The self-described “cannabis consultant" said he was struck by a deep-rooted feeling of unease about the version of events being presented to him by the government and the media and that he vowed to help expose it.
“That was the first time I realized that I need to do something because something’s not right, something’s happened,” Johnson explained via Skype from his home in Tracy, Calif., an hour east of San Francisco. He said his revelation came after a decade in the armed forces: “I’m passionate about the truth because I was in the military for ten years. I did boardings [of suspect ships] in the Persian Gulf, and I did a lot of dangerous things for this government, so I want to hear some truth back from them.”
And so a conspiracy theorist was born. In the year since Johnson had his epiphany about the lies he is convinced he is being presented, he has spent his days creating new marijuana-seed technologies and recommending pot strains to cure his clients’ specific ills.
And he has spent his nights Skyping with fellow theorists, as he has produced and posted hundreds of YouTube videos outlining his beliefs about the true underpinnings of a wide swath of current events.
Investigating occurrences ranging from the shooting spree at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in December to the meteor that exploded above central Russia last month, Johnson has found and documented alternative theories that he believes provide proof that the events are hoaxes or events staged by governments and the media to keep the populace complacent and afraid.
And his following is growing among members of a new wave of the conspiracy-theory movement, which, fueled by the advent of the Internet and growing distrust of authorities, has grown during the past two decades from an underground fringe into a full-fledged subculture with astonishingly wide reach.
An Old American Tradition
The conspiracy-theory movement as it currently exists is the latest iteration of a tradition that has spanned centuries, according to experts who spend their careers tracing its evolution.
The term “conspiracy theory” was first used in The American Historical Review in 1909, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
But the concept has been around for ages, dating back at least as far as early Christianity, when the First Council of Nicaea in 325 raised controversy by unilaterally drawing conclusions on disputes about the true story of Jesus’ life, a topic that continues to be at the center of numerous conspiracy theories to this day.
And conspiracies have never left public discourse since. Instead, they have become more intricate, more intertwined, and more persistent.
In the 1950s, a study showed that about 75 percent of Americans said they trusted in their government to do what is right “all or most of the time,” according to Robert A. Goldberg, a professor of history at the University of Utah who has published numerous books and papers on conspiracy theories.
By the 1990s, the percentage of Americans who answered “all or most of the time” in response to the same question about trusting their government had dropped to 25 percent -- and after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on America it fell even further.
This distrust of authority continues a long tradition of American skepticism that has its roots in the run-up to the Revolutionary War, during which Goldberg said many patriots believed they were victims of a nefarious plot by their British overlords, represented by the Tea Act of 1763 and the Stamp Act of 1765.
“Conspiracy theories are a tradition in American history,” Goldberg explained. “What Americans saw, to quote Lord North [Great Britain's prime minister from 1770 to 1782], was a ‘diabolical’ interpretation of these events -- that rather than an attempt to raise revenues it was a conspiracy against American liberties and rights.”
Birthers, Truthers, And Obama's Nazi Camps
Slight variations of North’s interpretation could be used to describe the foundations of many of the conspiracy theories in wide circulation today.
Take the fairly common belief among far-right extremists that U.S. President Barack Obama's administration is using gun-control laws to disarm Americans to leave them powerless against a New World Order government that plans to throw them into Nazi-style work camps, as described by Conspiracy Reality TV. With the Internet providing a platform for positions shunned by mainstream media, the movement is becoming a real force in politics.
“The Internet provides the means by which people with ideas that would normally be considered fringe ideas can potentially reach a mass audience and can do it in ways that those ideas can then be picked up by other means of communication,” said Michael Barkun, a professor emeritus of political science at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University, who has written a number of books on conspiracies.
Once posted on blogs and forums, conspiracy theories are often amplified by a number of prominent alternative-media outlets ranging from Alex Jones’ InfoWars.com to the popular “Coast to Coast AM” radio program.
And if a particular theory -- such as the Birthers theory that maintains that Obama was born abroad or the “truther” conspiracy that posits the 9/11 terror attacks were an inside job -- gains enough traction, it can then filter upward through a range of quasi-partisan outlets such as the Fox News Channel or MSNBC, which often grant such alternative views airtime, but stop short of endorsing them outright.
“Twenty to twenty-five years ago, ideas like those the ‘birthers’ are associated with would never have made it into mainstream political discourse,” Barkun explained. He added, “The ideas get sanitized as they go upward ... so it doesn’t completely eradicate the distinction between the fringe and the mainstream, but it allows ideas that would have never reached a mass audience to do so.”
