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On conspiracy theories and polarization

Updated: Feb 24

This is an excerpt from my book Defusing American Anger, on the topic of conspiracy theories and conspiracy-minded thinking. To see all excerpts and learn more about them, go here.


Conspiracies

One way our extreme polarization manifests is in an increased willingness for people in both groups to perceive hidden, malicious plots by their political enemies.


Our tendency to see the other side as all-the-same means that we can tend to associate the behaviors of people and groups that don’t actually have much connection, or any connection. For example, a liberal person might see some similarities between a far-right extremist group and conservative Supreme Court justices, and have a feeling that everything is connected, that these assorted people and groups on the other side are working together in some underhanded way.


Or a conservative person might see some similarities between the things militant antifa people have said and things a Democrat leader has said, and feel that it’s all connected, that powerful forces are working together to establish some unified ideology.


In short, the more polarized we become, the more paranoid we are.


And each group’s conspiracy-minded thinking will be mocked and derided by people on the other side. When we can’t even understand the more rational and moderate beliefs of the other side, obviously their more paranoid and conspiracy-minded beliefs will strike us as insane and dangerous. And, because polarization results in us thinking of the other side as all-the-same, we will tend to view those wacky-seeming beliefs as being more prevalent on the other side than they are, increasing our us-vs-them fear and anger (that polarization feedback cycle).


For example, when people see a Trump voter stating that Satanic pedophiles are running the government, it’s easy for liberals to think, “Look how stupid Trump voters are.” And similarly, when conservatives see a liberal say “The Trump admin is purposefully downplaying covid to kill minorities,” it’s easy for conservatives to write off liberals as deranged.


But of course, most of us don’t believe in the most extreme and outlandish conspiracy theories. And there can be a good amount of conspiracy-minded thinking in both groups. For the purposes of depolarization, it’s helpful to see that conspiracy-minded thinking exists on both sides, and that no group holds a monopoly on such things (even if we think one side is worse).


In the liberal-leaning mainstream media, there’s mostly a focus on conservative-side conspiracies, like QAnon (and QAnon-esque beliefs), and beliefs that a hidden “Deep State” is exerting massive control over the government, and a belief that global warming is a hoax.


To quote from a 2021 TheHill.com piece about a Public Religion Research Institute survey:


23 percent of [Republicans] agreed with the statement that “the government, media and financial worlds in the U.S. are controlled by a group of Satan-worshipping pedophiles who run a global child sex trafficking operation.”


That number declines to 14 percent among independents and 8 percent among Democrats.


The survey also found that 20 percent of Americans believe another central part of the conspiracy theory, that “there is a storm coming soon that will sweep away the elites in power and restore the rightful leaders.”


Twenty-eight percent of Republicans surveyed agreed with the statement, compared to 18 percent of independents and 14 percent of Democrats.


To quote from a 2022 Vice article on this topic, with a later survey:


Almost half of Republicans and more than half of Trump 2020 voters think top Democrats are involved in pedophilia cabals, a recent YouGov poll found.


While just 14 percent of respondents of all parties said that they have a somewhat or very favorable view of QAnon, including 16 percent of Republicans, the core tenet of the QAnon conspiracy theory has thoroughly infiltrated the GOP. The survey found that 30% of respondents said it’s true that “top Democrats are involved in elite child sex-trafficking rings,” and that the more conservative respondents were, the more likely they were to believe that.


This stuff is disturbing, and it makes sense that it gets attention. Some Trump voters I’ve talked to aren’t aware of these kinds of things, and express surprise and bewilderment when they learn about how prevalent these ideas are. One Trump voter I know sent me an email after he interacted for the first time with a QAnon-believing person. To paraphrase his response: “I couldn’t believe the insane stuff he was saying; talking to him made me better understand why liberals think Trump voters are crazy.”


For the purposes of depolarization, it will help us to see how there are also a good amount of conspiracy theories on the left.


For example, a 2022 YouGov survey found that 30% of people who self-identity as “very liberal” believed that “regardless of who is officially in charge, a single group of people secretly control events and rule the world together.”


In a 2021 interview for the Niskanen Center, political researcher and conspiracy theory expert Joseph Uscinski said the following:


There’s always been this view that the right does it more than the left. But in surveys, when we measure generalized conspiracy thinking, we don’t find that it’s more the right than the left. When we look at large groups of conspiracy theories, we find that the left is just as likely to buy in as people on the right.


