Selling Fear

A new report out of Fairleigh Dickinson University Public Mind Poll shows that the majority of Americans embrace some kind of political conspiracy theory. The full report is available on Scribd.

The nationwide survey of registered voters asked Americans to evaluate four different political conspiracy theories: 56 percent of Democrats and 75 percent of Republicans say that at least one is likely true. This includes 36 percent who think that President Obama is hiding information about his background and early life, 25 percent who think that the government knew about 9/11 in advance, and 19 percent who think the 2012 Presidential election was stolen.

What’s interesting is the political divide:

Generally, the more people know about current events, the less likely they are to believe in conspiracy theories – but not among Republicans, where more knowledge leads to greater belief in political conspiracies. [...]

Among Democrats, each question answered correctly reduces the likelihood of endorsing at least one of the conspiracy theories by seven points.Among independents, each additional question reduces it by two points. For Republicans,though, each additional question answered correctly tends to increase belief in at least one of the theories by two points.

“There are several possible explanations for this,” said Cassino. “It could be that more conspiracy-minded Republicans seek out more information, or that the information some Republicans seek out just tends to reinforce these myths.

Call it the “Fox News effect,” I suppose.

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  • Kodie

    I think it’s a lot of things. I don’t know if it’s always been like this, but it seems after the news went on for 24 hours, they stopped talking about everything they could fill 24 hours with and switched to a format where they talk about the same thing for days or weeks until something interrupted their main story that was newer and juicier. OJ Simpson’s fault? Geraldo Rivera’s fault? Just that I notice people get fanatical about whatever they’re talking about on the news all day long, day after day. Whatever the news-heads draw them in to think about, and like couch-bound detectives, sort through these clues. There’s nothing left to talk about so there are these “holes” in someone’s story. Susan Smith was a liar. The Ramseys, it turns out, were not, and neither was Richard Jewell. People being told about these horrific things don’t know what to do with this information, so they think they’re obligated to form strong opinions about them, and listen carefully and find “clues” in the story. There is no more information but they think there is. There’s nothing left to talk about and nothing you can do about it, so they talk about it speculatively, and intrigues the viewer to keep tuning in to that channel, look things up on the internet and discuss it on some fanatic’s blog.

    In this way, I don’t think the conspiracy theorists are the only ones who take it too far. You can say the other side is “more informed” or rejects the false information in favor of the truth, but they still can’t get enough and they still feel compelled to consume as much information as they’re given, even though they have plenty already. It’s a soap opera to them and they want to be in it.

    Sort of a side note, with regard to the Sandy Hook truthers, etc. Jesus’ resurrection was staged, and not staged, per se, but written as if it happened. People really believe that, even though there are holes up and down that story. Years elapsed, miracles occurred!, people allegedly martyred themselves because they believed it was true. Why can people believe this using the same scrutiny they think they have disbelieving a massacrer killed 26 people last month just to have some excuse to take their guns? They are willing to die and they are willing to kill over something they believe full-heartedly. It is really vitally important to them that this had to be a hoax, but Jesus was a hoax and they’re going to give it a big fat pass. That kind of annoys me!

  • smrnda

    My encounters with conspiracy theorists are that they are impervious to evidence, since lack of evidence for a conspiracy is just evidence that the conspirators are very good at what they do.

    What I don’t get are conservatives who can believe any sort of conspiracy, but who pretty much rule out the idea that ‘rich people can use their power in a socially destructive way’ at all. In other words, rich people are automatically ruled out as possible evil conspirators from the get-go, whereas the most outlandish theories of other events are believed.

    I think a study needs to be done on how people evaluate reliable versus unreliable reports. I see lots of Fox news graphics and factoids that are clearly ridiculous (like bar graphs where 90% and 60% are shown as closer together than 60% and 50%) – do the viewers realize how deceptive stuff like that is,or are they just incapable of figuring it out, like a person who sees a picture of a table with 3 legs who can’t see what’s wrong with the picture?

