Skip to main contentSkip to main content
You have permission to edit this article.
Edit
spotlight

Conspiracy theories are dangerous even if very few people believe them

  • 0

Lies don't have to spread far to cause problems. numismarty/iStock/Getty Images Plus

There is an open question among pundits and researchers: Do more Americans believe in conspiracy theories now than ever before?

But as a scholar of conspiracy theories and their believers, I am concerned that focusing on how many Americans believe conspiracy theories can distract from their dangers.

Even if most people dismiss conspiracy theories or accept them only in some limited sense, leaving very small numbers of true believers, the high visibility of these false ideas can still make them dangerous.

Association without belief

Philosophers often suppose people can explain their actions in terms of what they want to do or get, and what they believe. However, many of people’s actions are guided not by explicit beliefs but rather by gut feelings. These feelings aren’t set in stone. They can be influenced by experience.

This principle is taken to heart by advertisers who aim to influence behavior, not by changing how people think but how they feel. Manipulating feelings in this way can be accomplished by subtly associating a product with desirable outcomes like status and sex.

This can also take a negative form, as in political attack ads that aim to associate an opponent with threatening imagery and descriptions. Forging similar mental associations is one way in which conspiracy theories, like other misinformation, might have consequences even without being believed.

One of the earliest political attack ads, placed by Lyndon Johnson in 1964, never even mentions its target’s name.

Some examples

Consider conspiracy theories alleging that the 2020 U.S. presidential election was rigged. Some people no doubt believe that. But even if people don’t buy the whole lie, they may still believe that something about the 2020 election doesn’t “feel right,” “seem right” or “smell right.” They might, therefore, be more inclined to support efforts politicians claim will protect election integrity – even if such efforts result in targeted voter suppression.

Next, consider anti-vaccination conspiracy theories. Anti-vaccination content, whether about vaccines in general or specifically about the COVID-19 vaccines, often takes the form of pictures and videos purporting to illustrate disturbing side effects of vaccines. Material of this sort can proliferate rapidly across social media and, by relying on disturbing imagery rather than explicit false claims, can often escape moderation.

Exposure to anti-vaccination information might give readers or viewers a vague feeling of unease, and consequent hesitancy concerning vaccines, even without producing explicit anti-vaccination beliefs. In fact, previous studies have shown that people who tend to rely on their intuition and who have negative emotions toward vaccines are more likely to refuse vaccination. While that research involved other vaccines, it’s likely that similar factors help explain why many Americans have gone without full COVID-19 vaccination, and most have gone without boosters.

Social Media Conservative Voices

Whether they were true believers or not, Capitol rioters were influenced by conspiracy theories.

Pretense and coordination

Scholars often suggest that many people merely pretend to believe in conspiracy theories and other forms of misinformation as a way of expressing their political loyalties. But even pretense can be costly. Consider an analogy.

When a child declares that “the floor is lava,” few if any believe the declaration. But that child, and others, begin to act as if the declaration were true. Those who do may clamber onto furniture, and repeat the declaration to others who enter the space. Some children play just for fun, some play to show off their climbing and jumping skills, and some play to appease the child who initiated the game.

Some kids quickly tire of the game and wish to stop playing, but like or respect the child who initiated the game, and don’t want to upset that person by stopping. As the game progresses, some take it too seriously. Furniture is damaged, and some get injured while attempting to leap from one raised surface to another. The lava is fake, but real things get broken.

More seriously, when Donald Trump claimed that the 2020 presidential election was “rigged,” some officials and ordinary citizens acted accordingly. Whether out of sincere belief, partisanship, loyalty to Trump or financial opportunism, many Americans behaved as if the 2020 election was unfairly decided.

Some people acting as if the election conspiracy theory were true assembled in Washington, D.C., some stormed the Capitol building and, behind the scenes, some developed a scheme to submit fake slates of electors supporting Trump’s reelection despite his loss at the ballot box. The people involved in these activities could count on the support of others who endorsed the rigged election claim, even if these endorsements were largely insincere.

The price of pretending

The costs of acting as if the 2020 election were rigged are no doubt greater than those for acting as if the floor is lava. The costs of acting as if the 2020 election were rigged led to millions of dollars worth of damage to the Capitol building, led to hundreds of arrests for Capitol rioters, led to multiple deaths and imperiled American democracy.

