Except, maybe we’re not.
A new report from Google’s Jigsaw group explains how conspiracy theories are, in fact, no more numerous than in the past. Rather, it’s the distribution and means of proliferation that’s changed—the technology and internet platforms that focus more attention on out-there beliefs and conspiracy theories that have pretty much been around all along.
“[T]he overall level of belief in conspiracy theories in the U.S. has changed little, if at all, over the last 65 years,” the researchers wrote.
Conspiracy theories have always been a favorite pastime of Americans. As the historian Richard Hofstadter documents in his 1965 book The Paranoid Style in American Politics, they have often involved foreigners meddling in the American way of life, or Catholics imposing Rome’s power on the U.S., or freemasons, or Cuban cabals, or secret intelligentsia.
That’s not to say that conspiracy theories are harmless. The FBI identified fringe conspiracy theories as a domestic terrorist threat for the first time in July 2019—more than a year and a half before thousands of Americans stormed the Capitol under the mistaken belief that Donald Trump had won the 2020 election.
The Jigsaw report, citing survey research from University of Miami political scientist Joseph Uscinski and others, said that even over the past 10 years (the period in which consistent polling data is available), the overall level of conspiratorial thinking—the tendency to see hidden plots behind world events—has remained steady, with about 30% of Americans consistently agreeing or strongly agreeing with statements like “much of our lives are controlled by plots hatched in secret.”
What’s changed, of course, is technology. Fringe ideas that once stayed on the fringe are now widely distributed and endlessly discussed.
“Rather than an explosion of new beliefs, technology may instead be driving greater awareness of fringe beliefs that have been with us all along,” the Jigsaw researchers wrote, referencing a 2019 paper called “Understanding Conspiracy Theories” by Karen M. Douglas et. al. “Even if belief in conspiracy theories is not becoming more widespread, the internet—and social media and image boards, in particular—have fundamentally changed how these theories develop and spread.”
Conspiracy theories and other fringe beliefs were once dispensed only through obscure books and films, late-night radio programs, and alternative lifestyle conferences. For believers, it took some work (traveling, letter writing, phone calling, etc.) to find other like-minded folk. The social internet changed all that. Now, anyone can be a publisher and promoter of conspiracy theories. Social platforms let them quickly find other people in other towns, states, and countries who subscribe to their (wacky) beliefs. When thousands or millions of these believers congregate on 8chan or in Facebook groups, it creates the appearance and feel of a mainstream movement. And that makes the craziest theories all the more easy to swallow, even for otherwise rational people.
The question, then, is why many people seem to want to believe such fiction. Researchers can’t know exactly what people are thinking when they hit “share” or “like” on a conspiracy theory. Some psychologists have theorized that people find comfort in fringy theories during trying times when they feel powerless to change things. They decide to eschew science and mainstream media to “do their own research” on subjects like the pandemic and the “stolen” 2020 election. They regain a sense of agency by feeling that they know a secret truth that others in their community don’t.
As Judy, one of the 85 current or former conspiracy-theory believers interviewed by Jigsaw researchers, explained: “I wanted to feel like I was doing something good; I wanted to feel like I was part of the solution.”