Uscinski and his colleagues wrote a paper titled American Politics in Two Dimensions, which examined conspiracy theory beliefs and how they can be more related to anti-establishment feelings than to political beliefs. Here’s an excerpt from that paper:


Contemporary political ills at the mass behavior level (e.g., out-group aggression, conspiracy theories) are often attributed to increasing polarization and partisan tribalism. We theorize that many such problems are less the product of left-right orientations than an orthogonal “anti-establishment” dimension of opinion dominated by conspiracy, populist, and Manichean orientations.


Using two national surveys from 2019 and 2020, we find that this dimension of opinion is correlated with several anti-social psychological traits, the acceptance of political violence, and time spent on extremist social media platforms. It is also related to support for populist candidates, such as [Donald] Trump and [Bernie] Sanders, and beliefs in misinformation and conspiracy theories.


While many inherently view politics as a conflict between left and right, others see it as a battle between “the people” and a corrupt establishment.


A militant antifa person I interviewed said he and his fellow antifa compatriots believed that fighting with police in Portland, Oregon, was part of a larger fight against a fascist, white supremacist government. That view seems to me paranoid and illogical, and similar to beliefs in other big vague conspiracies.


In June of 2020, about a month after George Floyd’s death, a verified Twitter account run by Robert Jones Jr. tweeted a theory that fireworks in his New York City neighborhood were part of a plot by the government to hurt black people. Here’s some of the content from his thread:


The media is reporting this as though it's just Black and Brown kids blowing off steam, but I don't believe that's the case.


My neighbors and I believe that this is part of a coordinated attack on Black and Brown communities by government forces; an attack meant to disorient and destabilize the #BlackLivesMatter movement.


It's meant to sound like a war zone because a war zone is what it's about to become. We think this is psychological warfare, the first wave before whatever the next stage of the attack is.


The first tweet in this thread got 9,000 likes. It got a good amount of attention at the time because it was retweeted by Nikole Hannah-Jones, the racial justice activist and creator of the 1619 Project. (To her credit, she later un-retweeted that tweet and apologized for sharing it.)


At a broader level, some common liberal side beliefs about American racism could be seen as having a lot in common with conspiracy theories. Viewing American society as being riddled with white supremacy—a white supremacy that’s everywhere but that’s often hard to quantify and exactly describe—can be seen by some as a paranoid, conspiracy-minded view. (We’ll talk more about those ideas in a later section on racism.)


A 2021 documentary called They’re Trying to Kill Us promoted the idea that the American government and the food industry were purposefully trying to make poor communities — and especially communities of color — unhealthy, and even kill them. Here are some quotes featured in that movie:


"There's actually an active hand in making sure that we're living like this."


"You put drugs in the communities, you put guns in the communities, you put disease in the communities, you put poor food in the communities. All these things are designed to shorten your life expectancy."


"It's by design, it is not accidental that this is what's in here and this is what's over there."


Note the use of the language “design” and “active hand.” I think most of us realize that America’s health problems are complex and are not due to malicious or racist motives, but involve factors like: corporations promoting unhealthy food because it’s cheap and has a high profit margin; poor people’s lack of education about nutrition; our natural attraction to fatty and high-calorie foods; cultural eating habits that can be unhealthy; regions where nutritious food is less available (food deserts); and more. Unequal and bad outcomes don’t require secret, evil plots and can be explained by banal, easy-to-understand factors.


One conspiracy theory that crosses political lines is that Jeffrey Epstein didn’t kill himself: that he was killed by powerful people to prevent him from exposing their involvements in his sexual abuse. And we can see how the story of Epstein—the shocking nature of his crimes, the powerful people he associated with, the widespread attention the story received—is likely a big contributor to QAnon-associated beliefs that a powerful group of people are sex trafficking children. The Epstein story can help us better understand why a good number of people, both liberals and conservatives, are able to believe a QAnon-type narrative about rampant child abuse being done by powerful figures. It can help explain why, for example, 13% of self-described “liberals” said they believed that “Democrats are involved in elite child sex-trafficking rings” (2022 YouGov survey).


