Belief in conspiracy theories probably doesn’t get worse over time

A question journalists often ask me is whether more people believe in conspiracy theories now than before. Sometimes the question is not even asked; the answer is simply deduced. Of course they are.

Even I often feel like it must be true. The COVID-19 pandemic has a twin, an infodemic, which often relies on grand conspiracy theories to be credible. We’ve all heard stories that some obscure “they” doesn’t want you to know that ivermectin is miraculous and vaccines, funded by Bill Gates, are full of tracking devices.

But is conspiracy thinking really any worse now than it ever was?

A team of researchers put this hypothesis to the test and their results were recently published.

The surprising conclusion is that no matter how scientists looked at this question, the answer was invariably the same: for the most part, belief in specific conspiracy theories remained stable over time, as did the general predisposition to consider conspiracies as valid explanations. for world events.

So what often seems true to many of us is not backed up by evidence.

Or maybe it’s all just a plot to hide the truth from the rest of us.

The Immutable Face of America

The authors of this article conducted four different studies to examine this question.

In the first study, they focused on America, often described as a hotbed of conspiratorial thought. Americans themselves agree that their situation is dire: as the authors of the article report, nearly three-quarters of Americans think conspiracy theories are currently “out of control.”

But the data reported here does not show an escalation. In fact, the authors conclude that conspiracy theories tend to to loserather than gaining believers over time, and that newer conspiracy theories do not appeal to more people than older ones.

Americans were asked about their beliefs in specific conspiracy theories as early as 1966, so the authors compared those answers to those given by Americans to the same questions much more recently. Only six conspiracy theories have gained followers over time. Eleven got out of breath. The rest, namely the vast majority, remained constant.

Here is a short quiz.

Between 2013 and 2021, what happened to the number of Americans who think the government is using mind control technology in TV shows? Has it increased, decreased or stayed the same?

It’s roughly the same number: 15% then, 17% now.

What about the belief that global warming is a hoax, between 2013 and 2021?

It has dropped considerably, from 37% to 19%.

A contact with an extraterrestrial race being hidden from us, between July 2019 and March 2020?

During this admittedly very short period, the number of American believers increased dramatically, from 23% to 33%, the largest increase reported in the study.

US proponents of COVID-19 conspiracy theories did not increase in number from June 2020 to May 2021, with one exception: more people began to believe that the number of deaths attributed to COVID-19 was inflated. But the “plandemic” myth of Bill Gates and the idea of ​​vaccines as surreptitious trackers? No change in belief over time. In fact, blaming COVID-19 on 5G technology and thinking that sanitizer inside the body could cure or prevent the disease lost adherents from 2020 to 2021.

Even QAnon, the über conspiracy theory involving a secret cabal of satanic pedophiles and an anonymous message board tipster, hasn’t attracted believers according to polling data presented here. Whether the question is open (“do you believe in QAnon?”) or deflected (asking questions about a deep state or elites engaged in a massive child sex trafficking racket), the numbers have not budged from significantly between 2019 and 2021.

These comparisons are limited, as we’re only looking at two points in time for each theory, and those points can be as close as 7 months apart or as far as comparing 2021 to 1966. I certainly would have liked more points in time to see trends more clearly. Moreover, it is not the same people who are interviewed over time, but different representative samples of the population.

I was surprised how the belief in secret extraterrestrial contact had, in the space of eight months, attracted an additional 10% of the American public. The increase could be explained by the leaked video of American fighter pilots seeing unidentified aerial phenomena, which made headlines between the two times. Again, a similar survey question, that the government is hiding evidence of extraterrestrial visitation (not necessarily contact), has remained stable at around 50% between 1996 and 2021. Hasn’t it also increased alongside belief in extraterrestrial contact? It could have if it had fallen between 1996 and 2021, but we miss that moment. I wonder what the “normal” fluctuations of these beliefs look like.

Speaking of fluctuations, a comprehensive 2017 overview of 104,803 published letters written by Americans in New York Times and the Chicago Grandstand between 1890 and 2010 and analyzed for conspiratorial content shows ups and downs, but no clear increase in such content over time (as shown here). Two peaks in the data were found during periods of major societal change: just before 1900, during the second industrial revolution, and in the late 1940s and early 1950s, i.e. the start of the Cold War.

The cabal will not be accepting new members at this time.

Leaving America behind, the authors of this new article drew their attention to six European countries that differed in terms of GDP, population, income inequality and political systems: Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Poland, Portugal and Sweden. They compared belief in six conspiracy theories in 2016 and 2018, and again report that most of the changes were not significant, but when they were it was more likely to be ‘a decrease. The only belief that has increased is Holocaust denial in Sweden, which has risen from 1% to 3%.

For their third study, they asked whether the number of malicious groups accused of conspiring against the public had changed over time. Although the people blamed vary, there has not been an overall increase in the number of groups included in the dark cabal.

Finally, looking at surveys of American adults between 2012 and 2021, researchers report no average increase in overall conspiracy thinking, which is measured by asking people if they agree with broader statements such as “the people who really ‘run’ the country are not known to the voters” and “much of our lives are controlled by conspiracies hatched in secret places”.


I found the article very interesting (despite the short time) in terms of examining a question that many of us felt had already been answered. But that’s the danger of using our personal experience of the world to make sweeping generalizations about the state of things. As someone who spends quite a bit of time tracking and reporting on scientific misinformation, which is often embedded in a larger conspiratorial framework, I’m especially likely to believe that conspiracy thinking has recently taken over the world.

There is, however, another take-home message, which might be overlooked given the surprise of the main conclusion. Just because conspiracy thinking hasn’t increased significantly in recent years doesn’t mean it wasn’t already high. When asked in 2013 and again in 2021 if the Food and Drug Administration deliberately hides natural remedies in favor of the pharmaceutical industry (a myth we exploited for our viral video a few years ago), at roughly the same percentage of Americans answered “yes” both times…but that percentage was 36%. That’s more than a third.

Similarly, disturbing percentages are reported for Americans today who say health officials know cell phones cause cancer but are silent about it (20%), that the true dangers of GMOs are hidden from us (40%), and that a single group of people secretly controls the world (35%).

The situation is bad, especially in the United States, even if the data presented here show that it is not getting worse. It seems that conspiracy theories online reinforce existing opinions more than they persuade people to take the leap, but if the proportion of people with existing conspiracy opinions is already high, we have a big problem on our hands.

An element that has not been looked at by the researchers? How much easier it is for conspirators to find each other online. This is how communities grow, strengthen their beliefs and fuel action. The internet may not be converting masses of people to believe in grand conspiracies, but if it makes it easier to assemble them, the consequences in the real world can be far-reaching.

Take home message:
– A new article proves that the number of people who believe in conspiracy theories has, on average, remained stable over the years
– The percentage of people who believe in conspiracy theories may not be increasing, but it is already quite high


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