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The Conspiracy Theory Bubble
Americans are more grounded in reality than we think.
By Hugo Drochon
Conspiracy theories seem to be everywhere: Covid-19 was deliberately engineered in the Wuhan lab and leaked into the world? Check. 5G telephone masts help it spread? Check. The vaccine is a ploy by Bill Gates to implant microchips into our brains and control the world population? Check.
In fact, 15% of Americans, according to a widely-publicized poll, believe in one of the most troubling new conspiracy theories, QAnon. In case you missed it, QAnon alleges that a cabal of Satan-worshiping, child-trafficking pedophiles was conspiring against Donald Trump during his term of office. The cabal includes Hollywood actors and senior Democratic politicians such as Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, who were preparing a coup from which Trump was meant to liberate America during the “Storm.” And it’s not just in the US: QAnon has spread to places like France, where it has merged with the anti-health pass protests.
It’s not surprising that the narrative we’ve heard a lot lately is that such theories exploded over the past 18 months. It’s common to see headlines asking why conspiracies are “thriving in the pandemic,” or declaring that we’re “Living in the Golden Age of Conspiracy Theories.”
But this is not the whole story. True, we’re hearing a lot about Covid-19 and QAnon-related conspiracies. But just because they are more visible does not mean that belief in them has gone up.
I’ve been doing work with Joseph Uscinski of the University of Miami—the leading specialist studying conspiracies theories—and we’ve carried out a number of studies, assessing whether Covid-19 conspiracy theories have proliferated over the course of the pandemic and whether we’ve seen a general increase in belief in conspiracy theories in the last fifty years. Our paper is currently under review, but our findings may surprise you: Belief in conspiracy theories has, if anything, decreased over the pandemic.
Take Covid-19 theories. According to our polling, in March 2020 31% of Americans agreed Covid-19 was “purposely created and released by powerful people as part of a conspiracy.” But by May 2021 that had gone down to 29%. Those believing that 5G spreads the virus went from 11% in June 2020 to 7% in May 2021. Those believing that we are being implanted with microchips decreased from 18% to 12%, and those who believe Bill Gates is somehow “behind” the pandemic fell from 13% to 10%. Thankfully, the view that “Putting disinfectant into your body can prevent or cure Covid-19,” promoted by Trump, has halved from 12% to 6%.
We’ve seen a similar pattern with other theories over time. Comparing data from the Roper Center for Public Opinion with our own, we found that in 1976 81% of Americans believed more than one person was involved in the assassination of JFK. This is down to 56% today (admittedly, still a remarkable figure). Likewise, various polls show that belief 9/11 was an “inside job” has been gradually decreasing, and the view that “climate change is a hoax” has fallen from 37% in 2013 to 19% today.
Some long-popular theories buck the trend: More Americans believe today that the moon landing was faked compared with 1995. But the preponderance of evidence is clear: We are not living in a new conspiracy theory age.
QAnon, for example, is roundly rejected by most Americans. Recently-polled Floridians only support it slightly more than they do Fidel Castro, hardly an endorsement! Asked to agree or disagree with the statement “I believe in QAnon,” only 6.8% of Americans agreed, on par with the view that we are ruled by lizards, and a far cry from 15%.
This discrepancy is partly explained by the fact that polls directly asking “Are you a believer in QAnon?” return much lower levels of belief than those who ask a more generic question about Satan-worshiping cabals. According to Uscinski and his colleague Adam Enders, “support for QAnon is quite low and stable over time. At the same time, wild-eyed beliefs about child trafficking and the involvement of government and Hollywood elites ... appear to be quite prevalent among Americans.” Importantly, however, such views predate the 2017 emergence of QAnon.
What we have, then, is a form of a conspiracy theory bubble: They aren’t on the rise, but they feel more prevalent than ever. What can explain this?
Conspiracy theories of various sorts are as old as humanity itself. Before social media, theorists offered their speculations in dedicated fanzines, and wrote letters to the editor—the infamous “green-inkers”. Back then, journalists served as gatekeepers to these types of views, keeping them off the pages of newspapers and out of public view.
But on social media these filters are now vanishing, and conspiracy theorists are having a field day. QAnon emerged in October 2017 on the controversial chat-forum 4chan, when an anonymous poster going by the name of “Q” claimed to have access to highly-classified information concerning the Trump administration. The identity of “Q” has never been revealed, and in reality is most likely to be a group of people posting under the same name. There is little reason to believe that these people, whoever they are, have access to classified information.
The pandemic has been an ideal breeding ground for such groups, at least in terms of gaining exposure. During the lockdowns people moved online to gain information and stay in touch with loved ones. Social media has a propensity to promote conspiracy theories and stories covering them due to the “attention economy” that drives platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and TikTok to compete for the attention of their users and sell advertisement space.
Conspiracy theories suit this competition for attention—we all respond more strongly to emotive content, whether it is violence, salacious gossip surrounding the sex-lives of celebs, or theories about a secret group of powerful people running the world. Studies show that false news content can reach up to one hundred times more people than true news.
Simultaneously, journalists report on conspiracy theories in large part as an attempt to make sense of the Trump presidency that helped fuel them: Trump launched his political career with the “Birther” movement that questioned whether Obama was born in the US. But even that quickly receded: a Harris Poll in March 2010 recorded that 25% of Americans doubted Obama’s US birth, but a year later—in May 2011, after Obama released the long form of his birth certificate—a Gallup poll found that that percentage had fallen to 13%.
Of course, the biggest conspiracy theory going around right now goes under the banner of “Stop the Steal”—the view that the Democrats committed electoral fraud to steal the 2020 presidential election from Donald Trump. This view is apparently held by just over a quarter of all Americans (including over half of Republicans).
Yet the accusation of voter fraud has a long history, and not just from the Republican side. We’ve polled the question “Republicans won the presidential elections in 2016, 2004, and 2000 by stealing them.” In March 2020 27% of respondents agreed with the statement, but this had dropped to 15% a year later. There’s nothing new about conspiracy theories surrounding “stealing the election,” and our polling reveals that beyond the politically charged moment, this also tends to die down over time.
In short, there is much evidence to suggest the existence of a conspiracy theory media bubble: Conspiracy theories are more visible online, and journalists feel they need to report on them to help make sense of what is going on. But that doesn’t mean there are more of them, or that belief in them has necessarily increased.
Bubbles tend to pop of their own accord over time. Already many social media platforms have changed their algorithms to warn against conspiracy theories, if they haven’t completely de-platformed theorists altogether. Conspiracy theories, dangerous as they are, are an important subject to report on. But we should be cautious in the language we use, lest we give them air time they don’t deserve. Maybe it’s time to burst the media’s bubble.
Hugo Drochon is Assistant Professor in Political Theory at the University of Nottingham, with interests in Nietzsche's politics, democratic theory, liberalism and conspiracy theories.