The common reaction to conspiracy theories is playful, where, similar to showing friends YouTube videos, someone always has one they want to share next. Merriam-Webster defines a conspiracy theory as “a theory that explains an event or situation as the result of a secret plan by usually powerful people or groups,” while Wikipedia defines Conspiracy Theory as “a 1997 American action thriller film directed by Richard Donner.” While many scholars dispute the true definition, the idea of conspiracy theories has always captivated the common man. This interest is often benign, but there are those that take them as more than interesting coincidences, and instead believe in them wholeheartedly. Recent examples of conspiracy theories that have entered the mainstream are the belief of government espionage on its citizens (never mind that it has become an open secret at this point) or the beliefs that “9/11 was an inside job!” and that Obama’s birth certificate was falsified so he could run for the presidency. These theories have entered the common stock of knowledge, which isn’t to say that they are widely held. Calling yourself a truther or a birther is more likely to elicit eye-rolling than it is an understanding nod. Conspiracy theories have gained enough traction to affect society, with the current conspiracy theory linking vaccinations to autism and other disorders, the Red Scare and the Salem Witch Trials heavily affecting the lives of those branded as deviants.
Despite the outlandishness commonly present in conspiracy theories, they continue to entertain and fascinate us. Professor Bob Rehak of the Film and Media Studies department believes that conspiracy theories can be paradoxical in the way that their content changes from decade to decade and evolves alongside popular culture and political thought while maintaining a similar structure. He argues that “conspiracy theories always involve an other, a group that is not us but that is very invested in us and exploitative of us, and is a threat that is already here. They’re xenophobic in nature, normally about protecting a certain way of life. [They describe] a way of life under attack by a foreign other and the need, not to fight back, but for knowledge.” Recent trends in conspiracy theories mirror the public’s growing disillusionment with the government and the promise of privacy. These theories echo a sense of hopelessness and lack of power by the common people, power taken by the elite through money, control of media, and control of information.
“Conspiracy”, the class taught by Rehak, tackles conspiracy as a means to learn theory. “You may never be convinced that the world is hollow and inhabited by reptilian creatures, but taking an exploratory journey of that kind of thinking allows students to get away from the black/white view of knowledge,” said Rehak. His goal is to get students to approach conspiracy theories from a descriptive angle instead of immediately dismissing them, or attempting to divide them into good and bad. The class mostly covers conspiracy theories in media, and not solely historic or criminal conspiracies. Screenings are held of films that contain conspiracies, and later including documentaries like Loose Change, about the 9/11 conspiracy, and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Moon, about the moon landing conspiracy.
The class culminates in the construction of conspiracy walls by the students. Conspiracy walls are the archetypal diagrams with newspaper clippings and pictures posted on a wall with string to signal connections between events or people. Rehak described them as “virtual maps of evidence or visual maps of theory.” Rehak explained that they are a part of the mise en scène, a combination of everything the viewer sees, of a film or show. Conspiracy walls are a way for the director to squeeze information into a scene, allowing them to portray dense information in an interesting way. So, instead of a final examination, students built their own conspiracy wall explaining a known conspiracy or one invented by the student and presented them as someone that holds that theory as true. The walls were then set-up in McCabe and unveiled to the campus on December 9. The unveiling was preceded by a speech given by Rehak on the nature of conspiracy theories. Afterwards, the students presented their conspiracy walls in character to those present. This year, the conspiracy walls included one that claimed birth control was being used to control women, one that linked Target with an extra-terrestrial scheme to take over Earth and another about a past student’s exploit to discover the secret behind Swarthmore’s old secret society, Book and Key.
Some students took the project to heart, like Eduard Saakashvili ’17 who contacted people in character. “I even had a short back-and-forth email conversation with a Target representative where I impersonated a conspiracy theorist that used paranoid, all-caps language. My friends got a bit worried about me at one point,” said Saakashvili, who used an original theory for his project. The students seemed to walk away with a larger appreciation for conspiracy theories, though none of them seem to be adherents to any theories themselves. “I enjoy the fun of conspiracies, the amusement of entertaining one and trying to think in the same way as the conspiracy theorist. However, I don’t really believe in any of them,” said Kelly Smemo ‘16. “They can tell us a lot about how knowledge and power operate in society, and how different people respond to the frustrations and threats of modern times,” Saakashvili added.