I have been studying conspiracy theories for about ten years now. When I started, I did not expect that the topic would become as important as it has become, particularly from 2016 on. I would like to be able to say that I had the foresight to know that they would eventually come to dominate our political discourse, but I didn’t. In fact, I expected the exact opposite: that conspiracy theories would continue on a downward trend of losing importance over time. The data a colleague of mine and I gathered suggested that the United States was on such a trajectory since the 1960s, but unfortunately that data collection effort ended in 2010 (Uscinski and Parent 2014).
I would also like to be able to say that I had the idea to study conspiracy theories myself. But, alas, I have to give the credit to my colleague for that. As a political scientist, conspiracy theories were well off the beaten path of political science ten years ago, and there hadn’t been much research into them in other social science fields either. At the time, I wasn’t even sure what we would study, exactly. This may sound ironic now, but I didn’t think that conspiracy theories either affected or were affected by politics in any way. The only thought I had really given to conspiracy theories was in the early 1990s when the Oliver Stone movie JFK came out. So, when my friend and colleague Joseph Parent pitched me on the topic, I thought he was joking. I would have preferred to work together on something more mundane and was therefore inclined to turn him down. Looking back now from a career standpoint, it’s a good thing I did not.
When I began to gather the existing literature on conspiracy theories, I found very little in the social sciences. There were a few articles here and there, but no major research agendas had ever been undertaken. In psychology, there was a budding agenda that had started around 2007: Karen Douglas and her team in the United Kingdom started to look into the phenomenon of belief in conspiracy theories and were beginning to publish some very insightful papers (Douglas and Sutton 2008). Most of the work was historical and cultural in nature, and much of it either followed in the footsteps of Richard Hofstadter’s (1964) original take on conspiracy theories or was a response to it (Butter and Knight 2018). The lack of social science literature signaled a much bigger problem: there was not going to be any ready-made data for us to use.
To measure beliefs, one would typically use surveys. Some polls over the decades occasionally asked respondents about their belief in a conspiracy theory or two, but these questions were rarely repeated or asked consistently. Questions about belief in JFK conspiracy theories have been asked enough over time to get a feel for how many Americans believe that particular strand of theory, but that would only get us so far because to rely on that would be like relying on the stock price of General Motors to tell us about the performance of the stock market writ large. We wanted data “big” enough to generalize from. Our initial data collection effort took three years to complete and involved the analysis of 120,000 letters to the editor of The New York Times from 1890–2010. My assistants read all of the letters, looking for those that advocated or refuted a conspiracy theory, and then we coded those letters by who was being accused of conspiring. This was the first effort to capture the dynamics of conspiracy theories writ large over time in a systematic way. At the same time, we began an effort at national polling that I have continued.
As I analyzed the data, my initial thoughts about conspiracy theories began to seem very wrong. Conspiracy theories were not by any means a fringe phenomenon. They seemed to exist during all eras I studied and were believed by majorities of people. Further, there were numerous conspiracy theories that people had believed in at one time or another. Did you hear that Jimmy Carter was a Soviet puppet? Or that the CIA attempted to infiltrate the women’s movement with undercover lesbian agents? Or that the planet is really run by an interdimensional race of interbreeding lizard people? We all hear about the JFK, Birther, Truther, and moon landing conspiracy theories, but those are just the tip of a massive iceberg. I found—and continue to find—that there are countless conspiracy theories that people can concoct.
Polls strongly suggest that everyone believes one or a few conspiracy theories. For example, a national poll by Fairleigh Dickenson University asked about four conspiracy theories; 63 percent believed at least one (Cassino and Jenkins 2013). Political scientists Eric Oliver and Thomas Wood (2014) polled Americans about seven conspiracy theories and found that 55 percent believed in one or more. A representative poll of Florida asked about belief in nine conspiracy theories, finding that only 20 percent believed in none of them (Uscinski and Klofstad 2018b). A poll of New Jersey—a number of years ago—asked about belief in ten conspiracy theories, and only 6 percent of respondents believed in none (Goertzel 1994). Different polls ask about different conspiracy theories, but as polls ask about more conspiracy theories, the number of people who believe in none tends to decrease. Therefore, I don’t think we can say that there is an “us” who resists all conspiracy theories and a “them” who succumbs. Certainly, some people believe in more conspiracy theories than others, but everybody partakes a little bit—even if they don’t want to admit it.
