A new study has thoroughly debunked the mainstream media narrative that conspiracy theories are a growing threat to American democracy.
It looks like the media elites might be a little paranoid themselves.
In an exhaustive analysis published last Wednesday by the Public Library of Science, a group of researchers led by Joseph Uscinski of the University of Miami found no evidence that Americans are becoming more conspiratorially minded.
The conclusion of the study, which looked at public opinion as far back as 46 years ago, flew in the face of not just media coverage but also widely held public opinion.
- According to a 2021 Quinnipiac University poll included in the study, 73% of Americans say belief in conspiracy theories is “out of control.”
- A 2018 CBS poll, also cited, found 59% of Americans agree that people are more likely to believe conspiracy theories than they were 25 years ago.
“Despite a litany of claims from different knowledge producers and consumers, little systematic evidence has been provided to show that beliefs in conspiracy theories have increased over time,” Uscinski and his colleagues concluded.
- While “troublingly high percentages of people believing in conspiracy theories on cross-sectional polls and limitless conspiracy theory-related internet content and social media activity,” they added, “these observations cannot, alone, be taken as evidence of increases in conspiracism.”
THE CONSPIRACY THEORIES
The researchers also demonstrated that many of the specific conspiracy theories most hyped by the media have not in fact gained acceptance over time — and in many cases the opposite was true.
COVID-19: “Precisely during the timeframe in which these beliefs were widely said to be spreading, we observe no evidence of over time growth in the five COVID-19 conspiracy theory beliefs we queried,” they wrote.
QANON: “In total, belief in and support for QAnon, as well as beliefs in ideas that the QAnon movement broadly adopted, remained stable throughout the pandemic and 2020 election cycle, precisely when the QAnon movement was widely perceived to be increasing in size.”
CLASSICS: Using data from the Roper Center for Public Opinion, the researchers looked at 37 longstanding American conspiracy theories — including related to the moon landing, UFOs, President Kennedy’s assassination and the police — and got similar results.
- Only six of the conspiracy theories showed a significant increase over time in the number of Americans who believed in them.
- The researchers found belief in 16 of the conspiracy theories has been more or less steady while belief in 15 has significantly decreased.
- Across all the conspiracy beliefs, the researchers discovered an average change of −3.84 points.
The study’s findings might surprise anyone who’s been reading headlines in the mainstream press in recent years:
- The Washington Post, July 2020: “Conspiracy theories are common on the right — but few Republicans adhere to all of them.”
- The Conversation, December 2020: “Conspiracy theories on the right, cancel culture on the left: how political legitimacy came under threat in 2020.”
- The Los Angeles Times, January 2022: “Op-Ed: Today’s right-wing conspiracy theory mentality can be traced back to the John Birch Society.”
- The New York Times, June 2022: “Why Conspiracy Theories Flourish in Trump’s America.”