Fake news, chemtrails, aliens in Area 51 – at one time, they all seemed like such crazy ideas. But, in our post-Wikileaks, post-truth era, what can we really call a conspiracy theory these days?
There have always been those who insisted that the government was spying on us through our TVs and cell phones or putting chemicals in the water to make us all docile and unaware of their nefarious schemes. Typically, we dismiss those stories as outlandish. They couldn’t really do that, could they? Like the parents in that first Transformers movie, we’d all prefer to believe that our elected officials always have our best interests at heart.
Now, we’re not saying that all those outlandish stories are true all the time. They couldn’t be. We hope. We’re pretty sure the earth isn’t flat and that Apollo 11 did actually land on the moon in 1969. But as we lose our privacy, we gain access to more and more information that proves the existence of that “black budget” world – a world of secret spying, manipulation, and more, all of it off of the books and financed by secret funds.
Here’s a look at some of the stories that proved to be true. Sleep well, friends. If you can.
15 Big Pharma
Hearing the sordid story of Bayer AG and how it handled its own tainted product, the whole Big Pharma conspiracy idea becomes much easier to believe. In the mid-1980s, the German pharmaceutical giant found itself with stocks of a blood-clotting agent tainted with HIV and carrying a high risk of transmission. So, the company took the tainted product out of circulation and came up with a safer product that it then sold in the North American and European markets. So, what did they do with the HIV-infected drug? They knowingly sold it to markets in South America and Asia. You know, places that don’t really matter from your seat in a Munich boardroom. At least 100 people contracted HIV in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and there may be many more since the tainted drug was sold for a full year. The matter came to light in 2003, and while Bayer AG outrageously claimed innocence, it turns out they had already paid out more than $600 million in damages to the victims.
14 Poisoning Booze During The Prohibition
There are many conspiracy theories involving just how far the government is willing to go to force the public to toe the line on various issues. Some of them are true. Prohibition, which was a total ban on the sale and manufacture of alcohol, lasted from 1920 to 1933. Naturally, as soon as the ban came into place, there were criminals ready to find illicit booze to satisfy the public’s then-illegal appetites. One of the ways they could source booze was through industrial alcohol. The alcohol used for industrial purposes went through a process called denaturing, which simply meant adding something like methyl alcohol to make it poisonous. The inventive criminal syndicates employed chemists to redistill the liquor and make it fit to drink, and it became the primary source of illegal alcohol at one point. The feds responded by ordering the companies that made industrial alcohol to make it even more poisonous, including compounds like nicotine, formaldehyde, and up to 10 percent methyl alcohol – a deadly mixture. The renaturing process wasn't enough to remove the poisons, and by 1926, hundreds of New Yorkers had died from drinking tainted rum, with thousands more suffering injuries like blindness and paralysis. By the time Prohibition was repealed in 1933, it is estimated that up to 10,000 people had died from a program designed to scare people into giving up the bottle.
13 Project Sunshine
Over the years, there have been many rumors and conspiracy theories about government labs and secret experiments using human beings. Some of them have turned out to be true. During the 1950s, the United States government literally stole the bodies of dead babies to experiment on without their parents’ knowledge. It doesn’t get much lower than that, does it? The feds were trying to see how nuclear weapons testing would affect human beings. They needed human tissue to test for the presence of radioactive isotopes, and someone obviously decided that grave robbing was the way to go. The project’s leader was none other than Dr. Willard Libby, who won a Nobel Prize for chemistry. The project started up in 1955 and ran for a few years, involving Britain and Australia as well. The project was uncovered by a Clinton administration Advisory Committee that was established to dig up ethical issues connected to radiation experiments. One mother who had given birth to a stillborn child was told the body was “lost” to cover up the fact that its arms and legs had been chopped off and sent for nuclear experimentation. And yes, it really was called Project Sunshine.
12 The CIA And The Dalai Lama
Who hasn’t seem memes of the Dalai Lama dispensing wisdom with his Buddhist smile? And who hasn’t heard multiple conspiracy theories about the CIA and its meddling ways? Now, what's undeniably real is that the Dalai Lama, as leader of the Tibetans and an important figure to the Tibetan Resistance, was forced to flee in 1959 when Chinese forces invaded and occupied the country. The CIA, apparently, saw this as an opportunity to stick a thorn in the side of one of their arch enemies, the Communist Chinese government. Released intelligence documents reveal that the CIA actually funded the Tibetan Resistance for several years throughout the 1960s, funneling about $1.7 million a year into arms and military-style training. Not really the Dalai Lama’s stock in trade, you could say. There are also rumors that the Dalai Lama was personally paid $180,000 a year out of that sum, but he's always disputed that particular detail. The plan was dropped after about a decade under the Nixon administration.