    • JohnMWhite

      I think this is a very good point. People tend to believe (or want to believe) the worst of their perceived enemies and the best of their perceived allies. I guess that’s why conservatives just cannot imagine the rich using their power for anything but good, but they can imagine (in horror) an entire underclass conspiring together to elect somebody who will do something ridiculous like feed them.

      I would find your proposed study a lot more interesting than the one in the OP. Given the breadth of belief and the varying degrees to which a proposed conspiracy could be plausibly believed, it’s not particularly useful to say “x% of the population believe y” when y could be made up of all sorts of various positions. Knowing how people come to their conclusions and how they evaluate evidence would probably give us much better knowledge of what we’re dealing with and where people tend to go wrong.

      • smrnda

        I’ll provide an example. I run into lots of Fox News viewers who tell me that small businesses are just paralyzed by regulations, and that hiring a new worker suddenly changes the rules and that they will no longer be profitable, and that the government is practically waging war on entrepreneurs.

        I ask them “How do you know this? What regulations? Who has given you concrete evidence of the government hindering their business with too many regulations?” I’m an entrepreneur in a start-up, and for all I can tell, the government isn’t doing anything to harm my business, though if we had a national health care plan it would be a good thing, since a small business can’t typically bargain for as good of an insurance plan as a large business.

        I think a problem is many people decide they can trust a source, and cease to apply skepticism. When I was in academia, even people who basically thought someone’s research was okay would grill them on it as if they were trying to give them the hardest time possible, because there’s a value placed on truth and good scholarship, but too many people don’t apply this technique anywhere. A good question for any claim is “how would we verify if this is true? How would we tell if it was false?”

  • JohnMWhite

    I think we have a problem with terminology here, where conspiracy theories have become a catch-all term for unorthodox thinking and giving them any credence whatsoever is tantamount to having a lobotomy. Yet conspiracies have happened and do happen, and there are very broad spectrums of belief around them. To say the government had prior knowledge of 9/11, for instance, is actually true. The depth of that knowledge and how seriously it should have been taken is up for debate, but they had knowledge that bin Laden was determined to strike within the US, they had knowledge people associated with him were scouting the World Trade Center and they had knowledge that others associated with him were trying to learn to fly planes. Some might believe the government missed what they should have put together because of bad luck, too many cooks or plain incompetence, some might go further and say it was deliberate for political expedience, and some may go further still and say it was allowed to happen or even orchestrated by the government itself. Those who go that far seem pretty extreme, and they have no real evidence that I can see, but they’re not pulling conspiracies out of thin air. The US government have planned something similar before. It’s not the wild leap so many think, the issue is more a lack of evidence than the claim itself being totally extraordinary, though a lack of evidence obviously is a significant hurdle to making the claim in the first place. Then we get to weird things like pods and switching planes with missiles and alien explosives, which are of course way out there, but like I said, this is a broad spectrum and it’s a bit cheap to characterise everybody on it as being as much a conspiracy nut as each other.

    Before I get taken to task for not toeing the line and decrying every conspiracy theorist under the sun, I’m not trying to give ignorance a pass or say we should give credence to every dishonest meme perpetuated by people allergic to facts. My point is that we need to be careful not to entrench ourselves in dogma and orthodoxy to the point that we label everybody who believes something a little different as “conspiracy theorist” and write them off without even thinking about what we and they are saying. Implying 25% of the country are crazy because they believe something that is technically true makes for some serious semantic headaches and is just the sloppiness that breeds even more ignorance and entrenched thinking. I know what the report really means, but it’s far too comfortable being overly broad with its brush, because it’s coming from a place where conspiracies are automatically bullshit and their believers deluded no matter what.

    • kessy_athena

      Well, I do think you’re right that “conspiracy theory” probably isn’t the right term to be using here. It certainly is really loaded. I think what’s important to keep in mind is that there’s a continuum of belief, both in the content of the beliefs and the certainty with which they’re held. And surveys like this tend to miss those kinds of nuances.