The policy relevance of conspiracy theories was perhaps the most shocking thing to me as I have continued to study them. Conspiracy theories have erupted not just in presidential politics—suggesting that President George W. Bush blew up the Twin Towers on 9/11/2001 or that President Barack Obama faked his birth certificate to usurp the presidency—but also in policies as far ranging as local land-use laws, bicycle sharing programs, genetically modified food policies, and disease prevention plans (Avery 2017; Hurley and Walker 2004; Osher 2010; Harmon 2014). Conspiracy theories also drive people to bad personal decisions as well, particularly in the area of health (Jolley and Douglas 2014), and because of this, diseases once thought eradicated have come back (Plait 2013). Conspiracy theories continue to play a sizeable role in justifying inaction on climate change in the United States, and this may lead to planet-wide disaster (Uscinski et al. 2017). Further, conspiracy theories are not confined to the United States but rather affect politics and policy all over the world: think current politics in Poland (Soral et al. 2018), Russia (Yablokov 2018), Turkey (Nefes 2018), the Middle East (Nyhan and Zeitzoff 2018), Europe (Drochon 2018), and Latin America (Filer 2018).
The perennial question, therefore, is why do people believe conspiracy theories? One might think that conspiracy theorists—particularly the committed ones—have a psychopathology behind their beliefs. But that doesn’t seem to be the case given that so many people believe in conspiracy theories and most people aren’t mentally ill. Psychologists have identified a number of mental states, cognitive factors, and personality traits that predict belief in conspiracy theories (Wood and Douglas 2018), and many are converging on the idea that conspiracy thinking (sometimes called conspiracist ideation) drives beliefs in conspiracy theories (Brotherton et al. 2013).
Conspiracy thinking is an underlying generalized worldview that to a greater or lesser degree drives individuals to see conspiracies lurking in the shadows (Uscinski et al. 2016); it can be thought of as a bias against powerful actors that one doesn’t like (Imhoff and Bruder 2013). People with higher levels of conspiracy thinking tend to believe in more conspiracy theories than those with lower levels of it (Uscinski and Parent 2014). Conspiracy thinking predicts not only beliefs in individual conspiracy theories but also agreement with scientific consensus and facts (Marietta and Barker 2018). Individuals displaying high levels of conspiracy thinking have been shown more likely to possess a toxic mix of psychological characteristics (Douglas et al. 2019): a willingness to conspire to achieve ends (Douglas and Sutton 2011), an aversion to gun control measures (Enders and Smallpage 2016), and an elevated acceptance of violence against the government (Uscinski and Parent 2014, 98). The concept of conspiracy thinking gets us pretty far, but such individual factors on their own don’t tell the whole story.
A fuller explanation of why people believe conspiracy theories must include the role of social and political factors, including the environments in which media and elites transmit information. It surprised me that conspiracy thinking in my polls showed that people on the political right and left showed equal levels of conspiracy thinking but people who identified as independents and as belonging to a third party showed higher levels (Uscinski and Parent 2014). Despite many journalists’ claims to the contrary, quite a few studies show Republicans are not more taken in by conspiracy theories than are Democrats (e.g., Oliver and Wood 2014). This finding always seems to ruffle the feathers of people on the left (e.g., Krugman 2014), but even when it comes to the more zany conspiracy theories, partisanship is not a strong predictor of belief (Tingley and Wagner 2017; Uscinski and Klofstad 2018a). Partisanship matters, however, in determining which conspiracy theories one will accept or reject: Democrats who believe in conspiracy theories tend to believe that Republicans are conspiring against them, and Republicans who believe in conspiracy theories tend to believe that Democrats are conspiring against them (Smallpage et al. 2017). This is the case with other dispositions as well: Christians and Muslims are more likely than Jews to believe in Jewish conspiracy theories or to deny the Holocaust (Bilewicz et al. 2013; Nefes 2013); people with New Age beliefs are more likely than Catholics to believe in Da Vinci Code conspiracy theories (Newheiser et al. 2011); football fans living outside of New England are more likely than football fans from New England to believe that New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady conspired to deflate his footballs to cheat (Carey et al. 2016).
