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The news that keeps us Onward On!

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Let’s get conspiratorial: conspiracy theories and people who believe them

Tom Radetzki / Unsplash
The tin foil hat is a frequent pop-culture symbol of “conspiracy theorists.” April 1, 2020.

From Pizzagate and UAPs to JFK and Jan. 6, many Americans witness and subscribe to a bounty of shocking and captivating conspiracy theories. The public often disregards conspiracy theories and the people who believe them rarely, when instead, we should be asking questions. I set out to find some answers. 

For our purposes, a conspiracy theory is an explanation of an event or circumstances that blames a small group of powerful persons, or conspirators, acting in secret, against the common good. Conspiracy theories do not have to be false, some have turned out to be true and some have been proven wrong with a preponderance of evidence. 

It’s an interesting paradox as a conspiracy theory generally goes against the commonly accepted explanation, which could allow us to label them false, but the theories propose they are the ‘real’ truth. 

I recently had the pleasure of asking Dr. Margaret Farrar, professor of political science at John Carroll University, some questions surrounding conspiracy theories. Farrar specializes in political theory and has published numerous works in the field. However, recently, she introduced a new course to the John Carroll University catalog: Politics and Conspiracy. Last fall, I enrolled in this course and was enthralled by this fascinating area of research in political science.

Americans often assume that conspiracy theorists are a niche group outside the general population. Farrar explains, “​​[t]he important thing to recognize is that very few people think of themselves as conspiracy theorists. ‘Conspiracy theorists’ are always somebody else.” 

Think of a conspiracy theorist, and I’m guessing what comes to mind is similar to the caricature Farrar creates, that they are “. . .a lonely, middle-aged guy living in his mom’s basement wearing the proverbial tinfoil hat.” But the reality is far less extreme. 

Farrar goes on to explain that “…over half of Americans believe in at least one disproven conspiracy theory.” By disproven, Farrar means a conspiracy theory that has been debunked by a reputable source with irrefutable evidence. Many still subscribe to the conspiracy surrounding the legitimacy of the 2020 election results, but the Associated Press has debunked these theories. 

Farrar points out that “When we engage in conspiratorial thinking ourselves we tend not to call it conspiracy theory.” We like to think we are more rational than others. 

Yet, it is important to note that the notion of conspiracy theories increasing over time is false. The number of conspiracy theorists is not growing or drastically different from what history tells us. One of the most prominent political scientists focusing on conspiracy theories is Dr. Joseph Uscinski–a professor and researcher in the Department of Political Science at the University of Miami. 

Last year, Uscinki published the article “Have Beliefs in Conspiracy Theories Increased Over Time?” in PLOS ONE.  The research began with the findings from a public opinion poll conducted by the Roper Center at Cornell University. This poll showed that a shockingly high “73 percent of Americans believe that conspiracy theories are currently out of control” and “59 percent agree that people are more likely to believe conspiracy theories compared to 25 years ago.” Evidently, Americans are scared of conspiracy theories and the people who believe them. Uscinski and his team set out to see if these test these notions.   

Uscinski finds that this notion is false; as there is no “supporting evidence that beliefs in conspiracy theories or generalized conspiracy thinking have increased” in the past two decades. Conspiracy theories may not be increasing but we should not ignore them, as they can still be dangerous to society.

Farrar highlights two instances where conspiracy theories can potentially be dangerous but claims that “There are a lot of conspiracy theories that are mostly harmless,” and “…any conspiracy theory that blames society’s ills on a specific demographic group is potentially dangerous, because that sort of blame morphs quickly into demonization and dehumanization.” 

She explains, “Once you have demonized or dehumanized any group, that lays the groundwork for violence against that group, where the only ‘solutions’ are (at best) segregation and (at worst) genocide.” 

History is on Farrar’s side. For instance, look at the conspiracy theories the Nazis spread regarding Jewish individuals surrounding and the horrific violence that ensued. However, she explains that conspiracies interweaved with anti-semitism are not novel. Rather, it is one of “the oldest conspiracies in the world…” 

Farrar went on to clarify, “anti-Semitism, is probably one of the most important to be aware of because I’m not sure most non-Jewish people are aware of its longevity, or even how many of its tropes have become ‘standard practice’ in much of today’s political speech. . .At the same time, I think it’s crucial to understand that conspiracies morph over time, responding to different kinds of imagined threats.” 

