Was IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn set up? Exploring conspiracy theories

May 17, 2011

The news of IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn's arrest barely broke before conspiracy theories began circling the blogosphere. But where are conspiracy theories like this born, and why are some people so quick to adopt them? Psychologist Ilan Shrira, who wrote about 9/11 conspiracy theories for Psychology Today, and George Johnson, author of "Architects of Fear: Conspiracy Theories and Paranoia in American Politics", discussed the IMF conspiracy theory, as well as the human nature behind popular political conspiracy theories throughout history.

Happy to be here.

I'm here to answer your questions...Who'll cast the first stone?

From your research, has the internet encouraged more people to believe in conspiracy theories (or conspiracy theories on a greater number of topics) than in the past? Or has the internet just made us more aware of the conspiracy theories that exist? It does make intuitive sense that the internet could allow like-minded believers of conspiracy theories to trade theories in somewhat of an echo chamber.

I think the web is doing both things you suggest. People are getting some confirmations about their beliefs. The web is also giving people access to more information that will allow them to "detect" conspiracies.

Absolutely. Conspiracy theories were prevalent enough in the 1980s, when I first tuned into the phenomenon.  My mailbox was stuffed with cheaply printing tracts and conspiracy magazines that I subscribed too for my research. (The mailman must have thought I was crazy.) With the Internet the phenomenon has been amplified by many magnitudes.

Why would a guilty man who had allegedly just assaulted someone and was on his way out of the country call the hotel to ask about his mislaid cell phone thereby alerting them to his whereabouts?

Hmmm...I'll take that as a rhetorical question.

And I'll pass.

Don't you think it's a little early in this IMF news to start thinking about conspiracy theories?  The man was just arrested a couple of days ago, and people are already starting to question what really happened.  Why don't we wait until the trial happens and we have all the facts until we start jumping to conclusions?

It seems like with many breaking stories and scandals these days, a (very) few of the speculations turn to conspiracy theories to try to explain why it's happening. The conspiracy narrative is out there, in some people's minds, and even the mere suggestion of it tends to attract attention and make it newsworthy. There's no gag order on what's reported in the media or posted online (most of the time).

I agree. People who are prone to the paranoid style of thinking need only the slightest nudge to start spinning vast conspiratorial webs. They don't believe in accidents. Everything is connected. 

Where do conspiracy theories start? And how are they spread so quickly?

They start in people's minds, as an ever-growing narrative in our culture (think the movie 'JFK'). They spread because they captivate and sensationalize, and because now anyone can be part of the media (e.g., through their own webpage or blog).

In "Architects of Fear" I traced the current crop of conspiracy theories back to the French Revolution when some Catholic priests were trying to explain away the rebellion as a complexly orchestrated plot by evil Freemasons. That is when the Illuminati myth was born. In the United States there were Federalist conspiracy theories casting the Jeffersonians as Illuminati agents. The same memes are picked up and recycled again and again.

Do you think he was set up?

I imagine the speculation in France (and Europe) is much more specific, since he is more well-known there, as are his politics and the details of his history.

I'm going to limit myself to the more general subject of the phenomenon of conspiratorial thinking. I know no more about the Sofitel incident than what I read in the newspapers. Of course in the paranoid style, the newspapers will be dismissed as agents of the plot.

Apparently in the early '00s? Strauss-Kahn was asked about his biggest obstacles to becoming President of France and his answer was "money, women, and my Jewishness" Question: How independently rich is he? Seems like his (current?) wife is independently wealthy - why is she with him? Comment: If "women" are your obstacle or problem, then I'm pretty sure that the real problem is YOU.

Yeah, that doesn't sound like a good reply for a potential leader. I'm no expert on his situation, but I believe he came from a wealthy background.

Isn't it at all possble that the chambermaid made up the story that she was attacked?

There's the big question. The next question I'd ask is, if that's the case, then why???

Why are you focusing on whether DSK was set up? Why aren't you focused instead on the victim, an immigrant from Ghana who has worked at the hotel for four years? And why shouldn't you expect conspiracy theories when WAPO doesn't perform its journalistic responsibility? I've seen comments to WAPO articles posted from conspiracy nutters who think the victim just started working at the hotel. I shouldn't have to go to the UK Daily Mail to find out essential details about something happening in the US.

It's important to take conspiracy comments with a grain of salt; these are just a few people making comments. Don't assume that there are necessarily a whole crowd of people believing in the conspiracies--probably fewer than it seems. "Conspiracy" comments get a rise out of readers; thus, a few people are motivated to make lots of them.

"In politics, nothing happens by accident. If it happens, you can bet it was planned that way."