Conspiracies are unlikely to succeed

We can see us-versus-them beliefs and beliefs in conspiracy theories as reinforcing each other. The more us-versus-them feelings we have, the more likely we are to find evidence for conspiracies around us. And the more conspiracies we find around us, the more us-versus-them feelings we have.


One way we can reduce us-versus-them feelings is to weaken beliefs in big conspiracies. If more people understood just how difficult large conspiracies are to pull off, we’d have less conspiracy-minded thinking and less us-versus-them anger.


Now, by definition, we can’t prove that large conspiracies are rare and unlikely to succeed. If they’re successful, clearly we won’t know that they exist. If you’re someone who thinks large conspiracies are fairly common and often successful, there’s nothing me, or anyone else, can say to prove to you that any specific conspiracy theory doesn’t exist. And the impossibility of disproving them may help explain why so many are so believed and hard to dispel.


So maybe the best way to make this case is to make some appeals to basic logic and common sense. Here are some reasons why big conspiracies are rare:

  • It’s hard to get people to get along and work together. Surely in your own life you’ve seen how often people who start out on the same page, who have the same beliefs, end up fighting with each other. That’s human nature. This points to how unlikely it is for even a few people to stay aligned enough and friendly enough to keep a secret. If there’s a plot, it’s likely that, sooner or later, someone will become disillusioned with the cause, or feel disrespected by others in the group, or see a financial incentive to expose the plot—or want to expose the plot for any number of reasons.

  • It’s easier than ever before to get evidence of the things we and others do. There’s email, there’s audio recording, there’s video recording, there’s video surveillance all around us, there are phone records, there are digital records of some of our online activities. For anyone trying to engage in a plot with even a few people, they’d have to trust that a) their fellow conspirators wouldn’t purposefully or unintentionally let various records loose into the world, and b) their plotting wouldn’t be purposefully or accidentally captured by other people outside the group.

  • It’s easier than ever to spread the word about the bad deeds of others. For those who believe something like, “Well, powerful people can always threaten people in order to silence them,” I’d point out that it’s easier than ever to set up an automatic process where, if one is hurt or killed or disappeared, any information can be sent to the press or whoever. And, as history has shown, many people are fully capable of outing plots and crimes even when they’re afraid they or their loved ones might be hurt or killed.

  • It’s hard to control complex systems. Some conspiracy theories allege there are big plots that exert various forms of control on society. But it’d be very hard to predict how big society-controlling actions would play out. For example, we can see how American efforts to control other countries often have unintended consequences and end in chaos. Controlling complex systems is hard, and we aren’t good at it.

  • Being caught can pose significant risks. Anyone considering engaging in a big conspiracy will have to factor in the potential of failure and what failure might bring. One could be arrested, or have their reputation ruined. For example, if you coordinate with other people to rig an election by altering the vote count, and you’re caught, your life could be ruined, and the reputation of your political group and your causes could be massively harmed.

David R. Grimes studied how likely large conspiracies are to succeed. To quote from a 2016 BBC article about his work:


It's difficult to keep a conspiracy under wraps, scientists say, because sooner or later, one of the conspirators will blow its cover. A study has examined how long alleged conspiracies could "survive" before being revealed - deliberately or unwittingly - to the public at large. Dr. David Grimes, from Oxford University, devised an equation to express this, and then applied it to four famous collusions.


The equation developed by Dr. Grimes, a post-doctoral physicist at Oxford, relied upon three factors: the number of conspirators involved, the amount of time that has passed, and the intrinsic probability of a conspiracy failing.


He then applied his equation to four famous conspiracy theories: The belief that the Moon landing was faked, the belief that climate change is a fraud, the belief that vaccines cause autism, and the belief that pharmaceutical companies have suppressed a cure for cancer. Dr. Grimes's analysis suggests that if these four conspiracies were real, most are very likely to have been revealed as such by now. [...]


Dr Grimes added: "While I think it's difficult to impossible to sway those with a conviction... I would hope this paper is useful to those more in the middle ground who might wonder whether scientists could perpetuate a hoax or not."


