Definition and Differences Between Conspiracy Theories and Conspiracy Charge 

When something happens that is out of the ordinary and hard to explain, some people look for sinister motives. At times, the theories that seek to explain events get out of hand and defy logical explanations. These are the roots of conspiracy theories.

Conspiracy Meaning

The term "conspiracy" has two distinct meanings:

  • Conspiracy Theory Definition
  • Legal Definition

It's important to distinguish between these two meanings. While conspiracy theories can sometimes lead to legal charges, not all conspiracy theories involve actual criminal activity.

Legal Definition and Elements of Conspiracy

Conspiracy is a joint effort by two or more people to benefit from breaking the law. The elements necessary to prove a conspiracy are straightforward, including:

  • An agreement,
  • The defendant knowingly agrees to participate in,
  • The intent is to jointly commit a crime.

For instance, a person who works at an insurance company may approve claims for fake accidents and auto repairs in cooperation with a partner who files the claims under several different names and another conspirator who launders the money through a repair shop. This is insurance fraud and a conspiracy to break the law for personal gain.

What is Conspiracy in Law?

Conspiracy is a concerted effort by two or more people to benefit from breaking the law. Here are some real-world examples:

  • Two people agree to rob a bank together. Their planning and discussions could be considered a conspiracy, even before they physically enter the bank.
  • A group of individuals conspires to commit fraud by manipulating stock prices. Their communication and coordinated actions could constitute a conspiracy charge.
  • Bribery schemes often involve a conspiracy between the person offering the bribe and the person accepting it to violate their official duties.

In essence, a conspiracy charge focuses on the agreement to commit a crime, not just the crime itself. This legal concept helps hold all parties involved in a criminal plan accountable.

What Is a Conspiracy Theory? 

When people use their imaginations rather than logic to explain events, illogical stories driven by imagined sinister motives may result. Conspiracy spins creative, evil motives for organized groups of powerful people, usually to gain financial windfalls or to exercise control over others. Conspiracy theories are a cyclical phenomenon.

Psychological and Sociological Explanations of Conspiracy Theory

Many people believe there are nefarious reasons for many things and that random events do not occur. It’s easier for them to believe that there’s an elaborate conspiracy at work rather than chance. Modern technology and social media have only empowered conspiracy theorists because their fears and beliefs are echoed online by others who feel validated by algorithms that feed them more conspiracy theories.

Conspiracy Theories and Charge

What is a Conspiracy Charge?

A conspiracy charge is a legal charge made by a prosecutor in criminal court. These cases may be preceded by a grand jury, which weighs evidence of a felony in secret before deciding if it’s sufficient to charge an individual. It’s important to know the difference between the charge and the definition of conspiracy theory.

When prosecutors approach a legal situation like conspiracy, they ask themselves, “what is a conspiracy charge?” It always involves two or more people, such as Mafia organizations and drug rings. Because of these groups, the conspiracy may trigger the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). Because drug dealing and other large conspiracies cross state lines and use mail or phones to organize them, they’re often elevated to federal-level felony charges.

Aside from drug dealing, businesses can be hit with a conspiracy charge, too. Business competition law says that things like price fixing are illegal, meaning that corporations cannot cooperate with one another to maintain a certain price level for similar products. Prices may be similar out of coincidence or because it costs companies the same amount to source products, but they may not conspire (agree) to set prices that are alike.

Differences Between Conspiracy Theories and Conspiracy Charges

Conspiracy theories are thoughts or beliefs about others that are held by people, usually a fringe group outside of the mainstream. The First Amendment of the Constitution allows people to speak about and even try to get others to follow their beliefs (when you consider the conspiracy theory definition).

What is a conspiracy charge? These are serious legal implications for acting on a scheme to break the law. There is both action and intent involved in the charge of conspiracy, not just talking about or believing far-fetched ideas.

How Do Conspiracy Theories Interact with Conspiracy Charges?

Conspiracy theories rarely interact with conspiracy charges, but in the current U.S. political climate, there are lots of examples. In today’s world, there are few agreed-upon truths that are irrefutable, which stokes conspiracy theories. When people distrust scientists and historians, the unstable and gullible are likely to follow their lead, refusing to accept any credible source of information.

This is the background for determining what conspiracy is in law and whether the conspiracy theories and people involved have the established plan, intent, and execution of the conspiracy to make money illegally.

In 2020, when Donald Trump lost the election for President of the U.S., he openly declared that the election had been rigged by Democrats and offered many conspiracy theories to explain how it was accomplished (fake ballots, illegal immigrants voting, etc.). When he and members of his administration agreed to a scheme to stay in office, the conspiracy theories became an actual conspiracy to keep the rightful winner, Joseph Biden, from being sworn into office. 

Conspiracy Theories and Charge

That is why many of the Trump followers who broke into the Capitol on January 6, 2021, and attempted to stop Congress from ratifying the results of the election were charged with the felony of seditious conspiracy, otherwise known as an attempt to overthrow the government. They had planned ahead of time, agreed upon the tactics, and had the intent of stopping the congressional activity that would award the office of president to Biden, and they executed those plans. Many received long prison sentences for their actions.


The difference between conspiracy theories and the legal charge of conspiracy is significant. It is not illegal to believe in conspiracy theories, but it is illegal to participate in a conspiracy. There are many versions of conspiracies that are illegal and potentially result in felony-level charges for the amount of money made/stolen or because it involved interstate fraud.


What Should Individuals Consider When Assessing Conspiracy Claims?

When assessing conspiracy claims, individuals should evaluate the source of information and the logic of the conspiracy theory. If hundreds or thousands of people are involved, yet the activity is secret, it’s unlikely to be true – or even possible. Also, consider what is at stake and what the motivation is of the person espousing the conspiracy theory.

How Can Society Address the Spread of Conspiracy Theories?

The best way to stem the spread of conspiracy theories is to question them when they arise. Ask for verification or proof and for the source of the information. Mostly, we must rebut nascent conspiracy theories that are harmful to individuals and to our Constitutional freedoms.

Conspiracy theories surrounding the COVID-19 virus prevented some people from getting life-saving vaccinations, and conspiracy theories that a sinister plot was behind a ship hitting a bridge in Baltimore show the range and stickiness of this way of thinking.