Q: Was FDR, whose quotation this is, a conspiracy theorist? And, in light of the Bay of Tonkin, the US-condoned attack on the spy ship USS Liberty by Israel in the '67 war, Project Northwoods, MK-Ultra, Iran-Contra, the creation of the Federal Reserve (from Jekyll Island to its Christmas Eve 1913 Senate vote and Wilson's later lament, "I've ruined my country!" ), and a host of other thoroughly documented conspiracy facts, many quite horrific, why do you present this Q&A session regarding the DSK affair--about which surely FDR would have had some private words to share--as an opportunity to use a social psychologist and a slayer of conspiracy strawmen to further paint those who agree with our 32nd president as abberants?

I don't know the FDR quote, but I doubt that he meant that everything, down to the finest detail, is planned -- that nothing happens accidentally. (Some conspiracy theorists have actually called that view "accident theory.") And of course there are real conspiracies -- just not the overarching, almost supernatural ones that some people are so eager to invent and believe.

Can we really say that FDR was a conspiracy theorist just from this quote? Imagine if George W. Bush had said the same thing--Would you still interpret it as conspiracy-minded?


But you bring up a good point. That there have been conspiracies uncovered in US history (things that almost anyone would agree constitutes a conspiracy--something like the Tuskegee experiment). But just because they have happened in the past, this doesn't not necessarily lend credibility to conspiracy theorizing on any given issue.

Does mankind's innate fear of the unknown play into the appeal of conspiracy theories? Human's want everything to be explainable, and the more sensational the story the more appealing it is.

I think you've hit the nail squarely on the head. Our brains are wired by evolution to see connections. Lightning is followed by thunder. A rustle in the grass means a predator is lurking there. Or else it is just the wind. We are driven to find order in the world  -- and to impose it when it doesn't exist.

Agreed. But there are many ways to make sense out of events, and conspiracy theorizing is just one of these ways--though it often has the advantage of trying to explain more than it can.

Much of the speculation about what "really" happened seems to be originating in France, and reflects very biases and interests. I'm sure that since some politicians and factions in France benefit from M. Strauss-Kahn's trouble, the NY police and state's attorney are exploring all possibilities carefully. For the rest of us, it makes sense, I think to suspend judgment until the evidence is presented in court. Do you agree? The intro web page to this Q&A juxtaposes the conjecture that DSK was "set up" with the question "where are conspiracy theories like this born?". But isn't it reasonable, and not irrational, to entertain and examine such possibilities? After all, sometimes people are falsely accused of criminal conduct for a variety of motives -- for instance, the case of the Duke lacrosse players. Agree?

Ideally, we'd want to reserve judgment until more facts present themselves, but endless speculation is practically unavoidable, since there are few laws against it. As I understand it, the French media places different restrictions on what the media can present when someone's arrested. Welcome to the modern media...I don't expect there's a way to end all the speculating.

Hello, I wonder if Americans in particular have a paranoid streak, or is this common to all people?

The historian Richard Hofstadter wrote a famous essay called "The Paranoid Style in American Politics."  And some conspiratorial thinking seems to arise out of Protestant fundamentalism. If you look deeply into a lot of rightwing conspiracy theories you'll find elements of millenarian religion and biblical prophecy woven in. But the phenomenon is also international. Conspiracy theories involving the Protocols of the Elders of Zion continue to proliferate all over the world. They were big for awhile in Japan.

I don't understand the US legal system sufficiently but am struck by the slow revelation of simple facts (what time did he check out of the hotel, etc) and steady noise from an over-eager police department ("he left in a hurry"). Is this normal?

Mmmm...a very good question. It's difficult to know how easily and reliably media outlets are getting information. And whether any info is being withheld due to the nature of the events.

But couldn't some of the conspiracy theories be true? Are conspiracy theories much easier spread and breaking out because of internet? Does all the conspiracy theories make it really hard for governments to gain trust? Have you been forced by the new world order to debunk conspiracy-theories? - haha, just joking :)

There are real conspiracies, of course. Think of Watergate or Iran-Contra, and people do theorize about them. What fascinates me are the concoctions in which everything is connected. History is planned in advance in the minutest detail by the secret cabal at the top of the pyramid -- International bankers, Jews, the Catholic Church, Freemasons. In the most mind-bending versions all of these are connected . Lyndon Larouche's followers have a conspiracy theory so immense that it includes its own theory of electromagnetism. Quantum mechanics, with its principle of acausality, is part of the conspiracy! Solar energy companies have their roots in Ancient Egyptian mystery cults that worshipped the Sun God Ra. . . . and on and on. The IMF is in there somewhere as well.

In this case, no one, not even the defense lawyers, are suggesting a "set-up". Why do people naturally assume this is the case here -- but not -- for example if a poor person from a bad neighborhood is accused?

You have to expect the defense to say as little as possible at this point. I'm guessing not THAT many people are crying that it's a conspiracy (even if it makes a headline or two). Conspiracy accusations are a good way to deflect blame.

