Trails of clouds following aircrafts used to disappear- now they linger. What could explain this seeming defiance of nature? Investigative journalist William Thomas sought to explain those suspicious lines in the sky in the 1990s, emerging with the theory of chemtrails. His findings and eventual publication of Chemtrails Confirmed catapulted a belief that these “trails” are not harmless, rather they are a coordinated government project seeking to control our minds, the weather, viruses, and life expectancy. Proof of this theory would defy all government structure and known processes, overhauling the trust we have built in institutions-thus making it extraordinary. That being said, the evidence is difficult to come across for any top secret government project.
In 1996 the United States Air force published a report about the possibility of weather modification for warfare, referring mostly to space weaponry. Theories of deviant alternative motives began to circulate internet forums soon after, accusing the government of “spraying the U.S population with mysterious substances.” These mysterious substances were described as straight, smooth, clouds that seem to randomly zig-zag across the sky. Their long duration and hints of color are used as justification of a different chemical combination than typical aircraft exhaust, yet there is no scientific proof for this distinction. Additionally, physical evidence for the belief is slim, the most common claim being that the trails “look strange.” Yet, countless photos and videos are proponents of this theory. Many YouTubers and bloggers have claimed thousands of views by exhausting the reasons why we should all be suspicious. Some of the most “convincing” photos come from the inside of aircraft while being tested as prototypes, the pictures show barrels of substances lined against the inside of an otherwise empty aircraft, cited as hard proof of foul play. The explanation, however, is that the barrels represent bodies on a flight and tested for changes in center of gravity. The government’s response to the idea of “chemtrails” is another indicator of the truth according to proponents of this theory. In 1999 the conspiracy was discussed on the late night radio show, Art Bell. Soon after, angry accusatory letters began flooding government agencies. An immediate and immense response was coordinated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to attempt to dismiss the conspiracy. In 2001, US Congressman Dennis Kucinich introduced the famous Space Preservation Act of 2001 with the idea of banning any weapons in space, including “contrails” of aircraft, the non-conspirators term for the trails. However, believers interpreted this as not only an acknowledgment of their existence, but also proof of their danger and capabilities. In both instances, the government’s direct involvement only reiterated for believers that there was something to hide.
Support of this belief spiked exponentially in the 1990s- early 2000s and has since plateaued. Blogs and internet forums are still accessible, but the content appears to remain constant with lack of new, groundbreaking information, and scientists have virtually dismissed the idea. Believers then and now are not limited by race, gender, age, class, or location. Rather, anyone with a sense of suspicion felt that the government was not above such a plot. Even celebrities have questions on the matter, in 2015 Kylie Jenner posted a photo on Twitter that had written; “Why did I see 75 planes on my 15-minute drive to work? Why is this happening and who is paying for it?” After getting its own countless interactions from her followers, Kim Kardashian retweeted it! Essentially, the exposure from prominent figures alone demonstrates how far the conspiracies’ audience has reached. That being said, those who continue to support the conspiracy most passionately are far-right, anti-government / doomsday conspiracists.
There are psychological explanations for the longevity of this belief despite the absence of physical evidence. A prominent cognitive contribution is increased conviction after unequivocal real-world events have refuted the belief. Returning to the EPA response, despite providing a scientific explanation for the trails, believers interpreted this as being greater confirmation that the government is hiding something. This idea fits into the phrase “absence of evidence is not evidence,” since it is deemed a top-secret project, conspiracists stress that a lack of evidence is exactly what you’d expect, thus making it unfalsifiable. Confirmation bias furthers this idea, believers will run with a few photos or videos for years but ignore the lengthy scientific reports that provide an explanation. Along with this, the belief violates the concept of conservatism. If the government truly is modifying our weather, minds, and diseases, it would contradict countless established explanations of what we know to be true.
Government conspiracies are difficult to extinguish, nearly every citizen sits on a spectrum of distrust. There will always be a “what if” factor in any conspiracy considered top secret, it is a large component of how the belief persists. It is not abnormal to be skeptical, the government is a massive institution where deviant behavior has crept through in many forms. That being said, the conspiracy of chemtrails distinguishes itself as extraordinary given its scale. A plot of this size would override countless established processes proven to be true. Even for a top-secret operation, there must be a place for operating, building, delivering, and those willing to maintain such secrecy. Nonetheless, no single person knows all that the government is up to, thus perhaps the operation of chemtrails will never fully be known.