Column: How much are conspiracy theories really shaping American life?
Mom, apple pie — and conspiracy theories. They’ve been part of the country’s operating system since the country began, suffusing politics and culture, from the 18th-century “New England Illuminati” to the 20th-century fake moon landing argument; the death of accused sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein became an internet conspiracy industry in a matter of hours.
Now the accused El Paso mass murderer is believed to have posted an online rant about the “Hispanic invasion of Texas” conspiracy theory. A bulletin out of the FBI field office in Phoenix earlier this year worried about the potential for violence from “conspiracy theory-driven domestic extremists.”
Joseph Uscinski teaches political science at the University of Miami, where he co-authored the book “American Conspiracy Theories,” and he considers how conspiracy theories shape our public life.
White supremacy, domestic terrorism — where to start on all of this?
One thing I would look at is that some of these recent violent attacks have been spurred by conspiracy theories, and specifically I’m talking about the idea that there was a concerted effort to get rid of white people and white culture.
In the Christchurch [New Zealand] shooting, the shooter released a manifesto, which was about 75 pages, talking about his beliefs in the white genocide theory. We see the same thing happening in El Paso, where the person was motivated by the idea that white people were going to be eradicated by foreign invaders. And again we saw this in the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, where the shooter seemed to be motivated by this idea that George Soros was behind the “caravan” that was coming in to invade the country.
For purposes of, say, the FBI’s Christopher Wray saying, we’re on top of this — how do you define these threats? Any one person could hold to those conspiracy theories, but does that necessarily make that person a threat?
No, and the interesting thing is that these beliefs are fairly widespread. There are an infinite number of conspiracy theories out there for people to believe in. Everyone’s going to dabble a little bit from time to time. During the last 50 years, between 60% and 80% Americans believed in some form of the JFK assassination conspiracy theory
That’s a lot of people. But not all those people were committing violence in the street. Luckily, in the U.S., conspiracy-driven violence is incredibly rare, but just the same it happens. If you believe that there are dark shadowy forces working against us, then you may want to fight fire with fire, and occasionally these theories are going to end up in violence.
Are we seeing more of that?
It’s not clear that conspiracy beliefs are going up over time. In terms of the violence that that comes from these beliefs, it’s not clear that these incidents are increasing. It may be the case that they are, but we just don’t know yet. And part of the reason is that we’re paying more attention to conspiracy theories now than we have in the past.
It very well may have been the case that people were acting on these theories previously and committing violence, but we weren’t categorizing them this way as conspiracy-driven violence. We were just looking at it as, oh there’s a crazy person shooting people.
Obviously these attacks can be deadly, and we ought to take action to see what we can do to either stymie these beliefs or make it so that people who believe them don’t feel compelled to act on them.
How do you dispense with them? Because it seems like whack-a-mole: every time you put forward facts that show some wacky idea to be wrong, people will double down on it because people don’t want to be thought of as wrong.
It’s tough to make people give up a conspiracy theory that they care about, just like it’s tough to make somebody switch a religion or change a political party or switch positions on an issue that they care deeply about. If somebody is convinced that white people are under threat. right now there isn’t that much you can do to reverse that belief. That’s something that social scientists are working on. We’re trying to get those answers but it’s not going to be easy.
If you were advising law enforcement, what would you tell them, this is what a white supremacist conspiracy theorist is?
Evidence of the white genocide theory would be that someone believes that that whites are under attack, that perhaps corporations and governments are working to get rid of white people. If somebody is holding those beliefs very strongly, then that would be evidence of holding that conspiracy theory.
Now there’s probably a lot of people that hold onto that theory but aren’t going to act on it. In that case we wouldn’t want the FBI going in and wrestling with them. But we do have to find better indicators of who is going to act on it.
What is the tipping point for the dangers of the numbers of people who subscribe to these conspiracy theories, to where it could paralyze public policy, or government?
That’s happening here right now, and it’s been happening forever in the U.S.
If you go to the Declaration of Independence, the first couple of paragraphs are some of the greatest political prose ever written in the history of the world. And then the remainder of the document is a bunch of kooky conspiracy theories about the king of England, none of which is really true.
There’s really no evidence that he was trying to instill a tyranny over the colonies. And even Jefferson’s original draft of the declaration had a lot more charges against the king, which his co-authors edited out because it just got to too, too conspiratorial.
Fast-forwarding in time, we have had multiple Red Scares. We have had lots and lots of policy debates that are often driven by conspiracy theories. For example, a lot of legislation about genetically modified food or vaccines — these come down to a lot of conspiracy theories, either that the government is hiding the true dangers of vaccines from people, or that Monsanto is trying to take over the world with its genetically modified food.
So there are a lot of theories that wind up in these policy debates that really do affect not only how people vote, and what their opinions, are but also how politicians act.
I mean, what we saw in 2016 was what I would call a conspiracy-theory election.
You had two candidates that acted on or built their campaigns around conspiracy theories. On the one hand, you had Trump, who had a lot of different conspiracy theories but they all devolved down to one idea, and that was that American political elites had sold out the interests of regular Americans.
And Bernie Sanders on the other hand push the idea that American political elites have sold out the interests of regular Americans to economic interests.
When you got into the general election, a lot of this was again conspiracy theories with Trump pushing many, many conspiracy theories about Clinton, that she was hiding her ailing health or something about the emails and whatnot.
And then Clinton wound up engaging in a lot of this too. She would on the one hand criticize Donald Trump and say he was disqualified from being president because he’s a conspiracy theorist, and then on the other hand push a conspiracy theory about him being a pawn of Russia.
So these theories are getting used quite a bit by our political elites to motivate voters.