Many members of the new wave of conspiracy theorists have built mini-empires on their ability to generate and distribute alternative ways of interpreting the world, using their influence to secure book deals and media interviews, establish lucrative websites and social-media channels, and more.
Josef Dolezal is one such man. Majoring in math and minoring in physics at the University of Southern Florida, he began to read what he refers to as “alternative books,” which turned him on to the world of conspiracy theories in much the same way as Johnson and countless others.
From that humble beginning, Dolezal, who is 29, has created a successful website called The Pyramid Center and traveled the world, studying religious texts and sites, and interviewing religious leaders. That’s all research to feed his theories about the ancient Upanishad scriptures, Kundalini yoga, and more.
Like many of Dolezal’s brethren, he is obsessed with secret societies and their nefarious schemes. “I always look for the authority or the power that gives them the ability to what they do,” he said. “It all intertwines because at the apex of a lot of these secret organizations and fraternal orders, they utilize a lot of these sacred powers or sacred wisdom, if you will.”
Dolezal recently completed a research trip to the pyramids at Giza and the temples at Luxor in Egypt, and he was speaking via Skype from Israel, where he is interviewing rabbis and reading religious documents to learn about Kabbalism, another facet of his alternative theories about the world.
Due in part to his success in the booming field of conspiracy theories, he said he has been able to purchase 230 acres of land in California, where he hopes to build a “spiritual, intellectual utopia, like a modern-day mini-Alexandria” for like-minded individuals to come together.
He spoke of the movement almost as if it were a form of spectacle or a literary genre. In fact, “genre” was precisely the word he used: “The ‘conspiracy genre’ has grown massively over the past decade as a result of 9/11. The genre has as such almost become mainstream -- it’s not even underground anymore,” he said.
Just like any literary genre with niche appeal, “conspiracism” has passionately devoted fans -- who don’t have to look anywhere else for their favorite fare.
“With the click of a mouse, you enter the world of conspiracism, and you never have to leave that world,” the University of Utah's Goldberg explained. “You get a situation where you are confirmed, and you don’t have any information that advises you to look in a different direction ... There’s an inner core of people who are committed.”
And not only are these people stuck in a feedback loop of confirmation bias and groupthink, but they are actually being radicalized in the process as well, Goldberg maintained.
“Psychologists are finding that the more conforming data you get in these echo chambers ... the more aggressive you get in proclaiming ideas and also holding on to them,” he said. “They become another force for [their] promulgation.”
But experts also contend there is no connection between belief in conspiracies and mental illness or psychological disorders -- or even between such a belief and simple demographic factors such as class or ethnicity.
“There is absolutely no evidence that believers in conspiracy theories differ from the general population,” Barkun said. “I have not seen any evidence that that’s the case.”
A Class Above
If you ask the theorists themselves, though, they are often quick to point out there is one common thread: their deeply held belief that they possess special skills and knowledge, rendering them more qualified to see the truth behind the facade.
James Fetzer, one of the most highly educated and respected conspiracy theorists in America, retired after 35 years as a professor of philosophy at the University of Minnesota in 2006, a year after he founded Scholars for 9/11 Truth, which questions the official government line about the 2001 terrorist attacks.
Fetzer is also one of the most outspoken critics of the government’s version of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
He, like Johnson and Dolezal, holds up his credentials and self-declared penchant for independent thinking as evidence that he is better equipped than most to parse the issues as they are presented to the public.
“Some of us who have a high degree of professional competence are sick of the lies and the government telling us phony stories,” Fetzer said. He added, “We are serious people who have high levels of qualifications for the research we’re doing in the belief that the American people are entitled to the truth about their own history.”
That jibes with what Syracuse University’s Barkun said about the sense of “elitism” that many top conspiracy theorists harbor.
“It gives the believer in the conspiracy theory the sense of being a member of a kind of elite, a sense that, ‘I know what the true nature of the world is, that you have been brainwashed or duped, but I know what’s really going on,’” Barkun said.
From this worldview arises conspiracy theories that are “closed-system in the sense that they are constructed in such a way that they can’t be falsified, that is, if you show a believer in a particular conspiracy theory evidence that seems to contradict that theory, they say that it was planted by the conspiracists to deceive you,” Barkun said.
So the conspiracy theorists prove their point, beyond confutation: They hold an unassailable truth that stems not from the elites who control the world, or the Zionists, or the Illuminati, or whatever entity they say is manipulating the truth, but rather from healthy skepticism.
And thus, clad in the mantle of intellectual respectability, the conspiracy theories of the Internet era are here to stay -- and, indeed, to thrive.