Freemasons to 'Birthers': rise of D.C. conspiracy theories

Once firmly in the fringe, political conspiracy theories have become more mainstream in the past few decades, say some.

Chicago Tribune/MCT/NEWSCOM/FILE
A copy of Barack Obama's birth certificate, supplied by the Obama for President campaign, has failed to convince conspiracy theorists who believe that Obama is not a US citizen.

Political conspiracy theories – like the so-called "birther" allegation that President Obama is not a legitimate US citizen – are as old as the nation.

In the late 1700s, it was rumored that the Freemasons were actually a Satanic cult and George Washington was a member who was elevated to the presidency so they could control the country. Such views were generally held by a few fringe groups and were viewed by the mainstream culture as a bit nutty.

But in the past few decades, conspiracy theories have tended to become a part of mainstream political culture, say political analysts. They point to Lou Dobbs’s promotion of the "birther" controversy on CNN, and to the Research 2000 survey that found 28 percent of Republicans think Mr. Obama was not born in the US and another 30 percent “aren’t sure,” despite overwhelming evidence that he was born in Hawaii.

The rising popularity of political conspiracy theories can be tied to a variety of factors, say analysts, from the growing distrust in government since Watergate and Vietnam to the expansion of the national security apparatus to the rise of the infotainment cable news culture.

Conspiracy theories are also thriving on the Internet, where people can choose what to read and what to ignore.

“The Internet perpetuates these things because of the ease with which you can look up all of this so-called ‘evidence’ on the web - no matter how far flung the idea is - and build whatever worldview you want while ignoring other evidence,” says James LaPlant, who teaches a class on political conspiracy theories at Valdosta State University in Valdosta, Ga.

Professor Plant has called Mr. Dobbs’s decision to continue covering the “birther” movement “highly irresponsible,” because it legitimizes a debunked conspiracy theory. Many media and political analysts have also criticized Dobbs for keeping the controversy alive by continuing to ask Obama to release a “long form” birth certificate.

Several media and fact-check organizations, including researchers at CNN, have determined that the short “Certificate of Live Birth” produced by the Obama campaign in 2008 is legitimate. In a leaked e-mail, CNN president Jonathan Klein wrote that CNN researchers had determined that a “long form” certificate no longer exists because Hawaiian authorities destroyed their paper records in 2001, and declared the story “dead.”

Dobbs has fought back, calling concern about his coverage “left wing” and “thin gruel,” particularly because critics have charged the birther movement with having undertones of racial paranoia. Dobbs says that if Obama would simply release the “long form” certificate, the controversy would go away.

CNN has not responded to calls and e-mails asking for comment. Media Matters, a media watchdog group, has released an ad calling for CNN to stop Dobbs from promoting the controversy.

It's vital for mainstream media outlets to debunk political conspiracy theories, says LaPlant.

“When somebody is committed to the belief that we did not go to the moon, that JFK was murdered by a Lyndon Johnson and a Mafia/Cuba consortium, you just can’t reason with them,” he says. “This is what we’re running into now with the idea that Barack Obama was born in Kenya.”


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