Why do so many people believe in conspiracy theories?

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Ten black Americans were reportedly killed in a Buffalo supermarket by a white gunman promoting a racist conspiracy theory. A congressional candidate who supports QAnon has won a Republican primary. Pennsylvania Senate primary candidate Kathy Barnette has repeatedly spread the conspiracy theory that former President Barack Obama is a Muslim. Tucker Carlson and Glenn Greenwald spread the lie that the United States is secretly funding biological weapons research in Ukraine, part of a wider campaign to spread misinformation about the coronavirus pandemic.

Conspiracy theories play an outsized role in American politics.

In the past, such theories simmered in fringe movements. Today, many elected officials, media personalities, and political candidates have embraced these theories in their campaigning and outreach. And a growing number of Americans agree with some or more of these seemingly outlandish ideas.

Why is the United States seeing such a growing acceptance of conspiracy theories? Social science research suggests that extreme polarization, political anxiety and a rapidly changing media environment may help explain the rapid spread.

QAnon and the “Great Replacement” Plot

QAnon first appeared in late 2017 on a website called 4chan, known as a breeding ground for conspiratorial and violent rhetoric. Someone who claimed to be a government employee with a special security clearance called “Q Clearance Patriot” and vowed to expose a “deep state” cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles who allegedly control the US government.

The cabal is said to be made up of prominent liberal celebrities and Democratic politicians who capture children to sell them for sex trafficking. Former President Donald Trump was supposed to be his messiah figure, rescuing children and publicly executing their captors.

QAnon believers have tried to use its basic framework to explain the pandemic, 5G technology and the “Big Lie” election conspiracy theory. QAnon is what some scholars call a “big tent” conspiracy theory, meaning it seeks to continually expand and absorb all related sub-theories. QAnon’s false claims have coalesced into an extremist ideology that has radicalized its followers. He incited violence and criminal acts, and the FBI has designated him as a domestic terrorism threat.

The “great replacement” theory similarly claims that a powerful cabal seeks to “replace” white Americans by bringing in non-white immigrants and manipulating birth rates. The theory has been touted by Rep. Paul A. Gosar (R-Arizona), among others. These shared beliefs are what researchers who study conspiracy theories have called “monological” belief systems, meaning that if people believe in conspiracy theories at all, they are likely to believe in more than one.

Why aren’t Americans more alarmed by white supremacist violence?

How polarization and political anxiety fuel the spread of conspiracy theories

Political polarization is not new to the United States. This means that fewer Americans hold moderate political views; Americans are more generally less willing to listen to the other side’s ideas. But beginning in the 2000s, researchers found that many Americans were beginning to experience what’s called “emotional polarization,” in which mainstream Republicans and Democrats disliked and distrusted anyone who identified with the other party, their party identity becoming more personal and tribal.

This results in an extreme in-group/out-group bias, where supporters are more likely to believe conspiracy theories about “the other” group. With such extreme dislike, some people are beginning to feel justified in doing anything, including resorting to violence, to supposedly protect their perceived community — as the accused Buffalo shooter did.

Finally, affective polarization also works with political anxiety, or intense and persistent worry about political topics, to fuel the spread of conspiracy theories. Political scientists Bethany Albertson and Shana Kushner Gadarian find that political anxiety makes people want to know more about politics, but causes them to pay close attention to threatening or frightening information. In the Buffalo suspect’s screed, for example, he claims he was drawn to these conspiracy theories while browsing the internet during the covid-19 shutdowns.

Social networks facilitate the spread of conspiracy theories

In the 18th and 19th centuries, conspiracy theories spread mainly through the print media. That changed in the late 1920s, when Catholic priest Charles Coughlin used his popular radio show to spread anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and promote fascist politicians. Some argue that Fox News host Carlson is the modern-day Coughlin.

However, print media, radio, and cable television generally only allow information to flow in one direction, from the source to the audience. Internet and social media platforms have dramatically changed that. QAnon believers discuss their conspiracy theories on Twitter, Gab, Facebook, YouTube, and Telegram, among other platforms. The Buffalo shooting was streamed live on Twitch, a popular video game streaming platform, and the suspect posted his screed on 4chan.

Interactive media helps users cultivate a sense of community and belonging, more than just reading an article or watching a show. While an article can elicit an emotion or push someone to seek more information, social media and emotional polarization can elicit feelings of being on the same team.

Some say the United States is heading for civil war. History suggests something colder.

“Gamification” further spreads conspiracy theories

My thesis research on QAnon builds on the growing field of gaming and extremism research and investigates how QAnon has “gamified” conspiracy theories. Researchers use the term “gamification” to refer to everyday systems designed to motivate users and shape their behavior, using the types of rewards you get for playing a game. For example, Starbucks has a rewards program that uses games and challenges to entice customers to keep buying their products, offering chances to win discounts or free products.

The Buffalo suspect may have felt a sense of community and responsibility to white supremacist digital communities where he first learned of the ‘great replacement’ conspiracy theory and where he discussed his alleged plans. He sought recognition and reassurance that his alleged actions would serve his “team”. While he reportedly live-streamed his shooting, he was likely performing for his viewers, as has happened in previous racially charged attacks.

In the past, theorists like historian Richard Hofstadter, who wrote the influential essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” have treated conspiracy theories as pathological, leading some policymakers to dismiss them. But more recently, political scientists J. Eric Oliver and Thomas J. Wood have argued that conspiracy theories should be treated as part of public opinion.

Conspiracy theories, fueled by extreme political polarization and anxiety, have found a new stronghold in our digital media ecosystem. Until we understand how these platforms work, we are likely to see more heartbreaking tragedies.

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Margaret Appleby is a PhD student at Virginia Tech studying conspiracy theories, white nationalism and extremism.

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