To me one of the largest and most absurd so called conspiracy was about Obama not having been born in the US. The fetid frosting on that cake was the unwillingness to accept a legal birth certificate as proof of his citizenship. Polls indicated more than fifty percent of Republicans believed he wasn't born in the United States. When the longer hand written? certificate was produced, all the birther momentum evaporated. How can so many people buy into a proposition as absurd as the one the birthers were peddling? What is wrong with our populace, poor reasoning ability, emotional malfunction or what? And why did the hand written birth certificate make a difference?

I wonder whether endorsement by birthers can really just be thought of as a "disapproval" vote for the president. I can see that if someone really dislikes the president, there may be a tendency to endorse anything against him (knowing that if polls show that many people believe he wasn't born in the US, then this can damage his credibility. But whether they truly believe the "conspiracy," that's another story I think.

I don't watch Fox, don't listen to talk radio and usually think conspiracy theories, and those who promote them, need psychiatric help. But in this case, I have to admit that my 1st thought was the he was set up.

Interesting comment. But what were your 2nd and 3rd thoughts? Just because our mind turns to something first, doesn't necessarily make it more valid. We still have so little information about what happened.

Is it possible to debunk theories and for former believers to disavow a theory? I ask because everything I've seen seems to indicate that any information presented to debunk a theory is turned around by believers who see it as evidence of an even bigger conspiracy. (I'm thinking about the Obama birthplace conspiracy.)

You're exactly right. That is another crucial part of the phenomenon: the ability to absorb any countervailing evidence as disinformation, part of the smoke screen put out by the conspirators. Conspiracy theorists are not empiricists, gathering information and inducing a theory. They are starting with a deep, preconceived belief and adorning it with scraps of information torn from context and glued into a new collage. My book "Architects of Fear" was translated into Japanese -- with a preface saying that the book was disinformation and I was part of the Trilateralist plot.

Psychologically, why do we have such a drive to enjoy conspiracies?

There's another big question, and the way you asked it is very interesting. I think we like it because it's sensational and leads to complex plots and powerful players. It's a bit like asking, why do people have such a drive to enjoy gossip. Because it's interesting. Some people dislike the whole idea of gossip, and so are turned off by it. But most people are interested in it (for many reasons I'm sure).

Why is this question even being considered? Certainly Messr. Strauss-Khan is presumed innocent, and will use his power, wealth and influence to present stage the best defense avaiable.

Ahhh, but presumed innocent by whom? Legally maybe, but so exactly so in the media (and among potential jurors).

Police accounts of DSK's behavior appear extreme. Even allowing for a conspiracy of silence on part of the French media, behavior as extreme as this would have landed him in trouble somewhere in the world (he had been traveling as part of his IMF job since 2007).

If you look, I think you'll find there have been complaints given in the past.

Can you provide clear historical examples where a widely held conspiracy theory was ultimately proven to be the facts of the matter?

I guess it depends on what you consider a conspiracy. I mentioned the Tuskegee experiment. If you go back and read enough documents, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that the US government and law enforcement tried to squelch some of the civil rights movement when it was getting going.

and those who are less knowledgeable of the world, less experience w/ others who are different from them, less educated, less culturally aware, and especially are not critical thinkers. In my experience. (At least in the USA and especially in the south where I currently live and was originally born, but I have not always lived there.) Those observations are reinforced on a regular basis.

When I was immersing myself in this world, back in the 1980s, I was struck by how very intelligent many of the conspiracy theorists were. They had an amazing ability to absorb data, sort it into patterns. They read voraciously. In a different life they might have become physicists or university scholars.  

You do not have to be a conspiracy theorist to remember all of the times -- fairly recently -- that initial investigations in high proflle cases painted the accused as guilty to the public. Often these were compounded by (illegal) leaks from the investigators. The Atlanta Olympics bombing (Richard Jewell), the Anthrax investigation (Hatfield), and the Duke Lacrosse case quickly come to mind. Rather than rush to judgement either way, why not just let the investigation finish and let's see what happens. But I would not dismiss the idea that this is more complicated than a simple sexual assault (which it may well turn out to be.)

It's the rare voice (like yours) that calls for delaying judgment until more facts are presented.


Also, I'm not sure I would necessarily classify your examples as "Conspiracy theories" per se. Conspiracy theories means that multiple (usually many) people are intentionally collaborating to achieve the same goal.

What would be the grounds for setting up DSK? Is it because he represents the interests of European countries with a failing economy and what countries would be against him? What is his exact importance within the politics of the IMF?

Not just within the IMF. He was going to be a top candidate to be the next leader of France! If there are people out to get him, I'm guessing it would have more to do with that, or his political party.

