Study debunks rise of conspiracy theories

New research by University of Miami scholars, supported by a U-LINK grant, offers insight into opinions on conspiracy theories and puts things into perspective.

It seems that reports of conspiracy theorists are a constant feature of the news.

Latest: Radio host and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones – who said the shooting of 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School, including 20 schoolchildren, was a hoax and performed by actors – has been condemned by a Texas jury to pay $45.2 million. in punitive damages to the parents of a child who was killed in the massacre.

For the public, there seems to be an increase in the number of people following these theories. However, the new research paper “Have beliefs in conspiracy theories increased over time?” published by University of Miami professors and other colleagues in the journal PLOS One in July debunks this notion.

The article is part of a grant from the University of Miami Integrative Knowledge Laboratory (U-LINK) received by a group of scholars. The funded project aimed to study “extremist content and conspiracy theories in online social networks” and was also supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

“There is a prevailing narrative in the media and among some academics that we are in a ‘golden age’ of conspiratorial thinking, that belief in these theories is at unprecedented levels,” said Casey Klofstad, professor of political science at the College of Arts and Sciences, and one of the study’s researchers. “Our data suggests that this narrative is an incomplete picture of the current state of global public opinion.”

The mainstream media is also adding fuel to the fire, according to the research.

“The media persists in saying that the spread of conspiracy theories has accelerated because of social media and more people believe conspiracy messages,” said Michelle Seelig, associate professor of interactive media in the School of Communication. “However, there is little systematic evidence to confirm this to be true.”

Along with Klofstad and Seelig, other researchers leading the study include Joseph Uscinski, professor of political science; Kamal Premaratne, Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering; Manohar Murthi, Associate Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering; Adam Enders, professor of political science at the University of Louisville; and Hugo Drochon, professor of politics and international relations at the University of Nottingham.

Uscinski said the research was important because the false belief that conspiracy theories are on the rise has prompted politicians to pass bills aimed at restricting certain elements of free speech on the internet.

“We need to put things in perspective before the government limits our freedom of expression,” he said. “Otherwise, we are no better than the conspiracy theorists we criticize.”

As part of the research, the researchers conducted polls from 2018, but also used archival documents from polls dating back 60 years. The archival material allowed researchers to compare beliefs from the 1960s, 70s and 80s to beliefs today, Uscinski said.

As of March 2020, around 2,000 people in the United States were asked about 50 conspiracy theories. Researchers polled a sample of the American public by repeating the exact wordings of questions used in national polls conducted between 1966 and 2020.

Questions included:

  • Was John F. Kennedy assassinated as part of a conspiracy or by a sniper?
  • Was the moon landing a hoax?
  • Is the United States Hiding the Presence of Extraterrestrials?

The results suggest that the same number of people believe in these theories today as they did then, Uscinski reported.

Researchers also surveyed US residents in March 2020, just as the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, then continued with surveys at later dates.

The questions centered on whether the pandemic was being used as a bioweapon to harm American citizens and whether the coronavirus was being used to force a dangerous and unnecessary vaccine on residents.

There was no noticeable increase in beliefs of these conspiracy theories, the researchers found. The study also found that people did not become more “conspiratorial or inclined to believe that others are conspiring against them,” Uscinski said.

In partnership with YouGov and with the help of Drochon in the UK, the second part of the study covered eight European countries. These countries were England, Scotland, Wales, Italy, Poland, Portugal, Germany and Sweden.

The polls studied in Europe date from the period of 2016 and 2018 and there has also been no major increase in the number of conspiracy theorists, according to Uscinski.

He acknowledged that further studies should be carried out in other countries as it is possible that there is an increase in conspiracy theory in other parts of the world.

“Although this is not a definitive study, it shows that people will believe what they want to believe and that some conspiracy theories may become popular, but at the same time others will lose popularity” , did he declare.

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