Elites can have a lot of influence on conspiracy beliefs as well. One reason Republicans continue to believe that climate change is a hoax is that Republican leaders continually traffic in such theories (Uscinski et al. 2017). For example, Senator James Inhofe walked onto the Senate floor holding a snowball and presented it as evidence that global warming was a conspiracy (Bump 2015). When leaders push conspiracy narratives, followers with high levels of conspiracy thinking will be persuadable (Atkinson and DeWitt 2018).
An additional factor is status. Conspiracy theories tend to come most from losers rather than from winners. Prior to elections (other factors being equal), members of both parties equally suspect fraud from the other side. But after elections, losers tend to claim they were cheated; winners tend to be happy with the results (Edelson et al. 2017). Going back to the letters to the editor data I discussed earlier, we found that when a Republican was president, conspiracy theories tended to accuse Republicans and their coalition of conspiring, but when a Democrat was president, conspiracy theories tended to accuse Democrats and their coalition of conspiring (Uscinski and Parent 2014). In this sense, conspiracy theories can be a tool used by losers to recoup from losses and generate collective action against a more powerful foe.
Conspiracy theories seem to have become more prominent in the aftermath of the 2016 election. Democrats have been on high alert because they are out of power: they have engaged in numerous conspiracy theories and have been quite susceptible to fake news (Coppins 2017; Beauchamp 2017; Dickey 2017). This is expected; what was less expected was the Republicans’ use of conspiracy theories, given their winning status. Part of the explanation for this is that Donald Trump was not an ordinary candidate. When he entered the Republican primary he could not compete against his twenty-five opponents on the normal playing field; he could not out-Republican them (because he was not much of a Republican) nor could he claim to have more experience (since he had none). Instead, he needed to change the rules of the game, and he used conspiracy theories to do just that. In Trump’s rhetoric, the entire establishment was corrupt, therefore it followed that those who had spent time in it were also corrupt. This turned experience on its head and made Jeb Bush’s and later Hillary Clinton’s extensive experience in government a liability. Trump’s conspiracy rhetoric attracted the conspiracy wing of the Republican Party into his camp, and polls show that Trump’s supporters were more likely to believe conspiracy theories than supporters of other candidates (Cassino 2016). The end result is that the United States now has a president who engages in constant conspiracy theorizing because he built a coalition of conspiracy-minded supporters. He now has to dance with the ones who brought him to the prom. It does not appear (as of yet) that belief in conspiracy theories has increased writ large in the past few years; instead, conspiracy theories have just become more prominent in our elite rhetoric and media reporting (Uscinski 2018).
I would like to offer simple solutions to fighting back against conspiracy theories, but I do not think there are any. It is difficult to correct individuals’ conspiracy beliefs (Nyhan and Reifler 2010), and until political elites disavow them, conspiracy theories will continue to benefit from having a big megaphone. Just studying the topic is itself challenging because devoted conspiracy theorists resist being studied and resent the notion that their beliefs might be based upon anything other than an honest weighing of the evidence. In particular, I am often told by conspiracy theorists that I am a government agent or Satanic elite (for the record, I am neither). I am also told that the term conspiracy theory was invented by the CIA to shut down debate over the Kennedy assassination. But they didn’t invent it (McKenzie-McHarg 2018), and if they had, the scheme didn’t work anyway because Kennedy Assassination theories seem to be the most popular conspiracy theories in the United States (Swift 2013).
We all fall victim to conspiracy theories from time to time. They can be entertaining and enthralling because they follow a successful trope: evil unscrupulous villains taking advantage of innocent hapless victims. This might sound like a tautology, but when we believe a conspiracy theory, it’s because we believe it’s true—and not because we think it’s dubious. In this sense, no one believes that they believe in conspiracy theories (instead they believe that they believe in conspiracy facts). We need first and foremost to know our own biases, subject our own beliefs to scrutiny, and be aware that some of our most sacred beliefs may be nothing more than conspiracy theories.
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