Why people embrace conspiracy theories

“Jerry, just remember, it’s not a lie if you believe it.”

George Costanza, Seinfeld (1995)

A recent edition of New Yorker magazine includes a story about the growing number of people who insist that the Earth is flat. Vital to their belief is the understanding that the moon landings were faked – indeed, space flight in general, and many accepted scientific principles are, they say, all part of a network of conspiracy theories, organised towards achieving an unspecified goal.

The article quotes several attendees at a flat-earth conference in Raleigh, North Carolina, in the US. “Facts are not true just because they’re facts, if that makes any sense,” one speaker says.

“99% of received wisdom is questionable; if you can’t observe it for yourself, it can’t be trusted,” says another. “It simply comes down to, ‘Have you been there? Have you been to Saturn? Have you been to Jupiter?’”

One of the key messages delivered at the conference was to trust in your senses, the article notes. “We all live in the world,” one presenter says. “We can see what’s real and what’s not. Science is really an excuse for people to be stupid.

It all sounds like a badly executed script for The X-Files, the popular TV series that started in 1993. But today’s environment of alternative facts and post-truth seems to be fertile ground for an increasing array of conspiracy theories.

In a 2016 paper exploring the link between schooling and conspiracy theories, published in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology, researcher Jan-Willem van Prooijen from the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam in the Netherlands says well-educated people are less likely to believe in them.

He cites three factors: “a belief in simple solutions for complex problems; feelings of powerlessness; and subjective social class”.

Joseph Uscinski, from the University of Miami in the US who, with Joseph Parent, authored the 2014 book American Conspiracy Theories (Oxford University Press), tells Cosmos that their research found that “conspiracy thinking is higher among people with less education and less wealth”.

“But it is true that conspiracy theories are a natural outcome of having power imbalances,” he says. “Conspiracy theories at their core are about power – who has it and what do they do with it when we’re not looking.”

Uscinski says conspiracy theories are one mechanism people use to balance against that power.

“By communicating these theories, people can mobilise action, they can alert each other to oncoming dangers,” he explains. “So, there’s something very important there.”

In a 2017 paper in the journal Communication and the Public, Stephanie Craft from the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, US, and colleagues write that conspiracy theories “flourish in the wide-open media of the digital age, spurring concerns about the role of misinformation in influencing public opinion and election outcomes”.

The study looked into what the authors termed “news media literacy”, its role in the spread of conspiracy theories, and also the impact of general literacy on partisanship.

It determined that greater knowledge about the news media led to a lower likelihood of conspiracy theory endorsement, even for theories that aligned with their political ideology.

As The Washington Post recently reported, “the internet has made it easier than ever before to evangelise on behalf of a conspiracy theory”.

One of the latest evangelists to emerge from social media is known simply as Q, who claims to be an intelligence insider with high-level security clearance. His, or her, claims have spawned a rapidly growing and very vocal movement called QAnon.

The QAnon phenomenon recently graduated from generally anonymous and unmoderated internet chat sites such as 4chan and 8chan, and into the mainstream media, when members of the audience at a campaign rally for US President Donald Trump held up placards and wore tee-shirts proclaiming, “We Are Q”.

The Q character has evolved a complex mythology to support a dizzying array of conspiracy theories that mostly involve a cabal of evil people – many of them paedophiles – with power and influence who have systematically enslaved the world for economic and political gain. 

But not all powerful people are in on the scam. In some QAnon scenarios, President Trump is leading the forces of good that will free mankind and unleash a new renaissance.

In a recent column, Post editorial writer Molly Roberts called QAnon “terrifying”.

“QAnon isn’t your average story of all-powerful actors exercising complete control over a helpless populace,” she writes.

“This time, the heroes are already in charge and, still, the theorists see themselves as victims. Why, even with their man in the Oval Office, do they feel embattled?”

Uscinski says he has given more than 70 interviews on Q in recent weeks, “and one thing I keep saying is, we should not treat people like circus animals, and that’s what a lot of the coverage does”.

He says studies of the mainstream media coverage of conspiracy theories shows that it’s “largely incredibly negative”.

“It’s not that they look at these conspiracy theories and say ‘hey, we should look into this’,” he notes.

“It’s always ‘this is crazy, why would anyone believe in this’? And there’s often a very pejorative tone to the articles: ‘this is the craziest, this is the stupidest, why do people believe this’. That’s a big part of the coverage.”

The scientific paper with the best title on the subject – Blaming a few bad apples to save a threatened barrel: the system-justifying function of conspiracy theoriespublished this year in the journal Political Psychology, shows the complexity of the topic.

The authors, led by Daniel Jolley of Staffordshire University in the UK, say conspiracy theories are “often represented as subversive alternatives to establishment narratives”, but in fact they “may bolster, rather than undermine, support for the social status quo when its legitimacy is under threat”.

They cite a pilot study that verified a relationship between conspiracy belief and satisfaction with the status quo. Counter-intuitively, threatening the status quo in British society caused participants to endorse conspiracy theories.

The result was in part explained because study participants exposed to conspiracy theories were more likely to attribute societal problems to small groups of evil people rather than systemic causes. “By blaming tragedies, disasters, and social problems on the actions of a malign few,” the researchers conclude, “conspiracy theories can divert attention from the inherent limitations of social systems.”

In another study, published in 2017 in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science and led by Karen Douglas from the University of Kent in the UK, the authors say little research has investigated the consequences of conspiracy belief, and, to date, “this research does not indicate that conspiracy belief fulfills people’s motivations. Instead, for many people, conspiracy belief may be more appealing than satisfying.”

Whether such a conclusion indicates a weakness in the theories or in the protocols used to study them remains an open question.

“Part of the thing you’re seeing is, you have psychologists studying this and they leave the politics out, and they’re looking at what are the psychological processes here, so a lot of the mechanisms aren’t dealt with in the context of the political landscape,” says Uscinski. “I try to account more fully for power.”

Related reading: ‘Conspiracies’ dominate Youtube videos

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