What Conspiracy Theories on the Left and Right Have in Common
A new study just found out what we all knew was true—conspiracy theories are partisan.
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If there's one thing that ties all conspiracies together, it's that thought which reverberates through one's head when you see or hear what they're saying—that little voice in your mind that instinctively responds with: Jesus, what a loser.
Well, it seems the dickhead voice in your head may not be all that wrong. Recently, a group of researchers decided to get a handle on this phenomena—conspiracies, not your inner asshole (you're stuck with that)—and put together a study that surveyed over 1,230 Americans during the 2012 election to examine the impact that partisanship has upon conspiratorial thinking regarding election fraud.
The crew just published their findings in Political Research Quarterly, and found out what we all suspected: conspiracy theories are for losers. However, Joseph E. Uscinski of the University of Miami, one of the study's authors, has a, shall we say, more refined definition of "loser" than the majority of us. Uscinski told VICE that, "both in this study and in previous studies I find that conspiracy theories are for losers" and "by losers I mean people who lose an election or who are on the outside or who are out of power."
In the end, it's rather simple and straightforward. The study found that, prior to the election, around 70 percent of people believed that if their party's candidate didn't win, it would be a result of electoral fraud. This number dropped to around 40 percent post-election. Now, who do you think stopped believing in electoral fraud after the 2012 election? Yup, the Democrats—the winners.
The study explains "who will believe in conspiracy theories, when they will believe in them, and who they will accuse" said Uscinski, who has been studying conspiracies for over a decade. Essentially, partisanship, while not the only force in conspiratorial thinking, is one of the biggest drivers, which means that "successful conspiracy theories attack the powerful."
"When people feel powerless, they get anxiety and that leads them to concoct conspiracy theories. It helps regain a sense of self-esteem and it also helps them engage in collective action because it points out a powerful enemy who's out to get them. So it helps them close ranks to focus on the danger and how they should react to it."
Prior to Obama, during George W. Bush's reign as president, Uscinski said that most of the conspiracy theories of that time—Bush did 9/11, Black Water is secretly coming to get everyone, etc—came from the political left. "After Barack Obama came to office, the [George W. Bush] theories became socially inert and people were talking about the birth certificate, that he blew up Deep Water Horizon, Benghazi, that he killed the kids in Sandy Hook."
"Now that Trump is president, those theories are socially inert and we care about Trump and Russia," said Uscinski.
While there is an investigation looking into Trump's ties to Russia, an array of conspiracy theories have been taking the idea that Russia wields pervasive power in the west to bizarre places. It's easy to see how these thoughts can be comforting—especially in the era of Trump where scandals give way to bigger and better scandals every four to five minutes.
While, yes, there are still some conspiracies coming from the right (cough, cough, Infowars, cough, cough) Uscinski said a bunch of conspiracy theories surrounding election fraud are coming from the left—something that follows in line with their findings.
"The resonant conspiracy theories follow political power in this country. For that reason conspiracy theories are used by losers to attack winners," Uscinski told VICE. "This does not mean that the conspiracy theories are necessarily false but it does mean that the beliefs tend to precede evidence of conspiracy."
There is a difference between a conspiracy and conspiracy theories. To put it bluntly, conspiracies do happen, think of MKUltra, the Tuskegee experiment, Scientology's Operation Snow White, and the Iran–Contra scandal. However, when you add the element of partisanship to this, people become more apt to see monsters in their closets which makes it even more difficult to discern what's real and what's fantasy. When partisan's cry wolf over nothing, actual conspiracies are hard to take seriously.
Over his years of studying conspiracies, Uscinski said that he saw the biggest change in conspiratorial discourse during the 2016 election, where conspiracy theories were essentially mainstreamed by the media and the current president who has, as Uscinski said, "built a coalition of conspiracy theorists." Uscinski said that in some cases, conspiracy theories can be a powerful tool in holding those in power to account but, more often than not, tend to do harm.
"In democracies people have to make choices. If people make choices based on dubious information then we will all suffer the consequences," said Uscinski. "If people make political decisions based on conspiracy theories then we may very likely have terrible public policy."
"Just consider the horrible policies passed during the Red Scare."
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