by Keith Morrison
©2008 Keith Morrison
Theyre out there, you know. Them. Yeah, you know who. Theyre real and they exist and theyre controlling everything, and any evidence that They dont exist? Yeah, well, They manufactured it. Nothing is beyond Them. They have many names: The Illuminati
the Knights Templar
Local 1738 of the International Association of Vegetable Pickers, Photocopier Repairers, and Toilet Technicians. Theyre everywhere
or not. In fact, probably not.
Conspiracy theories appeal to human nature because of two bits of our mental processing: First, were so great at pattern recognition, we can recognize patterns where they dont actually exist. Second, weve an inherent drive to control our surroundings. Combine the two and you get an explanation for the human belief in the supernatural (Well, something must be controlling this thing I dont understand) and the conspiracy (Stuff doesnt just happen; someone must be behind it).
Now, Im not saying that conspiracies are necessarily fictional: Clearly, many have existed in the past, and many more do now and will in the future. But there are conspiracies, and there are conspiracies. You want a conveniently-sized group of people with relatively small-scale plans and activities that are intended to achieve one well-defined purpose or another? Sure, there are plenty of those. But a clandestine, globe-spanning conspiracy of people who control your destiny and the words economy and politics from the shadows, and so on and so forth? Those not so much. See, theres this other part of humanity that creates a problem for any wannabes trying to secretly control the world: Humans cant shut the hell up. Well blab anything. If two people know something, there are better than even odds that it will shortly be three who know, then four, then eight, then twenty-four, then My classic example is this: A President receives a blowjob in the Oval Office. At the time it happened, only two people knew about it yet today, everybody knows what happened, who the President was, and who the woman was. And a great many of you will know sufficient information about this to make cigar jokes.
And you want me to believe theyve managed to keep the aliens secret in the Utah desert? Yeah. Sure. You bet. Pull the other one.
Let us say, however, that you want to create a fictional version of a conspiracy. There are, needless to say, several things one must think about. As usual, the first thing to consider is the ground rules, the major one being that the conspirators can not be at a much higher level of technology, power, skill or whatnot than the people they are conspiring against. The reason? Well, if they are significantly more advanced, we dont call them conspiratorswe call them the government. Given this, lets move on to the more practical issues, and they primarily revolve around two things: Communications and recruiting.
Communications isnt just about using an unbreakable code so the authorities (or whoever youre conspiring against) cant read it. In truth, thats actually a fairly trivial problem, with all sorts of readily available off-the-shelf solutions. Whats far more important to your conspiracy is that you have to hide the fact that communication is going on, or at least who is communicating with whom. Lets say Ive noticed the local spymaster from a foreign nation meeting with one of my citizens who they have no business meeting with. I dont need to know whats said between them; the mere fact that they are talking is all the evidence I need to tell me I should be watching said citizen.
In many cases, knowing that someone is communicating can be far more important than knowing what theyre saying. As an example from history, the Allies would take some time to decode Enigma-coded transmissions from u-boats, so by the time the message was decoded (if it ever was) it could be rather out of date; knowing that the u-boat spotted a convoy that docked two weeks ago is of somewhat minimal importance. On the other hand, if you can identify a signal from a u-boat, that means youve tied that u-boat to a specific location at a specific time, which could be rather more significant in the list of your concerns.
This, of course, has been long recognized. Radio silence is a term that you dont have to be in the military to understand, although many people confuse the reason: It isnt so much that they dont overhear you, as it is that they cant find youor, even better, that they dont realize you were ever there in the first place.
Your conspiracy is going to be facing the same problem. In order for a conspiracy to function, the members have to communicate. The problem is how to do that so the enemy doesnt know who is communicating or, more ideally, that any communication is happening at all. This is a lot harder than it looks at first glace. Think about all the ways you communicate with other people and then think about all the ways someone could catch you in the act of communicating.
One obvious tactic is to swamp potential observers with so much information that certain particular messagesyoursare lost in the noise. Lets say your conspirators have some sort of social situation where they would be innocently expected to meet on a regular basis, like a mainstream religious service. Its impractical to monitor all normal religious services, because a large chunk of the population attends them. This means you cant trace who meets with whom, as it would quickly encompass the entire population.
For non-personal interactions you need something where messages can be sent anonymously, where no one knows who sees it, and where looking at the message is a hidden activity because its disguised as a normal activity. An example is using steganography: hiding a message inside an image. Upload an innocuous image that people would legitimately look at and while the enemy might stumble on the image and discover a message, you do it correctly and they wont know whos seen the image in order to read the message.
The dead drop is an old spy classic: You leave a message in a secluded spot, and someone else comes to collect it. If they stumble across the message, the authorities dont necessarily know who placed it, nor who is supposed to pick it up.
Now, of course, none of these methods are foolproof. You spend enough time on simply watching, you can see who picks up the dead drop; whos uploading the images; and isnt it interesting how those same three guys always manage a quiet chat, and sit in the same bench, during the church service? But still, its something the writer of a fictional conspiracy has to take into account.
The second issue: Recruiting. Your conspiracy will need people, and the bigger the conspiracy, the more people it needs. Finebut the more people youve got, the harder it will be to keep everything a secret. You need to recruit the right people; not just the ones sympathetic to your cause, but the ones sympathetic to your cause who are on a position to do something to assist. So your recruiting issue itself breaks down into two questions: One, who do you need to recruit to pull off the conspiracys goal(s)? Two, who can you recruit?
Note that those two categories can be mutually exclusive. For instance, lets assume your conspiracy exists to steal a nuclear warhead for your local Cthulhu-worshipping cult in order to waken the Great Old Ones. Well, you obviously need to recruit the people who have access to the weapon. Question is, what are the odds theyre going to be sympathetic to your cause? And if none of them is likely to join willingly, can they be recruited using some other tactic, like bribery?
And then, of course, there is always the problem of recruiting someone the enemy wants you to recruit. Oh, the embarrassment when your loyal lieutenant turns out to an agent of the secret police! The usual method of dealing with this sort of thing is to ask the potential recruit to carry out some kind of test of loyalty, and hope that you arent dealing with the really ruthless secret police wholl have no qualms about offing someone innocent to get their agent in place.
The goal, therefore, is that the conspiracy must be a small, dedicated group who are actually in position to do something and wont let the secret slip. And, to repeat, its that last factor which kills the real-world conspiracy.
Those are the sorts of things you have to think about when planning your fictional one.