11 The Fruit Machine
Gay persecution by government forces is, unfortunately, a thing. Canada was one of the first countries in the world to fully legalize same-sex marriage. But it turns out the land of Justin Trudeau wasn’t always governed by an egalitarian administration – not by a long shot. In the 1960s, the Canadian feds apparently became alarmed at the idea of gays in the government, military, and civil service. First, they tried to use private detectives to shadow suspected personnel, but it got expensive. So, they hired a Carleton University professor by the name of Frank Robert Wake to create what they outrageously dubbed the Fruit Machine – a way of detecting the gays in their midst. The suspected gays were shown gay p---graphy, and the machine supposedly detected whether or not they were aroused by how their pupils dilated. The machine was refined into something called a plethysmograph, which measured blood flow to the genitals. Sadly, about 400 people lost their jobs because of this ridiculous witch hunt, and another 9,000 were kept on file as suspects before the program was discontinued.
10 The Tuskegee Study
The government makes people sick just to see what happens. Crazy conspiracy, you say? For nearly four decades, from 1932 to 1972, the United States Public Health Service infected some 400 people with syphilis just to study whether the disease progressed differently in black men than in white men. Who did they pick? Exclusively poor African-American men, naturally. In addition to getting infected, the unfortunate men were given dangerous experimental and even incorrect treatments – if they got any treatment at all, that is. None were actually told that they had syphilis. By the end of the 40-year study, only 72 of the men were still alive, and some 40 wives and 19 children had also become infected. The formal name of the study was “The Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male,” which tells you all you need to know. President Bill Clinton formally apologized to the men and their families in 1997, saying, “On behalf of the American people, what the United States Government did was shameful.”
Mind control. It’s what every evil supervillain in the comics is out for. Turns out they’re not the only ones. During the 1950s, when the CIA was apparently running amok abusing the American public in the name of national security, a secret program was launched called MKUltra. It involved giving unknowing subjects LSD and electroshock treatments in an effort to develop mind-control techniques. Hypnosis, isolation, and subliminal triggering were also used. Subjects included people who had sought treatment for minor psychiatric disorders, with the worst experiments reserved for terminally ill cancer patients. Shockingly, the experiments continued from 1953 to 1964 and involved 86 universities, 12 hospitals, and three prisons. Many subjects were left with permanent disabilities, and there were at least two deaths from the experimentation. The United States Senate brought the program to the public eye in the mid-1970s, but CIA Director Richard Helms had ordered most of the files destroyed in 1973. President Bill Clinton issued a formal apology to the test subjects in 1995.
8 The Gulf of Tonkin/USS Maddox Incident
To this day, military and conspiracy theorists still debate whether the so-called Tonkin incident was deliberate – a stunt designed to deepen America’s involvement in the Vietnam War or a massive snafu that was covered up. Either way, in August 1964, President Lyndon Johnson took to the airwaves to tell the American people that North Vietnamese forces had attacked US ships in the Gulf of Tonkin. Only problem? It never happened. The USS Maddox was indeed in that area at the time, and the warship did fire 300 shells at imaginary torpedo boats that weren’t there, just to make the story sound good. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara admitted that the whole thing was made up just before he died, and a 2005 NSA study confirmed that no Vietnamese vessels were present. As Navy pilot James Stockdale stated in published reports, “There was nothing there but black water and American fire power.” At the time, however, public outrage grew, and Congress responded by passing The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which authorized US forces to strike against North Vietnam. More than three million people were killed in the Vietnam War.
7 Operation Northwoods
There are plenty of theories about how far the government will go to deceive and manipulate the public. This one actually never got off the ground – supposedly – although the plan was drawn up and set to go. The facts are that the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the US military developed something they called Operation Northwoods with the goal of turning the American public against Cuba and hopefully generating enough outcry to be able to start a war against them. Documents prove that the military was willing to commit acts of murder and violent terrorism and to sink boats of Cuban refugees, all while setting up Cuba as the culprit. That’s right – your government was willing to shoot people in the street to stoke up the fires of public outrage. Ultimately, President Kennedy rejected the plan, but it was officially under consideration.