The origins of anti-Semitic conspiracies are complex and multifaceted but we can easily see that they gained a strong following over a hundred years ago. The American Jewish Committee notes that anti-Semitic conspiracy theories are seen as early as the 14th century when Jews were blamed for poisoning wells and causing the Black Death. Thousands of Jews were murdered as a result. 

Anti-Semitic conspiracy theories saw a resurgence in the early 20th century. Facing History and Ourselves–a non-profit historical research organization–highlights the actions of the German military leader Erich Ludendorff in 1919. Ludendorff outwardly blamed Jews, among other groups, for Germany’s defeat in World War I. He cited the Protocols of the Elders of Zion which began circulating in a Russian newspaper in 1903. The ‘Protocols’ allegedly exposed a Jewish conspiracy to take over the world, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum proves that the Protocols are completely false

In 2022, a survey by the Anti-Defamation League of 4,000 Americans revealed that 39% believed Jews are more loyal to Israel than to the U.S. 38% stated Jews were always like to be at the head of things, 26% responded that they thought Jews have too much power in business and 20% thought Jews have too much power in the U.S. The trope continues today. 

But this is not the only instance, Farrar said that “a conspiracy theory can become dangerous when it’s normalized by powerful political actors. So six (or even six hundred!) People chatting online about how X group is responsible for the world’s ills is one thing, but having those themes and that language coming from a political leader is an entirely different level of threat.” 

This style of danger is exactly what occurred on Jan. 6, 2021: Powerful politicians spread a conspiracy theory that the elections were fraudulent and people acted on these words. People talked about it on websites 4Chan or 8Chan and planned to act. 

Can conspiracy theories be used to attack our political system in the U.S.? According to Farrar, the answer is yes. 

“[Conspiracy theories] have been used, and will continue to be used, to destabilize our politics and culture. But it’s also important to recognize that conspiratorial thinking is not something that is inflicted upon us by other nations (although that’s a real thing). For most conspiracies, the call is coming from inside the house!” 

It’s not China or Russia, it’s most likely our fellow Americans disseminating conspiracy theories. 

So how does one protect themselves from conspiracy theories? Farrar calls back to the misconception that conspiracy theories are “…unique to one political party, or the purview of less-educated members of society. Neither of these things is true. Conspiratorial thinking runs across the political spectrum and is found among all income and education levels.” Moreover, it doesn’t confine itself to one racial group or religious group.”

Farrar adds, “Knowing this, really knowing this, means that we’re all susceptible, and we all need to pay attention to our own conspiratorial tendencies, particularly when it coincides with one of the ‘dangerous’ possibilities above.” So be self-aware and have a healthy level of skepticism about the information presented to you. 

It is also possible to view such theories through the lens of hunger as it contextualizes the epistemic and existential needs behind belief in conspiracy. 

Imagine you are very hungry (you need an explanation for an event or series of events). There are two options in front of you: an apple (the government report) or a pizza (a conspiracy theory). You are really hungry after all and an apple won’t satisfy your hunger (the explanation will not ease your mind or it is not convincing enough). So you chose the pizza (the conspiracy theory). 

The justification for the event must match the event in terms of severity and believability. 

This analogy comes from the book “The Social Psychology of Gullibility” by Joseph P. Forgas and Roy Baumeister. The authors propose that “people are more likely to adopt conspiracy theories for events that are especially important or large-scale.” 

Moreover, the study, “Beliefs in Conspiracies,” by Marina Abalakina-Paap, Walter G. Stephan, Traci Craig, and W. Larry Gregory in Political Psychology, proposes that individuals often become involved in conspiracy theories to make the world more comprehensible. In essence, the theories allow them to hold outgroups responsible for tragic events and ease their existential angst. 

It’s time to move beyond dismissal and start asking questions. My exploration, guided by Farrar, reveals that conspiracy theorists don’t fit stereotypes, and many Americans may hold such beliefs without realizing it.

Conspiracy theories can be harmful when they target specific groups, as history shows with anti-Semitic conspiracies. Powerful political figures normalizing these ideas, as seen on Jan. 6, can pose a grave threat to government and democracy. 

Dr. Margaret Farrar received her Ph.D. in political science from Pennsylvania State University. Farrar specializes in political theory and enjoys examining questions about values, power, identity, and authority. Farrar is currently an educator and researcher at John Carroll University. (John Carroll University)

It’s essential to debunk the notion that conspiracy theories are confined to demographics or political affiliations. Everyone is susceptible. We must approach conspiracy theories with curiosity and empathy, recognizing their potential to affect us all. Toss out the notion of a toil foil hat and an RV in the woods, conspiracy theorists hide in plain sight.

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