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A shadowy puppeteer controls the planet

The biggest conspiracy theories in history 

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Conspiracy theories are more prevalent than they’ve ever been. It can sometimes seem like every major news event is accompanied by an online chorus of cynics and trolls who insist things are not as they seem, and that ominous puppet-masters are manipulating events in the shadows.

But there are some conspiracy theories have stuck over the years, decades, even centuries. Let’s take a look at three incendiary examples.

The ‘faked’ moon landing

One of the true milestone moments in human history occurred in July 1969, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the moon. Except they didn’t, according to conspiracy theorists who believe it was all a Cold War hoax to get one over on the Soviets in the space race.

Denialism was first popularised by a 1976 book called We Never Went to the Moon: America’s Thirty Billion Dollar Swindle, by a former US Navy officer called Bill Kaysing. Since then, naysayers have continued to point to all kinds of ‘evidence’ for the hoax. All of this has been debunked time and time again by experts.

The US flags planted on the lunar service apparently ‘waving’ in the wind? They were just scrunched up from being packed in a box for days. The impossibility of astronauts being able to cross the Van Allen radiation belts surrounding the Earth? It was actually entirely possible, as they were travelling quickly enough for radiation not to be an issue. Non-parallel shadows on the moon surface implying multiple studio lights? A false conclusion, based on a misunderstanding of perspective.

But the theory still persists, with a 2019 IPSOS poll finding that 11% of American millennials believe the moon landings were faked.

The Illuminati run the world

The Illuminati are the go-to villains of countless conspiracy theories. They are the ultimate ‘shadowy elite’, secretly installing world leaders, manipulating financial markets, and generally behaving like a sprawling network of Bond villains. The truth is rather more mundane, however.

There was a real group known as the Illuminati, but they existed only a short time in the late 18th century. Founded by German philosopher Adam Weishaupt, and known to historians as the Bavarian Illuminati, its goal was to promote Enlightenment values of justice, liberty and reason, and resist state tyranny and religious power.

This real-world Illuminati expanded beyond Bavaria and certainly operated as a true secret society, with its members having colourful aliases (Weishaupt was called ‘Spartacus’), and a habit of infiltrating other groups like the Freemasons. But the group was eventually stamped out by the authorities. And, while the Illuminati have since been adopted as mysterious bogeymen by both die-hard conspiracy theorists and purveyors of entertainment like Dan Brown, there’s no evidence their alleged descendants are still in positions of power today.

The ‘truth’ of 9/11

It was perhaps inevitable that an event as dramatic and devastating as the September 11 attacks would trigger an avalanche of conspiracy theories. Indeed, online commenters were suggesting it was an ‘inside job’ on the very day that terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

The ‘truther’ movement snowballed from there, with all kinds of competing explanations of what really happened that fateful day. Perhaps the most popular conspiracy theory is that the attacks were orchestrated by the then-neoconservative US government, to create a Pearl Harbor-like pretext for invading Middle Eastern countries and seizing oil in the region. Another theory is that Al-Qaeda was indeed behind the atrocity, but the Bush administration allowed it to go ahead because it would serve their purposes.

Many theorists believe the Twin Towers were felled not by the planes themselves, but my explosives planted there in advance. This ‘controlled demolition’ theory is still fiercely debated in online forums, despite having been roundly debunked by experts. Some believe the Pentagon was hit by a missile, not a plane, while an even more extreme minority of theorists maintain that the Twin Towers were attacked by missiles disguised as planes using holographic technology. As with most conspiracy theories, all evidence to the contrary does little to dent the conviction of the truthers, who remain active on social media and online forums.