6 Operation Mockingbird
Government control of the media is a charge that's thrown around frequently. Confusingly, though, it’s an accusation that's leveled by both conservatives and liberals. It turns out, ideological bias is only the beginning. Starting in the 1950s and continuing over a three-decade period, more than 400 American journalists were not only recruited to publish biased reports in an attempt to create useful propaganda but also actually sent on intelligence missions. Those missions involved everything from gathering intelligence to serving as a liaison between spies and agencies. The ranks of CIA recruited journos included Pulitzer Prize winners and other big names in the biz. Their employers, which include the Columbia Broadcasting System, Time Inc., the New York Times, the Louisville Courier-Journal, and others among America's leading news organizations were in on the deal. Operation Mockingbird is supposedly over, but do we really believe this kind of thing doesn’t happen anymore?
5 The Nayirah Testimony
It's always been notoriously difficult to interest the American public in getting involved in foreign conflicts. So, the feds create a situation that manipulates public opinion. There's been so much evidence of this over so many wars that it's hard to actually call it a conspiracy theory. The Gulf War began in August 1990 when Saddam Hussein's Iraqi troops invaded Kuwait. President George H.W. Bush sent US Navy ships to the Persian Gulf almost right away, but there was no public push to get involved on the ground. So, Representative Tom Lantos of California decided to ramp up the sense of public outrage, and he did that by arranging a staged testimony before Congress. A young girl who was identified only as "Nayirah" told Congress horror stories about Iraqi soldiers taking premature babies from incubators and leaving them to die. Congress and the public were naturally horrified. The only problem was, the story couldn't be verified, and it turns out, the whole thing was arranged by Hill & Knowlton, a large PR firm, on behalf of a client, the Kuwaiti-sponsored organization Citizens for a Free Kuwait. And Nayirah ended up being the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador. We all know how this one turned out.
Dissident and protest groups are always complaining about government infiltration and sabotage, and it turns out – no surprise – it’s true. COINTELPRO, or counter-intelligence program, was a secret FBI bid to discredit domestic political organizations. They used a variety of tactics, including psychological techniques, forged documents, false reports in the media, wrongful imprisonment, physical violence, and even assassination. The goal was to derail critics of the government, including Vietnam War protesters and Civil Rights Movement leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. They set out to get journalists fired, discredit public figures, and even divide the protest groups themselves by infiltrating them and spreading false information. The program ran from 1959 until 1971 until it was discovered by a group of anti-war activists who broke into an FBI office.
3 Operation Fast and Furious
There are lots of rumors about government involvement with criminal organizations. While this really does occasionally occur, it happens for various reasons. Sometimes, law enforcement organizations come up with a clever scheme but end up in over their heads. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) Phoenix Field Division thought it was a clever idea to allow illegal gun sales across the border, with the idea that they would be able to track the purchases back to Mexican drug cartels. It seems like the whole scheme got out of control, though. While the 15-month initiative did result in 34 arrests, about 1,400 guns made it over the border, only to be promptly lost by the ATF. In fact, two of the guns later showed up at the murder scene of a Border Patrol agent in Arizona. Brilliant move, ATF.
2 They Really Are Watching Us
People used to make fun of those who said the government was watching everyone. Crazy people who wear tin hats to block the radio signals. Ha ha. Thanks to Edward Snowden, however, we now know that Big Brother really is watching all of us, all the time. The NSA monitors not only its perceived enemies but also its friends, even important friends such as France’s former president François Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. What chance do the rest of us have for privacy? The GCHQ or Government Communications Headquarters is the UK equivalent of the NSA, and it turns out they were spying on their own people, too. Supposedly, it’s all about national security and the terrorist threat, but who are these people listening to everyone, and what exactly are they listening for? Notably, Snowden’s revelations didn’t seem to cause any drop in cell phone or internet use. Does anyone even care?
1 Bohemian Grove
The idea of a secret organization of the world’s richest people, pulling strings that affect all of us behind closed doors – it’s an enduring conspiracy theory. Bohemian Grove isn’t exactly a secret, but it’s certainly not well known. Founded in 1872 in California, Bohemian Grove hosts a very exclusive two-week party every summer for the world’s elite. Attendees have included American presidents. Basically, it’s a long bender, with lots of expensive dinners and constant boozing. Over the years, a few people have managed to crash the party and tell the tale, and it’s weird AF. Apparently, men aren’t required to pee in a bathroom, so there’s a lot of drunk rich guys peeing all over the lawn. Some of the weirder stuff includes wearing costumes and dancing around a tree, where they burn an effigy in front of a ceremonial concrete owl statue. In between drinking, dancing, and peeing all over the place, important business is discussed. For example, in 1942, members of the group made the initial plans for the Manhattan Project, which developed the nuclear bomb. If you have hopes of joining the exclusive club, you’ll have to be patient. The waiting list is 33 years.
Sources: metro.co.uk; foe.org.au; snopes.com