      But there is definitely a line between the rational and the irrational. For example, it’s entirely rational to think that there is some election fraud going on. I don’t think it’s rational to think that there’s massive amounts of fraud going on, at levels sufficient to steal elections – and that those responsible are going undetected and getting away with it scott free. Of course where exactly that line is is often not at all clear. Different people will see the irrational starting at different points given what’s known. And different people have different levels of knowledge, making it even murkier. For me, what’s most disturbing about this survey isn’t how prone to conspiracy thinking Americans are, but how poorly informed Americans are.

      When it comes to September 11th, I’m curious what you’re referring to when you say that the US Government has planned such things in the past. It’s certainly true that various people in the government have used or even manipulated events for political gain in the past. The Gulf of Tonkin incident comes to mind. But that’s nowhere near the same category as September 11th. Deliberate participation in the murder of thousands of Americans is a pretty extreme sort of thing.

      • JohnMWhite

        For 9/11esque plots, I’m referring to Operation Northwoods, where the CIA floated the idea of facilitating or staging a Cuban hijack of an airplane and crashing it into a building in Florida to precipitate an invasion of the island. JFK reportedly nixed the idea. Conspiracy theorists might point out he didn’t last long afterwards. :p

        That was, of course, just an idea, but there have been numerous instances in history of the US government treating its citizens as disposable (not that they are close to the only government to do so). And I don’t really think numbers matter all that much. MKULTRA is an acknowledged and real project that involved the capture, torture and deaths of several citizens. Puerto Ricans were used as guinea pigs for military experiments. Collateral murder, the killing of civilians in a warzone for sport, was hushed up by the military and the man who released it has been threatened with death by American members of Congress. An American citizen was killed by a drone strike ordered by a solitary politician, without any judicial oversight whatsoever. It’s not about the raw numbers, it’s about the principle behind these activities: citizens can be treated however the government likes if they feel it is necessary or useful. The moment a political institution feels it can kill an individual for political purposes, it’s easy to worry that all bets are off. It doesn’t matter if they kill one or one thousand or one million, they’ve put themselves on a slippery slope and their critics can argue that they’ve lost any moral high ground.

    • FO

      The ideas you list, JohnMWhite, are nothing outrageous.

      The conspiracy theorist however, has a far different attitude towards facts: the 100% certainty of knowing the Truth (TM), far different than a more sober “admitting the possibility”.
      The overwhelming majority of conspiracy theorists are a masterpiece of cognitive dissonance and bias.

      This, ironically, makes the work of real whistle blowers and investigators much more difficult and much more easily cast as tinfoil thinker.
      What if the conspiracy theorists are actually conspiring to delegitimize genuine investigations? =)

      • JohnMWhite

        There’s that broad brush again. I simply don’t buy that there is a simplistic class of people who are ‘conspiracy nuts’ and a clear line between them and those who soberly admit possibilities. I particularly am troubled by the fact that it appears to be mere orthodoxy that determines where we draw that line. The ideas I floated don’t seem outrageous because I had the time and space to explain them. If I proposed them as my positions in a survey like that in the OP, where do you think I’d end up?

        • kessy_athena

          I agree that there isn’t a sharp line between rationality and irrationality. But when someone is talking about plots involving thousands of people in an incident that has been investigated to death by everyone and their brother for years (like September 11th) I think that’s a pretty clear indication that this person is probably pretty far toward the irrational end of the spectrum. Unless, of course, someone comes up with some new evidence, which is always a possibility. Although it’s also worth noting that a particular person may hold very irrational beliefs about certain subjects but be entirely rational about others.

