As global crises give rise to new conspiracy theories online, one long-held belief persists on social media: the CIA invented the term “conspiracy theorist”.
However, evidence shows the claim is false. “Conspiracy theory” predates the establishment of the Central Intelligence Agency by at least 79 years, while the earliest uses of the term “conspiracy theorist” that AAP FactCheck could pinpoint have no discernible association with the US government’s spy agency.
The claim, made in a post on a New Zealand Facebook page, likely comes from a decades-old theory that the CIA invented “conspiracy theory” in a 1967 memo to discredit critics of the Warren Commission, the official investigation into the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. Similar claims are here and here.
Multiple history experts say the claim is a mistaken belief, with one pointing out that the CIA only casually used the phrase “conspiracy theorists” once in the memo.
Adjunct Professor Stephen Andrews from the History Department at Indiana University Bloomington, told AAP FactCheck: “There is overwhelming evidence the term ‘conspiracy theory’ was used long before the creation of the CIA in the 1940s.”
While the CIA was established in 1947, an online search of the Library of Congress for the phrase “conspiracy theory” in newspapers prior to that year returns 294 results, with the earliest dated April 9, 1868.
There is also no credible evidence that the CIA coined the term “conspiracy theorist”. Use of “conspiracy theorist” dates back to at least 1956 – seven years before JFK’s assassination – in a book review of John Beaty’s The Iron Curtain Over America. It was also used in a 1960 doctoral thesis.
A milder version of the claim acknowledges the CIA did not invent “conspiracy theory” or “conspiracy theorist”, but point to the “Countering Criticism of the Warren Report” memo to assert the CIA purposefully popularised it – see here and here. It’s also been the subject of debate among some academics. Florida State University Professor Emeritus Lance DeHaven-Smith argued in his book, Conspiracy Theory in America, that the CIA mounted a successful campaign to popularise “conspiracy theory”, making believers a target of ridicule.
However, American Literary and Cultural History Professor Michael Butter, from the University of Tübingen, criticised this argument in an article for The Conversation. Prof Butter told AAP FactCheck in an email: “There is no indicator that the CIA memo had any impact on the popularity of the concept. Indeed, the casual way the memo uses the phrase just once implies that the concept was already quite popular in the 1960s.”
Similarly, University of California History Department Professor Davis Kathryn Olmsted told AAP FactCheck in an email that although the CIA used “conspiracy theory” in internal documents in the late-1960s to discredit Warren Report critics, “the term was already widely used by that point”.
Prof Andrews, Prof Butter, and Prof Olmsted all agreed that “conspiracy theory” was popularised as a pejorative term by philosopher Karl Popper after World War II.
“Discussion of the issue of conspiratorial thinking was widespread following the rise of fascism and the McCarthyite hunt for Communists in the US government,” Prof Andrews said in an email.
In his 1945 book, The Open Society and Its Enemies, Popper criticised the “conspiracy theory of society”, which Prof Andrews described as an attack on “what he saw as simplistic and emotional theories of historical change that assumed secret bad actors were behind historical events”.
The claim the CIA created the term “conspiracy theorist” is false. The earliest uses of the term had no association with the CIA and dates back to the 1800s.
Related theories that the CIA popularised the phrase to discredit critics of the Warren Commission are also false, as “conspiracy theory” was already used widely as an insulting term prior to the assassination of US President John F. Kennedy in 1963.
False – The claim is inaccurate.