When you heard about the El Paso shooter and the manifesto that he had allegedly written, where did you put that on the spectrum of conspiracy theories?
It fit right into the white genocide theory; this theory got popular in France and has been exported from there. A recent poll in France show that almost 50% of the country believes that whites were being sort of weeded out of the country in favor of cheaper brown workers.
When we ask Americans a more general question — do you think that the government is hiding the true cost of immigration from taxpayers? — that’s a majority belief in the U.S. So there is conspiracy thinking when it comes to immigration
Going back in time, some of the most popular conspiracy theories that we’ve found have to do with foreign governments and foreigners. Maybe it’s because we’re sort of isolated by oceans from the Old World. Maybe it’s because of our particular place in geopolitics. But it’s something that Americans have always shown a fear of. So whether it’s immigrants or whether it’s foreign countries, those ideas resonate with Americans, and unscrupulous politicians are able to capitalize on it.
That’s why we hear politicians now talking about China and Mexico and whatnot, trying to use these old ideas to gin up these old fears.
What role is played in this by a president who subscribes to conspiracy theories like Barack Obama not being born in the United States, or an immigration invasion?
Trump bears some responsibility for the conspiracy theories now, and the reason for that is that he’s out there trafficking in them constantly. When he got into the presidential race, his campaign had to do something different, because they were up against  more Republican and more experienced candidates.
So he used conspiracy theories change the game and flip it all on its head, so that only he, only an outsider, could come in and quote “drain the swamp” of all the corrupt people, so that the normal things like having normal party issue positions or having experienced — those no longer counted.
And because Trump was able to motivate people with conspiracy theories, along with a whole bunch of other things like racism and sexism and xenophobia, he put together a coalition of people who are different in some ways than normal Republicans.
And now he has to dance with those people that brought him to the prom. That’s why we continue to see these same appeals being made to Americans by him.
Now, has Trump increased conspiracy theorizing? It’s hard to know, because there’s no evidence that these beliefs have increased. But what is clear is that he has a base that believes in these ideas, and he needs to do things that motivate that base to continue to support him.
He’s set expectations. And the problem now for him is that if he doesn’t act on the expectations that he has set for his core supporters, some of them may choose to become lone wolves and act on their own.
It’s hard to tell, but if he doesn’t build the wall, somebody else may want to go down to the border and take action themselves. If he doesn’t kick out the Muslims, then somebody else may want to take action on that themselves.
The FBI Agents Association has asked Congress to make domestic terrorism a federal crime. You really can’t envy federal law enforcement in shifting a focus toward domestic terrorism, because there are people who think the FBI itself is a nest of conspirators.
It’s sort of interesting that the FBI would release the documents saying we’re concerned about conspiracy theorists, when the job of the FBI is essentially to be a conspiracy theorist, and try to anticipate who’s conspiring in advance of them doing it.
On top of that, federal agencies have engaged in bad conduct over the years and aren’t always held accountable. Go back particularly to the early ‘90s, where we had the incidents at Ruby Ridge or in Waco, Texas. We’ve seen evidence that these agencies in some instances acted improperly and may have covered up some of some of what they did.
Can you put that on an equivalent footing to what we see in the public arena? Or is it all about the effect on the public?
I am particularly concerned when politicians engage in conspiracy theories, or when government agencies get into them too much, because that’s where they can act on them with authoritative force and really do damage.
We can see people in the public go get a gun and act on the conspiracy theory by killing a number of people. But if the government decides, for example, that all Mexicans were invaders, they could kill a lot more people than a lone gunman.
And we’ve seen instances in history, whether it was Hitler or Stalin, where governments can really get behind a conspiracy theory and do serious, serious damage.
So on a bigger scale, I’m much more concerned when the politicians do it. But, 20 people dead in this instance — those are all terrible tragedies and they all need to be addressed.
What are the times and the circumstances that allow conspiracy theories to lie fallow, and what brings them up again?
I started doing a Google alert on the term “conspiracy theory” about eight years ago, and every night I’d get a little report telling me how many news stories contained the words “conspiracy theory.” And in 2011, 2012, it was about five stories a day, and usually none on Saturday and Sunday.
Fast forward to now: I’m getting about 100 a day. So everybody is paying attention to this topic now. Again, that doesn’t mean people believe more, but what it does mean is that we’re paying attention a lot more and we’re able to see events and connect them to the idea of conspiracy theory, and we see violence and we look for, was there a conspiracy theory connection there?
Part of the reason for that is we have a president who engages in a lot of conspiracy theories, and a lot of other politicians have engaged in that style as well in the last few years. Because we have our politicians engaging in that rhetoric, our media has to follow it too. So we have to have a lot of stories talking about the president’s conspiracy theories and his opponents’ conspiracy theories, and then trying to understand why they’re engaging in this sort of conspiracy talk and who believes it and why and why not.
When I got into this topic about 10 years ago, I thought of it as a cute side project because I was, like, nobody is really going to believe all this stuff. And there’ll be a few believers, but none of these ideas will really have any impact on politics.
And boy, was I wrong.
But it’s not clear that the internet has really increased these beliefs. Most people are not going to the internet to get conspiracy theories. When you look at web traffic, the New York Times and a whole bunch of other mainstream websites get far more traffic than conspiracy theory websites like Infowars.
So you can get very good information if you are interested in very good information on the internet. If you’re interested in nonsense, then you can get that too. People can get what they’re looking for, and it’s really the case that you know if they’re interested in conspiracy theories, they can get it.
People who don’t believe in this sort of stuff aren’t going to become conspiracy believers overnight just because they went onto Twitter.
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