When I’ve asked people to name large and successful conspiracies, many people will point to the Tuskegee experiment, where scientists intentionally withheld medicine from poor, black men who had syphilis in order to compare the results with other control groups. But this was not actually an example of a conspiracy: the workings of that study were publicly published at the time. To quote from the site www.the-scientist.com about Bill Jenkins, the person who drew public attention to the study:


Jenkins learned of the study in the 1960s, when he worked as a statistician at the Public Health Service in Washington. A physician told him about the work, and he researched it, finding dozens of published articles, meaning the study was not a secret.


Entertainment media has perhaps made us more likely to think that large conspiracies are common and successful. Shows and movies that depict large conspiracies are common, and this may have a distorting influence.


Michael Clayton is an example of a popular movie that centers around a big conspiracy. The plot involves a chemical manufacturing corporation that kills people to cover up its past crimes. Michael Clayton is very loosely based on true stories of corporate malfeasance and deception, but not on any real story of a corporation killing people. I’ve not seen any news stories about American corporations being involved in assassinating people, at least none that have happened in the past few decades.


And yet Michael Clayton was treated by many as a serious, meaningful movie. In being perceived as smart and serious, it may have accidentally lent some credibility to the idea that such things happen. You can find instances of people online who thought the movie was based on a true story, which I think is supporting evidence for how fiction can warp our perceptions of such things. And so many of us consume so many fictional stories these days.



Let’s take an example of a conspiracy from a show you might’ve seen. At the end of the show Breaking Bad, Walter White convinces a rich couple that they’ll be killed by hired assassins unless they take his money and launder it by giving it to his son as a gift. To make the couple believe that he means business, he hires two acquaintances: Badger and Skinny Pete. Those men aim laser pointers into the house to convince the couple that assassins are pointing infrared-scope guns at them. Walter says the assassins will be watching them for the next several years, and if they don’t give the money to Walter’s son, or if they tell anyone the truth about why they gave his son the money, the assassins will kill them.


This is a conspiracy with only a few people involved, and yet we can see how unlikely it is that it would succeed. Walter White dies soon after that scene, and we can imagine how his death would make Badger and Skinny Pete feel less pressure to keep his plot secret. Considering how exciting a story it is, there’d be a desire to tell others about it. Keeping exciting stories secret is hard. And considering the infamy of the Walter White character, they’d also have a financial incentive to sell their story, especially if they hit hard times. And hitting hard times is something especially likely to befall people who engage in criminal acts.


And the threatened couple themselves might decide, despite the threat, that they won’t go along with Walter White’s plan. For one thing, they’re rich, and could presumably set up some decent security for themselves. For another thing, they might doubt that Walter White was telling the truth; they might come to believe he was bluffing. And even if they were scared, some people are willing to put up with significant risk to themselves or their loved ones if they’re morally offended and angry; this helps explain why so many people are willing to risk harm to themselves to expose immoral and criminal activity.


So we can see even in this small, fairly simple conspiracy, many factors working against this conspiracy staying secret for a good length of time.


The case of Jussie Smollett falsely claiming to have been attacked by two Trump supporters is another example of how hard even small plots can be to get away with. Smollett hired two men to stage a physical attack on him, and even with three people involved in that plot, the truth ended up coming out.


When it comes to conspiracies by governments or political leaders, we can see that many of them have eventually come to light, and we can examine the factors behind why they’re hard to keep secret. To take one example: Nixon’s orchestration of a break-in of the Democratic Party’s office in D.C. to plant a recording device. This only involved a few people, and it was exposed. For one thing, the burglars themselves were caught in the act of what they likely expected would be a pretty simple burglary. Once that happened, the conspiracy slowly fell apart as more and more people snitched. Sure, it’s possible to imagine they might have succeeded at breaking into the office without getting caught, but it’s possible the people involved in breaking into that office would have had various motivations to talk about it eventually, whether to brag or whether to make money.


Even Russia, known for its long history of complex deceptions and disinformation, seems to recognize that its plots will generally be discovered. Over the years, their many secret plots have been exposed by various researchers, and by defectors. A lot of the value in disinformation tactics is simply muddying the waters and creating distrust and uncertainty: disinformation is successful even when some people realize exactly what’s going on. This helps explain why Russia doesn’t seem that concerned with many of its plots being discovered, or being strongly suspected: such plots can achieve results regardless of if they’re known by some people or not.


