“People say” was the way our embarrassing President-elect introduced bizarre conspiracy theories about Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama or others who had offended him in some fashion.
No evidence. No factual basis. In most cases, no plausibility.
The question rational people asked–and still ask–is “why would anyone believe that?” Because clearly, many did. A recent report from Journalists’ Resource offered an answer, or at least the beginning of one.
President Barack Obama was not born in the United States, goes one common conspiracy theory. Another: George W. Bush knew in advance about the 9/11 attacks and let them happen. Conspiracy theories can spread quickly in this era of social media, especially as people sort themselves into information silos, only sharing information with the like-minded. During the 2016 presidential election one candidate frequently leveled charges against his opponent with little evidence, sometimes framing them with the noncommittal phrase “people say.” He won.
A 2009 paper defines conspiracy theories as “an effort to explain some event or practice by reference to the machinations of powerful people, who attempt to conceal their role.” Other researchers add that conspiracies often allege the illegal usurpation of political or economic power.
The authors of a 2014 paper found “over half of the American population consistently endorse some kind of conspiratorial narrative about a current political event or phenomenon.”
A number of studies have found that politically active people–especially conservatives with deeply ideological commitments–embrace conspiracy theories that confirm their beliefs and paint their political opponents in a bad light. A new study builds on that previous research, and adds an important element: the absence of trust.
“Conspiracy Endorsements as Motivated Reasoning: The Moderating Roles of Political Knowledge and Trust,” published in the American Journal of Political Science in October, investigated the hypothesis that people endorse conspiracy theories to serve “both ideological and psychological needs.” They anticipated that people who endorse such theories would be “both highly knowledgeable about politics and lacking in trust.”
Miller and her team explain that people with deeper political knowledge are better equipped to make connections between abstract political ideas, that they are more likely to seek to protect their positions, and thus more likely to endorse “ideologically congruent” conspiracy theories – that is, theories that are consistent with their political positions.
People with a reasonable amount of trust in social and governmental institutions were far less motivated to accept such theories. The study’s authors asked approximately 2,200 Americans who self-identified as either liberal or conservative to consider eight conspiracies. Four were designed to appeal to conservatives and four to appeal to liberals (for example, respectively, Obama was not born in the U.S. and the Bush Administration knew about 9/11 before it happened). The authors also created a “trust index” based on how much the individuals trusted the federal government, law enforcement, media and the public to do what is right.
Here were some of their conclusions:
- Conservatives are more likely to endorse ideologically congruent conspiracies than liberals.
- Individuals with a high level of trust in institutions are less likely to endorse conspiracy theories.
- Conservatives knowledgeable about politics are more likely to endorse ideologically congruent conspiracy theories. There is no evidence of a similar correlation among liberals.
- Conservatives knowledgeable about politics who also have little trust in institutions are most associated with endorsement of ideologically consistent conspiracy theories: “Highly knowledgeable conservatives are more likely to engage in ideologically motivated endorsement, especially if they believe that the world is an untrustworthy place.”
- For liberals, greater knowledge about politics and greater trust in institutions both appear to decrease their tendency to endorse conspiracy theories.
As I have previously noted, labels like “conservative” and “liberal” can be inexact. (I’ve been called both–and my own definition of both terms is probably different from that of many other people.) Furthermore, there is a demonstrable difference between principled conservatism and the sort of Tea Party and “alt-right light” individuals who call themselves conservatives these days.
That said, the study is illuminating.