM on December 30, 2020 [6 favorites]

Here's that Atlantic article referenced upthread.
posted by box at 9:08 AM on December 30, 2020 [1 favorite]

Conspirituality is a podcast about conspiracy theories (mostly QAnon, 5G, and anti-vax stuff) finding their way into the wellness and new age communities. (Which is definitely a thing; a few of my hippie-dippier friends have fallen into QAnon head first in the past few months; it's not at all just a right-wing problem anymore.)
posted by ook at 9:52 AM on December 30, 2020 [4 favorites]

That electromagnetic waves are universally harmful and/or used for mind control. Predates 5G considerably. See EMF shielding, where people wear hoods or have special boxes to keep out electromagnetic waves bc they think they're dangerous (not using microwaves because of radiation fits in here too, along with 5G mind control, etc)

Flat earthers!

Not sure if this counts as conspiracy, but anything relating to crystal healing or homeopathic medicine (the 10x distillation stuff where you are literally ingesting distilled water and/or sugar pills made with it).
posted by ananci at 11:38 AM on December 30, 2020 [2 favorites]

I'm not sure if this still gets bandied about in 2020, but for a while the ugly offspring of 9-11 truthers and anti-Semitism was "Israel told its people in the WTC to stay home on 9-11".

That everything bad in autocratic "left wing" governments, including mass protest movements, are the work of the CIA

There's plenty of this among my older relatives, and the umbrella still covers Russia. Trump's denigration of the intelligence community is the one thing they agreed with him on.
posted by aws17576 at 6:50 PM on December 30, 2020 [1 favorite]

Plenty of COVID conspiracies, like COVID is really Chinese germ warfare that "got loose", the COVID vaccine is really an attempt to mind control us all with 5G... ;) And plenty of people who still won't believe COVID is real, or children can't get COVID, or their right to breath mask-free trumps COVID germs. ;)
posted by kschang at 10:23 PM on December 30, 2020

Pallas Athena is right to call out the left wing anti-Semitic conspiracies in the UK but I'm going to fact check on the idea that Jeremy Corbyn wasn't 100% on board. You don't lay wreaths on the grave of the 1972 Munich Olympics terrorists as an absentminded mistake.

There is a growing representation of this stuff in certain factions of the American left, such as that represented by Louis Farrakhan's acolytes. I don't want to wade in those waters and ruin my morning but an example is here.
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:42 AM on December 31, 2020

Nthing 5G, and that cell phones are bad for you. I was just told the other day that I shouldn’t have my cell phone in my bedroom. A family member who runs in liberal hippie circles in Berkeley, believes not only that vaccines are bad but that they are a hoax perpetrated by the entire medical establishment and in fact do nothing and smallpox etc just went away naturally. Boggling. She was also compelled by the Clintons murdering tons of people right wing argument in 2016, which she probably encountered from a non right wing source. Friends this year shared a video claiming that COVID is not dangerous but that we’re being poisoned by toxins from environmental pollution, don’t remember the full ridiculous details but there were a lot of them. Definitely aimed at lefties.
posted by sumiami at 8:16 PM on December 31, 2020

My girlfriend believes that Courtney Love and and David Grohl conspired together to fake Kurt Cobain’s suicide. Her argument is that they both had motive because CL wanted Cobain’s money and DG wanted to get out from under Cobain’s shadow and form his own group, but there was no way for him to publicly choose to leave Nirvana and build his own separate successful image. She concedes that Cobain was depressed but that CL and DG played it up in the aftermath to sell their narrative. I don’t think it’s super duper widespread but there is definitely a subsection of Nirvana fanbase that believes this, and they are mostly on the left end of the spectrum.
posted by Summers at 10:33 PM on December 31, 2020 [1 favorite]

There's a new one that's developing as we speak: That there was widespread election fraud by the Republicans, that 74 million Americans didn't actually vote for Trump, and that Trump's accusations of fraud are projecting what the other side actually did. I've seen people I consider intelligent posting such things, though there is no proof (sadly 74 million people wanted another four years of autocracy, regardless of what we might wish to believe).
posted by Beethoven's Sith at 11:35 AM on January 4, 2021 [2 favorites]

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