UFOs? Secret Agents? On the Net, Conspiracy Theories Abound

So you heard the one about British Intelligence doing away with Princess Di. And, yes, Ted Turner gave the United Nations a billion bucks to save on taxes or bolster the New World Order. But did you know that:

* The United States and Britain are covering up Iraq's use of chemical and biological weapons during the Gulf War to test their effects on soldiers?

* The Rothschilds control the Federal Reserve?

* UFOs don't carry extraterrestrials but people who live under the sea? (Aquaterrestrials, sort of.)

It's all there on the Internet. With its low-cost and instantaneous communication, the global computer network spreads conspiracy theories almost effortlessly. And if the rumor mill churned out such stuff before the Internet, today it whirls at supersonic speed.

"Before the Internet, there would have been a lot of people gossiping," says John McAdams, professor of political science at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wis. "What the Net allows is an ... internationally articulated discussion."

Take, for example, the mother of all conspiracy theories: the Kennedy assassination. It took several months for the first books to come out attacking the official lone-gunman theory. And, though people were abuzz with wild conspiracies, only the most cohesive and coherent could get published. Popular conspiracy theories came slow-cooked and well-cured.

No longer. Within minutes of the reports of Diana's car crash in August, the Web site "60 Greatest Conspiracies of All Time" (www.conspire.com) received an e-mail claiming British intelligence was responsible. Dozens followed.

Within days, an Internet newsgroup was crackling with all sorts of speculation: Of course, British Intelligence did it. Britain didn't want Diana's boyfriend, a Muslim, as stepfather to the future king of England. Or maybe Prince Charles was in a hurry to be married. No, wait! It had to be the international arms cartel, miffed at Diana's antimine campaign.

No need to check sources or facts. This is the Internet, info-democracy writ large. "The barriers to entry are so low ... we can all be publishers," says Deborah Hurley, director of the Harvard Information Infrastructure Project, a policy organization at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.

So, if we are in the throes of this New Internet Order, what should we do about it?

Nothing, Ms. Hurley says. "The best antidote to speech is more speech."

"The more this stuff gets exposed ... the more facetious it becomes," agrees Stephen Jacobs, professor of information technology at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. "When it gains strength is when it's left to be alluring because it's hidden and no one is talking about it."

No fear of that on the Internet. So many people are talking, it's hard to know if anyone's listening. Spotted from California to Florida, black helicopters are involved in a secret government project. Are all those sightings of "men in black" true ,or modern versions of troll tales? And who runs the United States - a Zionist conspiracy or the Trilateral Commission?

Of course, the same cyberspace that spawns such theories gives space and opportunity for debunkers. Professor McAdams of Marquette maintains a home page supporting the lone-gunman theory in the Kennedy assassination (mcadams.posc.mu.edu/home. htm). "Internet UFO Skeptics" (www.geocities.com/ Area51/Corridor/8148/iufos.html) tries to pierce the mystery surrounding space aliens. The East Bay Skeptics Society (mendel.berkeley.edu/ebss. html) and "The Skeptic's Dictionary & Guide for the New Millennium" (wheel.ucdavis.edu/~btcarrol/skeptic/dictcont.html) are vo- cally dubious about any explanation that ventures into the slightly weird.

Word, one of the oldest Web magazines, is putting together a flow-chart tracing conspiracy theories from the ancient Sumerians to the present. Constant themes: Some Sumerian gods look like the drawings of UFO aliens; secret societies (from the Freemasons to the CIA) have been accused of controlling world events.

"The main thrust of most conspiracy theories is to try to identify some power that is controlling your world," says Sabin Streeter, an editor at Word. "Perhaps that is comforting because the surface level of control has produced such unhappiness that there must be some underlying power." Mr. Streeter says he has become more of a believer since getting involved in the project. But even he draws the line.

For example, a favorite book of conspiracy theorists is "Tragedy and Hope," by Carroll Quigley (President Clinton's mentor at Georgetown University in Washington). The book describes the scheme British financier Cecil Rhodes (of Rhodes scholars) hoped would govern the world through well-placed individuals. Online, Watergate theorists have taken the idea further, suggesting, for example, that Henry Kissinger and Alexander Haig were part of that elite and used drugs and other disorienting techniques to discredit President Nixon.

"Most people would probably laugh in your face" if they heard that, Streeter admits. But "some people claim that Quigley is an agent of the Vatican."

Of course! That would explain why Castro....

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