          About Operation Northwoods – you might want to read the original documents. It’s certainly a nasty piece of work, but it doesn’t seem the authors were really thinking about outright murder, at least not for the most part. The airliner plot was not about flying a plane into a building – the idea was to have a civilian chartered flight leaving from the US and heading someplace so that the flight plane would take them over Cuba. The plane would be diverted to a military base, where the passengers would be transferred to an identical plane and the original plane rigged to be flown remotely. The now empty plane would then be flown to Cuban airspace, where it would broadcast a fake mayday saying it was being attacked by Cuban fighters, and then be remotely destroyed by an on board explosive. It was a pretty bizarre plot; it’s no wonder the operation never got past the very preliminary planning stage.

        • FO

          In my experience, conspiracy theorists become utterly blind to any reasoning that goes against their pet idea.
          They fail to see huge problems in their theories.
          They are selectively skeptical.
          Far more than others, they are interested in pushing a specific idea rather than actually finding the best approximation of truth.
          More in general, they are the secular version of religious people.
          They give skeptics a bad name.

        • Kodie

          One of the things I dig out of my memory bank from the aftermath of 9/11 was the constant fear that something like that would be happening regularly, or that it might be nuclear or gas attacks, etc. Plastic sheeting and duct tape and bomb shelter kind of supplies. I forget about this most of the time, but it’s the reason I made one of the stupidest decisions affecting my life. I had had a job in NYC up until 3 months prior to the attack and literally was in tower 2 making contract deliveries for my office, living upstate, so I wasn’t near the place on that day or even a week or the month before… just thinking about the timing was scary to me. I was gearing up to look for a new job when 9/11 happened and it kind of shit my plans. People are waiting for me to get off my ass and look for another job, and now I can’t and I’m scared and I don’t know what else to do. Living that close to the city in the aftermath, I was sure I’d be stuck in standstill traffic heading north because of some nuclear attack or something would occur, so I got the fuck out of town and went to live with a psychotic in a city I swore I’d never ever move to. I didn’t get out of my hometown for over a year, and I still decided to go.

          I’m just saying that’s the mood at the time. Attack preparedness was not something I really got into for that year, but as I said above, the idea here is that the news has to report stuff or else there would be nothing to talk about and nothing to feel like you can do. You feel hopeless, they tell you how to seal up your doors and windows and make a checklist to stock yourselves if you have to stay inside for a prolonged period. I happened to think it was more effective to go somewhere I thought terrorists would never care to go – an unprotected international border with, I counted, 3 nuclear power plants or more.

          That’s the kind of stupidity that happens on a steady feeding at the trough of anxiety, aka the news. It’s not like they should not tell you things you need to know, but you know they’re not telling you everything if they keep saying the same few things over and over. You know they don’t report everything already, and you go digging to find out what it is. I think it is a reaction to the heightened anxiety of the time. A little suspicion like, the government had to know this was going to happen. Even if you know nothing else, it happened before in the 90s, and that’s why I had to get a temporary picture ID just to go upstairs and make the deliveries for my job. When things happen again that people think should have been prevented, well who knew they were going to fly planes into the buildings? They secured against another round of truck bombs. And now anything can happen at any time. It’s a lot of people’s jobs in the government to know things ahead of time and keep secrets to avoid panic. After the fact, there is no such provision to the news outlets. All information all panic, sells eyeballs to advertisers.

          People consume the shit out of it, and then get caught up in a way to wrap their head around it and feel some control. Maybe that is stocking up on plastic sheeting and duct tape and non-perishable foods and crossword puzzles. I don’t remember them warning against fires and candles using up all the oxygen. It’s a little “duck-and-cover” but it keeps people distracted from the facts of the matter which is they’re screwed. Maybe that is coming back to Jesus. Maybe that is finally giving up on Jesus. Maybe that is fixating on government involvement. Like I said, they know stuff they’re not telling us. Everyone knows that and wonders if it might be something we have a right to know. Pretty much up until we went in militarily, people had a lot of time to fear and think about how they were going to react, while many were happy about that, it unsettled a lot of other people only on the premise that we’ve gone to war in order to distract ourselves with brutal pro-action. So there are two different groups who think we’re in these wars for the wrong reasons – (1) because war’s not going to solve this kind of problem anyhow, and (2) because the government is fucking with us.