With the recent mainstream news about the government releasing credible UFO videos and eye-witness reports, some people point to the American government’s cover-up of UFO sightings as an example of a successful conspiracy. But to that I’d say: there have long been reports of UFO sightings, and some government and military officials have drawn attention to this over the years (although it’s hard to say how reputable some of those people are). So it’s not as if it was not known or suspected that there were UFO sightings. So in that sense, any conspiracy, if it existed, wasn’t successful.


There’s also the fact that many government and military officials likely had real skepticism about UFO sightings and purported photo/video recordings. In other words, it hasn’t yet been proven there was any actual coverup, because much of the lack of information might be attributed to government skepticism and a desire to avoid spreading bad, ambiguous information that might scare people. One reason the government may now be more willing to share information about UFOs is because video recording has become more common, and because the internet makes sharing of information more easy, and so it may have only fairly recently become harder to avoid the issue. (This seems related to the point that the modern ease of recording things likely makes big secret plots harder to pull off than in the past.)


It might be helpful to imagine how you yourself would go about setting up a secret plot involving multiple people. Who would you trust? Who might you trust to do shady, criminal underhanded things while also being skilled enough to do such things well, and trustworthy enough to keep your secrets? The more people your plot requires, the more worried you’d likely become that someone would turn on you. All it takes is one weak link to destroy a chain.


There are people actively working to infiltrate organizations and expose suspected underhanded plots and their results tend to be lackluster and uninteresting. There’s James O’Keefe’s group Project Veritas, which attempts to expose wrongdoing and secret plots by liberal people and organizations. Their work often features an employee from a large organization saying or doing something that seems, on the surface, to reflect badly on the organization and expose wrongdoing. But in almost all cases this isn’t as interesting as it seems on the surface, because there can be a wide variety of explanations for the seemingly scandalous behavior.


For example, one of Project Veritas’ big “bombshells” was that CNN personality Van Jones was heard on camera calling the Trump-Russia news coverage a “big nothing burger.” This was spread widely in the conservative news media, with the interpretation that it showed CNN knew there was actually nothing to the story and that they were purposefully overhyping the story. But Van Jones later explained that what he meant was that he didn’t believe anything would come of the investigations, no matter what was found, because Republicans didn’t care about holding Trump accountable. And also, even if Van Jones did believe that there were nothing much legitimate the Trump-Russia story, the opinions of one person don’t tell us much about the large organization they’re in.


To take another example: one of Project Veritas’ first endeavors was trying to expose criminal and immoral behaviors of employees at the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), an advocacy organization for individuals of low and moderate income. James O’Keefe and an associate pretended to be a pimp and a prostitute, with the goal of showing how ACORN would still aid them despite knowing that. In Project Veritas’ exposé, one of the ACORN employees that they portrayed as behaving unethically was Juan Vera, who seemed in the video to be fine with O’Keefe’s plans. But actually, Vera was only humoring O’Keefe and afterward called the police. (Vera later received $150,000 in judgments from Project Veritas and its members. O’Keefe also used deceptive editing in making it seem like he entered ACORN offices wearing a flamboyant pimp suit, which had the effect of making ACORN employees look quite bad, when O’Keefe had actually worn normal clothes to their office.)


I included these as examples of how sometimes the things we think are evidence of large plots are not. It’s good to be skeptical of things presented to us as being evidence of a large conspiracy. Project Veritas’ work aimed at finding evidence of large, underhanded liberal-side plots is largely a “nothing burger”: the things they find tend to be, at most, evidence of the bad behaviors of individuals, or of bad phrasings by individuals, or of the unsurprising incompetence that large organizations often have.


When it comes to things we can do to help combat polarization, we can make an effort to convince people that large conspiracies are rare and prone to failure.


Not all beliefs in plots are conspiracy theories

All that said, it’s helpful to recognize that groups of people do conspire to do bad things. And sometimes entire systems of people can do bad things, even without a concerted effort at keeping anything secret.


For this reason, we should understand that there’s no firm line between a belief that people are doing bad things and a belief in a large conspiracy. There’s no firm line between a belief that maybe a conspiracy exists and a confident belief that a conspiracy exists.


It can be entirely understandable and rational that someone can perceive bad behavior and think there is more to the story than is shown. So if our goal is reducing our anger, it’s good for us to see how dismissive and insulting it can be to label people’s views as “conspiracy theories” without good reason.