Given the severe risks involved, it’s worth wondering why people who did not sincerely believe the election was unfair would risk pretending. This question highlights the unique danger of conspiracy theories endorsed by those in power: There can be much to gain from pretending to believe them.

___

Keith Raymond Harris receives funding from The Ministry of Culture and Science of North Rhine Westphalia.

___

0 Comments

We're always interested in hearing about news in our community. Let us know what's going on!

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Related to this story

Most Popular

The extended Senate campaign in Georgia between Democratic incumbent Raphael Warnock and his Republican challenger, football legend Herschel Walker, has grown increasingly bitter ahead as their Dec. 6 runoff nears. With Democrats already assured control of the Senate, it’s a striking contrast from two years ago, when the state’s twin Senate runoffs were mostly about which party would control the chamber in Washington. Warnock casts Walker as unqualified and unfit for office. Walker mocks Warnock as a hypocrite beholden to President Joe Biden. The broadsides reflect the candidates’ furious push in the four weeks between the Nov. 8 general election and runoff to persuade their supporters to cast another ballot.

Former President Donald Trump is drawing criticism for dining with a Holocaust-denying white nationalist and the rapper formerly known as Kanye West. The meeting came days after Trump launched his third campaign for the White House. Trump had dinner Tuesday evening at his Mar-a-Lago club with West, who is now known as Ye, as well as far-right activist Nick Fuentes, who has used his online platform to spew antisemitic and white nationalist rhetoric. Ye has also made a series of antisemitic comments in recent weeks. Trump says he gets along great with Ye and didn't know Fuentes or his views.

The Alaska state Senate will have a coalition of Democrats and Republicans serving as a majority caucus next January. Officials announced. Friday the coalition will include nine Democrats and eight Republicans, leaving three members of the 20-member chamber in the minority. Gary Stevens, a Republican from Kodiak, will serve as Senate president. Among other leadership positions include Bill Wielechowski, an Anchorage Democrat, as Senate rules chair, and Cathy Giessel, an Anchorage Republican who previously served as the body’s president and regained her Senate seat in this year’s election, as majority leader.

Brazilian investors are showing concern over President-elect Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva's promises to sustain a massive welfare program, increase the minimum wage and boost health and education spending. Da Silva’s transition team on Wednesday night presented Congress with an outline of a proposal to skirt a constitutionally imposed spending cap by creating a carve-out for welfare. At the climate talks in Egypt on Thursday, da Silva said he pays little heed to whether his plans to lead a socially responsible government might cause jittery speculators to sell off.

When President Joe Biden speaks about the “scourge” of gun violence, his go-to answer is to zero in on so-called assault weapons. America has heard it many times, including this week after shootings in Colorado and Virginia, that Biden wants to sign into law a ban on high-powered guns that have the capacity to kill many people very quickly. Such a move is still far off in a closely divided Congress. But Biden and the Democrats have become increasingly emboldened in pushing for stronger gun controls, and they're doing so with no clear electoral consequences. The tough talk reflects steady progress that gun control advocates have made.

Malaysia’s king has met lawmakers and will consult other state rulers in a search for a prime minister after inconclusive general elections that saw the rise of Islamists sparked anxieties in the multiracial nation. Police say they tightened security as social media posts warned of racial troubles if opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s multiethnic alliance becomes the next government. Malay Muslims form two-thirds of Malaysia’s 33 million people, who include large ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities. A group of civil society and rights organizations said they detected a coordinated attempt on social media to demonize Anwar's Chinese-dominated ally. Many rural Malays fear they may lose their rights with greater pluralism under Anwar and threw their support behind Anwar's rival.

Nepal’s main ruling party is leading in last week’s parliamentary elections with most of the votes counted. Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba’s Nepali Congress party however is short of securing a majority in the House of Representatives, the lower house of Parliament. Deuba’s party has won 52 seats while the main rival Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist) has 41 seats. Results have been declared in 150 of the total 165 directly elected districts. Deuba’s party is currently in an alliance with four others and together they are likely to have a majority of seats, which would allow them to form a coalition government. However, no official announcement have been made on the future of their partnership.

Listen now and subscribe: Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts | Spotify | RSS Feed | Omny Studio

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.

Topics

Trending

Breaking News