Conspiracy Theories: Public Arguments as Coded Social Critiques: A Rhetorical Analysis of the TWA Flight 800 Conspiracy Theories

Article excerpt

In my view, the 'Alice in Wonderland' public positions the FBI has taken in this incident have now crossed over from being merely illogical or incompetent to the appearance of obstruction of justice.

Cdr. William S. Donalsdon

So begins yet another web site designed to offer insights into the now infamous crash of TWA flight 800. TWA flight 800 exploded over the Atlantic Ocean shortly after takeoff on July 17, 1996. Within weeks of the explosion, an anonymous memo posted on the World Wide Web asserted that an accidental misfire of a navy missile had produced the explosion, and that the navy was actively working to hide this alleged incident of friendly fire. Internet reaction to this memo grew exponentially in the next few weeks, generating a plethora of web pages either repeating the allegations or spreading them in a slightly modified form. It was several months after the initial explosion when the conspiracy charges moved from the World Wide Web to the more established media. On November 8, 1996 all three network evening newscasts and CNN reported that former Kennedy press secretary Pierre Salinger was actively endorsing the navy missile theory. Although most major news sources dismissed the conspiracy charges within several we eks, Salinger continued to advocate a public positions the FBI has taken in this being merely illogical or incompetent to the government cover-up, web sites continued to elaborate the details surrounding the supposed conspiracy to hide the truth about the explosion, and most of the general public continued to remain skeptical about the government's official explanation that the accident was caused by the ignition of fuel vapors in the center fuel tank. Indeed, even two years after the crash, numerous web sites were still devoted to promulgating different theories, journalists and panelists still debated what actually happened, and less than half of the American public accepted the government's claim that a mechanical failure caused the crash ("Cause" 1998).

The various conspiracy theories surrounding the crash of TWA 800 are only a small portion of the conspiracy theories circulating in the United States today. Conspiracy theories themselves are nothing new to American society. Numerous scholars have documented an extensive history of conspiracy theories in American politics, (1) and even the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates contained elaborate accusations of conspiracies by both Lincoln and Douglas (Zarefsky 1984, 1990). What is perhaps novel today is the sheer number of theories being proposed, and the increasing attention and analysis they are receiving from a variety of sources. The traditional academic treatment of conspiracy theories has been to dismiss them as seriously flawed arguments. Beginning with Hofstadter's classic The Paranoid Style in American Politics (1965) conspiracy theories have been characterized as distorted arguments producing distorted judgments. Since then numerous academic studies have demonstrated the argumentative weaknesses inherent to conspiracy theories. Poor evidence or lack of evidence, circular reasoning, repetition of unproven premises, and false dilemmas are all standard characteristics of conspiratorial arguments (Baskerville 1961, Griffin 1988, Young et al., 1990, Zarefsky 1984). Yet despite these weaknesses, conspiracy theories are not solely relegated to the fantasies of fanatics. A substantial portion of the general public either believes or is willing to entertain the premises behind various conspiracy charges, and scholars such as Goodnight and Poulakos now argue that conspiracy theories have "moved away from ideological extremes to the mainstream of political life" (1981, p. 299). Indeed, Pfau has observed that conspiracy theories are an important and integral part of mainstream political argument-a form that was "deeply implicated" in mainstream political rhetoric at least as far back as the mid-nineteenth century (2000, p. …