          What is the point about suspecting the government involvement? People want to be whistle-blowers about something. With enough noise, the government will own up to it and stop being dishonest? We’ll avert some kind of future danger? Or you get to say you really know what’s really going on, while everyone else just walks around all complacent and shit. The ones who are out to get you are the ones telling you constantly someone else is out to get you – that’s how you know. On a smaller more personal scale, generally that kind of misdirection is a serious clue you’re about to get screwed.

  • Reginald Selkirk
    • kessy_athena

      Beck *had* to be talking about himself. That was such a good summary of what he does every day….

      • JohnMWhite

        I have a feeling Beck is smart enough to know that, but banks on his audience not noticing, so just wants to eliminate the competition.

        • kessy_athena

          Oh, I’m pretty sure Beck doesn’t believe a word he says and hasn’t for years. I remember when he was a commentator on CNN and was, you know, actually in touch with reality. He’s an actor playing a role just as much as Colbert.

  • Sue Blue

    Everyone, no matter what their political or ideological views, is subject to “confirmation bias”. We all tend to seek out, notice, and believe more firmly information that supports our own views and preconceptions. With the internet and thousand-channel 24/7 satellite TV firehosing us with information all day, every day, there’s a need to filter, to seek out whatever appeals to us and discard the rest. It’s hardwired into our brains to try to fit all information into some kind of framework that makes sense to us, to seek out meaningful patterns. But where such pattern-seeking tendencies served a life-saving function back in the days when a shadow glimpsed among other shadows might indicate a lurking predator, today it often inhibits objectivity, logic and reason.

    Becoming knowledgeable about the principles of probability, logic and the prevalence of logical fallacies can help sort the wheat from the chaff when hit with this tsunami of soundbites, opinion, and sensationalism. One of the best and easiest-to-read books about this problem is Carl Sagan’s “The Demon-Haunted World: Science As A Candle In The Dark”. His anti-bullshit “toolbox” – an explanation of logical fallacies and probability – is helpful whenever one is tempted to succumb to the latest conspiracy theory. Just being skeptical about sweeping generalizations, all-or-nothing proposals, and Byzantine Machiavellian “plots” can help sort reality from fantasy.

  • Jeffrey

    “This includes 36 percent who think that President Obama is hiding information about his background and early life”

    I wouldn’t call this a conspiracy theory without more details about what they think is being hidden.

    What if Obama’s hiding the fact that he smoked *a lot* of pot, and over a longer time period than he’s admitted? That’s really not a conspiracy theory.

    • JohnMWhite

      He’s also technically hiding his college transcripts, though he has every right to do so because they are nobody else’s business and it’s only racism and anger that’s causing anybody to actually ask for them. Still, how do these surveys account for people who might think he’s hiding something but don’t actually care about it?

  • Richard T

    But has anyone broken out the incidence of conspiracy belief by religion? Ideally they would look both at present time and childhood.

  • UrsaMinor

    It’s all very simple, really. The Illuminati created the conspiracy theory industry because it serves their deeper purposes.

  • Rich Wilson

    I recently had one of these types friend me on FB. He’s studying theology at Liberty University and everything is an occult plot. Walt Disney’s signature contains 666. That type. In a long debate, some of his like minded friends joined in, which is where I got my first taste of “Sandy Hook Truthers”. But what really struck me is- why don’t more events subject themselves to a “Truth” movement? How do they latch on to one thing but not another? Was every other shooting a conspiracy to take our guns? Was, IDK, pick your favorite celebrity death of 2012, because they knew too much? How does a story reach a tipping point at which It. Will. Not. Die. ?

    • Custador

      >Liberty U

      Pick one.

      • Sunny Day

        Well he did say studying Theology.
        Is there a better place for him to waste his time on that subject?

      • kessy_athena

        Studying complete nonsense is still studying.