The conspiracy theorists convinced celebrities are under mind control
“When it’s easier to blame a conspiracy about mind control than it is to face our political differences then something is very wrong”
When rapper Cardi B unexpectedly stared into space during a red carpet interview at the 2018 Grammys, the internet didn’t blame it on exhaustion or nerves. No: according to some sections of the web, this lapse in concentration was a clear sign that she was the victim of the CIA’s MK-Ultra mind control program; the bizarre blank expression on her face was evidence of a “glitch” in her programming.
MK-Ultra is a wild conspiracy theory that has infiltrated certain corners of the internet. Its believers are convinced that whenever a celebrity or politician acts strangely on camera, they aren’t just nervous or butchering their lines, but are victims of a top secret mind control division of the US government.
The conspiracy theory extends to more sinister acts as well, and is often referenced in combination with other conspiracy theories: there are dozens of Reddit threads suggesting the gunmen behind attacks including Sandy Hook and Columbine were not terrorists or fanatics but rather “MK-Ultra puppets” conducted by sinister forces to carry out these atrocities.
Perhaps one of the reasons the MK-Ultra conspiracy theory is so compelling to its believers is that its roots are surprisingly grounded in reality. If I were to tell you the CIA carried out brain surgery on six dogs, putting electric chips in their craniums so they could be controlled by remote controls that made them run, turn and stop, or that it experimented on American citizens with high doses of LSD in a bid to see if they could “de-pattern” their thoughts and turn them into “robot agents” triggered by key words – an experiment which was disproportionately carried out on mental health patients, prisoners, drug addicts and sex workers as they were “people who could not fight back,” according to one government agent – you’d probably assume I’d been reading too much science fiction. But declassified CIA documents show these things really did happen under a program that was in fact called MK-Ultra, right up until the early 1970s when it was officially halted.
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Founded in 1953, MK-Ultra was seen by CIA director Allen W. Dulles as a way to study mind control, which he wanted to weaponise against the Soviet Union to gain a critical edge in the Cold War. With communism at its height, the CIA was disturbed by reports that American prisoners had been turned into communist allies, and believed this was evidence they had been manipulated or even hypnotised under questioning. The agency poured millions of dollars into studies examining ways to influence and control the mind and to enhance its ability to extract information from resistant subjects during interrogation. As part of this research, testing with psychedelic drugs such as LSD was common.
According to government scientist Dr Russell Monroe, who spoke to ABC news in 1979, the CIA was looking for “an incapacitating agent; an agent that would not harm permanently but incapacitate temporarily. [Mind control] was a humanistic way to wage a war.” But even if the CIA was convinced it was operating in the national interest, its methods were brutal. In one case, a mental health patient in Kentucky was dosed with LSD continuously for 174 days. In total, the agency conducted 149 separate mind control experiments, and as many as 25 involved unwitting subjects, according to the New York Times, which says documents show at least one participant died. Others suffered long-term health issues, including amnesia, as a result of these tests.
The government paid compensation to the family of Jean Steel, one of many MK-Ultra human guinea pigs that the infamous Dr. Ewen Cameron experimented on at the Allen Memorial Institute building at McGill University in Montreal, with a settlement of $100,000 in 2017. Her daughter, Alison, told the media: “My mother was never again able to really function as a healthy human being because of what they did to her.”
“MK-Ultra sounds so cartoonish, almost like the dastardly scheme of a Bond villain,” Michael Wood, a lecturer at the University of Winchester’s Department of Psychology, says, “but its origins are based on verifiable facts and that gives it an uncomfortable edge.”
Wood credits the 1962 film The Manchurian Candidate, which is about a soldier manipulated by mind control into killing a politician, for bringing MK-Ultra out of the shadows and into pop culture folklore. This, he says, has been further propagated by the internet and modern-day references in TV series such as Stranger Things (where it’s referenced by the scientists responsible for creating Eleven, a character with telekinetic abilities) and films such as the Jesse Eisenberg-starring American Ultra.
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“MK-Ultra is now used in a particular rhetorical way when you’re talking about something being an inside job,” says Wood. “It’s because MK-Ultra has shown the US government is not above committing horrible acts against its own people. Whenever something goes wrong, MK-Ultra is an easy thing to blame and an easy online buzzword to use.”
Marie D Jones, a US writer who co-authored the book Mind Wars: A History of Mind Control, Surveillance, and Social Engineering by the Government, Media, and Secret Societies, says she believes human beings have had a hunger for controlling the minds of others that dates back to the Ancient Egyptians, who were advocates of the use of coercive persuasion. Mind control, she says, is just a part of “human nature.”
When researching for the book, Jones spent months wading through declassified CIA documents around the MK-Ultra program. “At its core, MK-Ultra, particularly the LSD tests, were about mastering the art of erasing the subconscious of a victim and replacing this with a new way of thinking,” she says. However, Jones says the online conspiracies around MK-Ultra, particularly the ones based around video clips such as US weatherman Al Roker staring into space or Britney Spears stumbling during an interview, have become problematic.
“It’s important that the truth of MK-Ultra is known, but the way it’s become so well known in popular culture has also become a bit of a problem. We’ve gone from this intellectual probing of its origins to just believing in complete insanity such as it targeting celebrities and making them do weird things. It takes away from people seriously studying the history of MK-Ultra.”
What is it about MK-Ultra that makes it so appealing to online communities, particularly when trying to make sense of something weird or tragic? Scott Wark, a researcher in meme theory at the University of Warwick, says the internet has opened up a lot of alternative forms of information but at the same time it has introduced a lot of things into our lives that are hard to understand.
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“We live through extremely complicated devices that shoot packets at one another at speeds we can barely comprehend,” he explains. “Not many of us know how these things work. There are so many systems around us that we can’t explain. The world is burning, finance makes no sense to the layperson, institutional politics are fucked. The proliferation of the inexplicable and the polarisation of politics are the perfect conditions for a rise in conspiratorial thinking—and MK-Ultra.”
Wark believes conspiracy theories like MK-Ultra help us come to terms with tragic events by providing a convenient, pre-formed narrative about institutional agency and its ability to be corrupt – something that’s far easier to understand because it’s an idea with so much cultural capital, especially in recent years. He gives the example of Sandy Hook deniers entering into the mainstream thanks to controversial pundits such as Alex Jones.
“MK-Ultra is packaged in a narrative that’s a part of our popular cultural heritage,” he says. “We still tell these stories, in movies and TV shows and comics and books. So long as governments commit injustices and atrocities, conspiracy theories like MK-Ultra will translate these onto an individual scale. So long as politics are polarised, it’ll be all too easy to identify ‘them’, the other side, as this agency. MK-Ultra endures because it tells us a story about institutional power that we’re already primed to hear: ‘it was a cover-up.’”
The MK-Ultra program was officially a failure, with the CIA, embarrassed by its lack of concrete findings, shutting it down in 1973. The fact we’re still talking about it in 2019, suggests Jones, is the same reason we still share outlandish stories about a UFO crashing at Roswell. “With the internet, you have this free flow of information that has taken this nugget of our history and made it into this huge, huge entity,” she says.
“It’s really similar to how legends and folklore and myths are cultivated, where they have a nugget of truth at the core, but are made into something a lot bigger.” She wouldn’t be surprised if the 1950s mind control program continues to inspire future generations, likening it to enduring conspiracy theories such as the JFK assassination.
"When it’s easier to blame a conspiracy about mind control than it is to face our political differences then something is very wrong"