To take an example: the story of Jeffrey Epstein is a disturbing one that seems to involve a lot of people doing bad things, including some rich and powerful people. It’s understandable that people who learn about the details of Jeffrey Epstein’s crimes may think there’s something to the idea that powerful people are sexually exploiting young people—that if Epstein and his enablers can get away with such things for quite a while, maybe other powerful people are doing the same.


There are also similar creepy stories elsewhere. Harvey Weinstein is one example: the fact that his bad behavior went unpunished for so long required many people to keep quiet about it.


Another example: the Hollywood director Bryan Singer has been accused by many young men of sexual assault. To quote from a 2019 Atlantic article about that:


Singer’s personal life didn’t come under close scrutiny until 2014, when a man named Michael Egan brought a lawsuit against him. The case made headlines from the start: Egan’s attorney, Jeff Herman, held a packed press conference at the Beverly Hills Four Seasons. Filed in Hawaii federal court, the suit alleged that Singer was part of a group of powerful entertainment executives who “maintained and exploited boys in a sordid sex ring.” Egan also sued three other men who had been affiliated with DEN [Digital Entertainment Network, a production company creating media for young gay people].


No matter the truth of this specific allegation, the point is that these stories and allegations can help us understand why people, on the left and the right, can believe some powerful people are doing some very bad things.


Again, there’s a fine line between a suspicion that something big and bad is happening, and a confident belief in it; it’s a spectrum. The more we can see the understandable reasons for why people believe such things—even if we don’t believe them—the more we’ll treat people with respect and the more we’ll reduce our collective anger.


For the reasons I’ve mentioned about the difficulties of pulling off large conspiracies, I personally think that Jeffrey Epstein committed suicide, and that there was no plot involved in his death. I’d bet a significant amount of money on it, but of course that’s by definition a stance that I can’t bet on. Conspiracy theories are by definition unfalsifiable, as there’s always some theoretical explanation, however unlikely, that one can reach for to explain any evidence to the contrary. The slippery nature of them is one reason they can be so powerful: there’s no firm, convincing obstacles blocking one from believing in them.


Some conservatives believe there’s a malicious plot by the liberal-leaning media to knowingly spread biased liberal narratives and to divide the population. Some of these views, the most confident and paranoid views that posit some hidden, large coordinated effort, can be classified as “conspiracy theories” because they assign malicious, deceptive intent to a large number of people despite lacking evidence for that.


But there are a range of beliefs that can be present here. Some conservatives wouldn’t categorize their views as a belief in a “conspiracy,” but more just a belief that the liberal-leaning media has a lot of bias, and that they also have understandable incentives to promote emotion-producing content to get attention. Some conservatives would say they see that dynamic on both sides but believe it’s more extensive on the liberal side—if only because of the greater number of big liberal-leaning organizations.


When it comes to conservative-side beliefs that the 2020 election was rigged, there can be a good amount of nuance there, too. For example, one Trump voter I talked to said, “I don’t necessarily think it was a big conspiracy: I just think that everyone was doing everything they could to make it harder for him to win, and that included some cheating.” And some Trump voters just have a “feeling something wasn’t right” without necessarily having a confident belief in that. (And we’ll talk more about election distrust in another section.)


The views we sometimes lump into the “conspiracy theory” category can contain a lot of nuance, and there can be a tendency for us to focus on the most extreme and unreasonable versions of those beliefs. The more wacky and extreme beliefs are more interesting—they’re more threatening and concerning. They’re sometimes more funny. Stories about them get more attention. And for beliefs we’re polarized around, the strange and extreme people on the other side help reassure us that the other side, as a whole, is wacky and dumb.


The same nuance is true for conservative-side beliefs that “global warming is a hoax.” Some conservatives would say it’s not that they believe in a large, coordinated “hoax,” but that, similar to their views of the liberal-leaning media, there are blind spots and bias amongst the liberal-leaning scientific community and media that result in exaggerated, biased takes and “group think.”


It can be simplistic and alienating to lump together a diverse and nuanced range of views under a “conspiracy theory” category. When we do that, we risk making people see us as insulting and unreasonable, and that can result in us accidentally reinforcing their views.


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