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Eric Freedman

Eric Freedman

Some Dare Call It Conspiracy

December 23, 2016

Who’s more likely to believe in conspiracy theories, the politically knowledgeable or the politically ignorant?  The answer is obvious: The politically ignorant, right?

Wrong, at least when it comes to conservatives, according to a new study by political scientists at the University of Minnesota and Colorado State University.

Based on a survey of more than 2,200 Americans who identify themselves as liberal or conservative, it comes at a time of extreme ideological polarization in the country.  “Contrary to the popular conception that conspiracy theorists are a small group of tinfoil hat-wearing men who spend most of their time in bunkers, conspiracy theorists are not solely the domain of extremists and paranoids.  They cut across demographic and political attitudes,” according to the article published in the American Journal of Political Science.

Exhibit A may be the recent campaign season, which was rife with conspiracy theories—plots about massive voter fraud and rigged election results, schemes by the Obama administration and Hillary Clinton to cover up the truth about the 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya and more.  “They are also pervasive,” the study says of conspiracy theories, “Over half of the American population consistently endorses some kind of conspiratorial narrative about a current political event or phenomenon.”

Here at home in Michigan, conspiracy theories concerning the Flint water crisis have poked up their ugly heads.  The broadest ones allege a racially and politically motivated plot by Governor Rick Snyder, his appointed emergency manager, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and high-ups in the state departments of Environmental Quality and Health and Human Services to poison the predominantly poor, non-white, Democratic-voting residents of Flint. 

For example, the website www.naturalnews.com–which describes itself as, “a science-based natural health advocacy organization led by activist-turned-scientist Mike Adams, the ‘Health Ranger’”—headlined a story “Deliberate mass poisoning of a black community, covered up by those in power” and went on to say, “This crime was not only covered up by the government, it was allowed to continue for many months without anyone bothering to warn the public.”

That cover-up scenario expanded, MLive reported in April, “…after a Flint water plant worker and the woman at the center of a water lawsuit were found dead within days of each other. However, investigators say any connections the deaths may have to the city’s water crisis are so far unfounded.”

Back to the new national study which asked about eight conspiracy theories.  The researchers felt that conservatives were more likely to endorse these four theories:

  • President Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States.
  • The Affordable Care Act included death panels.
  • Global warming is a hoax.
  • Saddam Hussein was involved in the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

And they felt that liberals were more likely to endorse these four:

  • During Hurricane Katrina, the federal government deliberately breached flood levees to protect middle-class homes.
  • The George W. Bush administration had advance knowledge of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
  • The GOP stole the 2004 presidential election because of voter fraud in Ohio.
  • The Bush administration misled the citizenry about Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction.

So where do liberals and conservatives differ when it comes to accepting or rejecting conspiracy theories?  For one thing, liberals are less likely than conservatives to endorse ideologically consistent conspiracies.  For another, among conservatives–but not liberals—“knowledge exacerbates ideologically motivated reasoning in the domain of conspiracy endorsement.”  And when “high” political knowledge combines with low trust in government, the “interactive effect” creates a “perfect storm for ideologically motivated conspiracy endorsement.”  By comparison, the study found that liberals are less likely to endorse conspiracy theories if they have either high political knowledge or high trust in government.

At the opposite end of the political knowledge spectrum, the study found no difference between “lowest knowledge” liberals and conservatives.  What accounts for this disconnect between political knowledge and adherence to conspiracy theories?  Here’s one factor, according to the authors: “Because politically knowledgeable people care more about politics and hold stronger political attitudes, they are especially likely to want to protect those attitudes.”

The findings are troubling for those with a long-held belief that knowledge is a panacea, an assurance of reasoned thinking about public affairs and policy issues, and for those who the authors say, “wish to view democracy through even the most rose-colored of lenses.  In today’s political environment, then, elites can cast outrageous aspersions against their nemeses—including espousing conspiracy theories–and feel confident that a polarized, participatory and receptive audience will be more likely to take up the cause.”

Eric Freedman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, is professor of Journalism and director of Capital News Service and the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism at Michigan State University.

December 22, 2016 · Filed under Freedman

1 response so far ↓

  • 1 Mark Miller // Dec 30, 2016 at 11:45 am

    There is a lack of symmetry in the eight conspiracy theories — four liberal and four conservative — the researchers used, that perhaps illustrates the main point that conservatives are more likely to hold anti-rational opinions. The four conservative CTs are both easily demonstrably false, and believed by large pluralities or even majorities of conservatives. On the other hand, the four liberal CTs fall into two categories. The first two are believed by only small fringes of the public. The numbers I have seen are way lower than the number of people continuing to believe Obama is a Kenyan.

    The last two are different. Ken Blackwell was indeed the Secretary of State of Ohio while also serving as Chair of the Ohio Bush Re-election Committee. There were indeed four-hour-long lines to vote in many urban Ohio precincts in 2004, as a direct result of reduction of voting machines in those precincts. The phrase we are looking for is voter suppression, not voter fraud, as misleadingly put in the article.

    And do I really need to look up the clip of Condaleeza Rice saying “But we don’t want the smoking gun to come in the form of a mushroom cloud”? It’s not a conspiracy theory when the conspiracy is real, and right out in the open!

    This is the sort of false equivalence that journalists, and now apparently academics, feel the need to engage in to defend themselves against charges of bias.


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