Why are Americans so enraptured by conspiracy theories?

Why are Americans so enraptured by conspiracy theories?
QAnon supporters and members of the Proud Boys at a demonstration in Raleigh, North Carolina on March 20, 2021 (Wikimedia Commons).

In a June 2021 episode of On the Media, host Brooke Gladstone described a common debate in media circles over conspiracy theories.

Don't put those liars on the air!
I hear you, but sometimes I have to tell people what's going on!
You're spreading their propaganda for them!
It's already spread and having real-world effects!
Well, it wouldn't spread if you denied them a platform!
Gatekeepers don't have that kind of power anymore!
They might if they worked together!
That just drives it underground and it gets even worse!

The conspiracy du jour was election denial. Do you engage with election deniers, platforming and potentially legitimating them? Or do you ignore them at risk of having them spread with no critique?

In that episode, Gladstone spoke with Jay Rosen, professor of journalism at New York University and media critic.

Rosen suggested possible ways out of the puzzle.

One was to report disinformation within a truth sandwich:

When you feel you have to report on a falsehood, you should start with a true statement, sandwich the misleading one in the middle and end with a true statement.

A second was to shift reporting from national to local politics:

The more politics is rooted in problem-solving that people can see in their lives, the less likely this dueling realities universe is to take over.

I started this piece with the intent of describing how much the right-wing has been hijacked by conspiracy theories. I intended to suggest my own ways forward. But the story of conspiracy theories in the US turns out to be more complex. And more troubling.

The contours of conspiracism

Conspiracy theories are dangerous not simply because people believe them. Nor are all conspiracy theories equal. People who believe the Apollo moon landing was faked are not a societal concern. It's when those false claims power troubling behaviors that we worry.

Unlike moon landing conspiracies, election denial forms the justification for overturning legitimate free elections. It can turn a representative democracy into a fascist regime. That was the goal of the J6 insurrection, all powered by a conspiracy theory.

The American public is now learning about “replacement theory,” which is the idea that migrants and nonwhite people are systematically replacing white people. According to a recent Yahoo News/You Gov poll, about 60 percent of Trump voters believe this theory.

We don't have to think that hard to imagine the consequences of accepting this false statement as a true statement. It will lead to xenophobia and mistreatment of migrants, especially nonwhite ones.

Let's not forget about QAnon, a conspiracy theory that ran a close second to election denial since 2020. QAnoners believe, among other things, that an evil cult has taken over the world. They mistrust governments, institutions and elites. They are more likely to believe information not coming from people associated with those entities.

In February, the Public Religion Research Institute said it found that, “Across 2021, 16 percent of Americans were QAnon believers, 48 percent were QAnon doubters, and 34 percent were rejecters."

Wait, wut?

Sixteen percent is one in six people!

And only half of the country doubts QAnon?

This is significant. It suggests this may be a society-wide problem, not only clustered among Republicans. PPRI said Black and brown people were more likely to be QAnon believers than white Americans.

It’s still true that QAnon believers are primarily white (around 60 percent of total QAnon believers), and the largest share is Republican (about 43 percent). But there is more diversity here than I realized.

More research out of the University of Chicago, about conspiracies and immigration, also shows how widespread conspiracy beliefs are. Based on answers to a questionnaire, researchers sorted respondents into two categories: "high conspiratorial thinkers" and "low conspiratorial thinkers." I like this because it’s not tied to any specific conspiracy but instead taps into the predisposition to believe them.

As expected, 45 percent of all high conspiratorial thinkers were Republicans. But a sizeable 36 percent were Democrats.

Similarly, we would expect less-educated Americans to be high conspiratorial thinkers, the logic being these folks have less information literacy or have had less exposure to established facts.

Indeed, 66 percent of “high conspiratorial thinkers” are did not go to college. But that leaves 34 percent of the same who did go to college.

To say we’re a nation of conspiratorial thinkers is no overstatement.

A slightly different question

So what is the solution?

First, I don't think Rosen's suggestions are helpful. It’s all well and good to create a truth sandwich, but when conspiracy theories have as a component that elites are controlling the population, having an elite telling them they are wrong about their ideas is a non-starter.

Covering local issues, where reality is shared, doesn't seem that effective either, mainly because everyday reality simply isn't shared.

People died in Buffalo because one person had a reality in his mind that he and other white people were being replaced. Queer kids are being erased through teacher gag orders in Florida, premised on the QAnon-reality that elite educators want to groom children.

I don't have a solution.

But let me suggest that because so many people in this country across class, race and political lines believe in conspiracy theories, we have been asking the wrong question (myself included).

We have been asking why MAGA types are so invested in conspiracy theories. This question inevitably leads to answers involving racism, Christian nationalism, xenophobia and possibly lack of education.

These answers are only partially correct.

The question goes only halfway.

A full question would ask why we are a nation of conspiratorial thinkers? Once we answer that, we can address the problem.

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