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Opinion | Why Conspiracy Theories Flourish in Trump’s America

In the 2016 primaries, “Trump, as a disruptive candidate, could not compete on the party establishment’s playing field,” they write. “Trump’s solution is what we call ‘conspiracy theory politics.’”

Trump’s conspiratorial rhetoric, they continue,

boiled down to a single unifying claim: Political elites have abandoned the interests of regular Americans in favor of foreign interests. For Trump, the political system was corrupt and the establishment could not be trusted. It followed, then, that only a disrupter could stop the corruption.

A recent paper, “Authoritarian Leaders Share Conspiracy Theories to Attack Opponents, Galvanize Followers, Shift Blame, and Undermine Democratic Institutions” by Zhiying (Bella) Ren, Andrew Carton, Eugen Dimant and Maurice Schweitzer of the University of Pennsylvania, describes the methods political leaders use to gain power by capitalizing on conspiracy theories: “Leaders share conspiracy theories in service of four primary, self-serving goals: to attack opponents, galvanize followers, shift blame and responsibility, and undermine institutions that threaten their power.”

Such leaders, the four authors write,

often spread conspiracy theories to direct the attention, emotion, and energy of followers toward a common enemy who threatens their interests, thereby galvanizing followers. Toward this end, many conspiracy theories depict a nefarious perpetrator engaging in covert activities to harm the welfare of followers.

They continue:

Systems such as open elections and the free press can safeguard democracy by illuminating corrupt behavior and ensuring the peaceful transition of power. Leaders may use conspiracy theories to undermine the credibility, legitimacy, and authority of these institutions, however, if they threaten their power.

Politicians who adopt conspiratorial strategies, Ren and colleagues write,

find this to be an especially effective tactic if their own claim to power is illegitimate or controversial. Moreover, since the exposure to conspiracy theories reduces followers’ confidence in democratic institutions, leaders may even mobilize followers to engage in violent actions that further undermine these institutions (e.g., disputing an election defeat by initiating riots or mobilizing military forces).

In a September 2021 paper, “Social Motives for Sharing Conspiracy Theories,” Ren, Dimant and Schweitzer argue that in promulgating conspiracy theories on social media, many people “knowingly share misinformation to advance social motives.”

When deliberately disseminating misinformation, the authors write,

people make calculated trade-offs between sharing accurate information and sharing information that generates more social engagement. Even though people know that factual news is more accurate than conspiracy theories, they expect sharing conspiracy theories to generate more social feedback (i.e. comments and “likes”) than sharing factual news.

Ren, Dimant and Schweitzer add that “more positive social feedback for sharing conspiracy theories significantly increases people’s tendency to share these conspiracy theories that they do not believe in.”

Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at N.Y.U.’s Stern School of Business, noted that spreading a lie can serve as a shibboleth — something like a password used by one set of people to identify other people as members of a particular group — providing an effective means of signaling the strength of one’s commitment to fellow ideologues:

Many who study religion have noted that it’s the very impossibility of a claim that makes it a good signal of one’s commitment to the faith. You don’t need faith to believe obvious things. Proclaiming that the election was stolen surely does play an identity-advertising role in today’s America.

Joanne Miller, a political scientist at the University of Delaware, wrote by email that she and two colleagues, Christina Farhart and Kyle Saunders, are about to publish a research paper, “Losers’ Conspiracy: Elections and Conspiratorial Thinking.” They found that “Democrats scored higher in conspiratorial thinking than Republicans after the 2016 election, and Republicans scored higher in conspiratorial thinking after the 2020 election.”

One factor contributing to the persistent Republican embrace of conspiracy thinking, Miller continued, is that Trump loyalists in 2020 — who had suddenly become political losers — abruptly understood themselves to be on “a downward trajectory.” Miller writes that “perceiving oneself to be ‘losing’ (culturally, politically, economically, etc.) is likely one of the reasons people are susceptible to belief in conspiracy theories.”

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