I think people has been cheated so many times now they are on the look-out.Especially things about usa. PS sorry about my poor english i'm french speaker

Ah, the French people are respesented!

Conspiracy theories take meaningful global events in which the theorist is not involved and flip them to make the story a vehicle for displaying theorist's insight and cleverness. Have you found a correlation with narcissism?

I haven't seen that, dear reader. But guess is that these theories will not come from the narcissist, who tries to shine the spotlight more on him or herself, rather than some other event having nothing to do with them. But attention getting does seem to play a role sometimes.

It seems like the vast majority of conspiracy theorists are male. Do you have statistics on that? Is conspiracy theorizing a way to attract female attention? That is, the guy who can convince you that he is the one who really knows what is going on is presumably the one best able to keep you and your future offspring safe?

That is an interesting idea that I haven't seen addressed. Most conspiracy theorists are men and most of the ones I met seemed very lonely. I remember a widower named Frank isolated in a Minneapolis suburb combing through the newspapers for evidence to weave into the plot. He called me one day at the newspaper where I worked and I used to visit him to hear his latest ramblings. 

"Ilan Shrira : It's important to take conspiracy comments with a grain of salt; these are just a few people making comments" If its only a few people, then why are we dignifying these claims by dedicating a discussion on it?

Wow...a great point! I guess, because both you and I are now here, engaged and attracted to this dialogue. It's not just the conspiracy theories that attact attention, it's also the judgments and evaluation and discussion of them that attracts attention (and readers and commenters) too. From this day forward, we should all try to be drawn in to this kind of sensationalism...or at least try to ignore them better. It's hard to completely ignore things like conspiracy theories and gossip, because they usually elicit such a strong gut reaction, whichever side you're on...

Is there a reason why many conspiracy theorists cling to their beliefs even when presented with overwhelming evidence that disproves those beliefs? Why do some seem to be more willing than others to just immediately accept the conspiracy instead of the simpler alternatives?

Extreme beliefs, in addition to beliefs that are personally important to us, tend to be sticky and difficult to extinguish. Think of superstitions, and how irrational they sometimes are, and how hard to "disbelieve" them it is sometimes.


Simpler explanations are not as exciting, and don't lead to the same conclusions that the believers want to believe.

George- In the "old days" when mail/letters to editor where the norm, it took some form of effort for folks to spread what may have been ill-conceived ideas. With internet /blogging/ live posting on news, it makes it EXTREMELY easy for folks to make ridiculous assertations, and then have others join the fray. And many of these folks must do nothing else, as evidenced by posts. Doesn't this lead to mis-guided folks being able to have more clout than they should?

Yes, there is so little friction now to disseminating ideas. A lone individual with a computer can broadcast worldwide. I wonder though if that ease of communication bequeaths real power. There are so many voices drowning each other out.

Any given conspiracy theory is likely to be nuts. But isn't there a logic to our susceptibility to such theories? At the heart of the theorist's worldview is the conviction that life is controlled by sinister, powerful forces over which s/he has no control. Considering that a series of revolutions--from the industrial to the digital--has put every aspect of our lives from what we eat to the work we do to the air we breathe in the hands of vast institutions--government, corporations, decisions made in other countries--over which individuals have only minuscule control, isn't recognition of that fact the emotional explanation for the prevalence of conspiracy theories?

Ahh, your description of human volition has hints of conspiracy thinking. Are many aspects of our live REALLY in the hands of vast instiutions? We rely on digital technology and information and corporations for many things. But are we really at their mercy? Have people really lost their autonomy? Yes, privacy is decreasing and a lot more of our information is out there, but there are lots of benefits to the individuals that come with that.

Thank you for the great questions & comments. I hope someone has gotten something out of this, other than venting (I know I have)!

In This Chat
Ilan Shrira
Ilan Shrira is a social psychologist at the University of Florida in Gainesville. He received his BA from the University of California, San Diego, and his MS and Ph.D. from the University of Georgia. Ilan's research focuses on a number of different issues, including personality, health, mortality patterns, relationships, and the brain. His research has been featured in the New York Times, USA Today, the Montreal Gazette, the Boston Globe, and the Chicago Tribune.
George Johnson
George Johnson has written about science for the New York Times, National Geographic Magazine, Slate, Scientific American, Wired, The Atlantic, and other publications. His most recent book, "The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments," is being translated into 15 languages. His essay, On the Trail of the Illuminati: A Journalist's Search for The Conspiracy That Rules the World, was published in the anthology "Secrets of Angels and Demons."

He is the author of nine books, including "Architects of Fear: Conspiracy Theories and Paranoia in American Politics" and "Fire in the Mind: Science, Faith, and the Search for Order," a finalist for the Royal Society Science Book Prize. He lives in Santa Fe and can be found on the Web at talaya.net.
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