Column: Why do people believe in conspiracy theories?

Former President speaking on a giant screen to a crowd.
Former President Trump has peddled groundless theories about Ted Cruz’s father, former President Obama’s birth and the supposed rigging of the 2020 election.
(Jill Colvin / Associated Press)

Watching the Jan. 6 committee hearings, one could be forgiven for believing we’re living in the heyday of conspiracy theories, between the Holocaust denialism of the Oath Keepers, the loony pedophilia fears of the QAnoners and the “Stop the Steal” ravings of Sidney Powell, Rudolph W. Giuliani and former President Trump himself.

But don’t be too sure. Conspiracy theories have a long history. They date back to the Emperor Nero and the great fire of Rome, for instance, and to the ritual murder accusations against Jews in medieval Europe. They’re as American as the witchcraft trials in Salem, Mass.

Assassinations spawn them too, from Abraham Lincoln’s (which was a conspiracy but presumably not orchestrated, as some suggested, by either the pope or Secretary of War Edwin Stanton) to John F. Kennedy’s (which was carried out by Lee Harvey Oswald, not by Vice President Lyndon Johnson or the CIA).

These days, it’s true, people seem especially resistant to expertise, science, the media and elected officials, and have turned to conspiratorial thinking to make sense of the world.

Opinion Columnist

Nicholas Goldberg

Nicholas Goldberg served 11 years as editor of the editorial page and is a former editor of the Op-Ed page and Sunday Opinion section.

And the rise of the internet and social media have magnified unfounded “alternative versions” of events and spread them through the population.

Five minutes of Googling convinced me of that.

Did you know, for instance, that the attempted murder in 2012 of Malala Yousafzai, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Pakistani activist, was not orchestrated by the Taliban but by her father and the CIA and carried out by a man who looked suspiciously like Robert De Niro disguised as an Uzbek homeopath?

Some people apparently believed that after misreading a satirical article in a Pakistani newspaper.

Did you know the Denver International Airport sits above an underground city that is the headquarters of the New World Order, a shadowy group planning to take over the world?


Loopy? Of course it is.

But how much more far-fetched are those theories than the assertion from QAnon adherents that a cabal of Satan-worshiping elites who run a child sex ring are trying to control American politics and media? That’s as nutty as they come. Yet these tenets are believed by as many as 1 in 4 Republicans, polls show.

Conspiracy theories often focus on news events, such as school shootings or the 9/11 attacks. Over the years, people have believed the moon landing was faked, that alien visitations were hushed up and that Elvis Presley and Osama bin Laden were not actually dead — but Paul McCartney was.

Unfounded rumors have focused on Catholics, Jews, Mormons, the Illuminati and Freemasons, among others.

Many people from California’s vast health, wellness and spiritual worlds have fallen down the extremism rabbit hole

It’s very common that conspiracy theories involve unprovable allegations about a small group of powerful people working secretly to undermine the common good.

“Just like some of us have liberal or conservative worldviews, others think conspiratorially,” says Joseph Uscinski, a political science professor at the University of Miami who is a leading scholar of conspiracy theories. “They look out the window and they say, ‘Oh, that must have been caused by a conspiracy carried out by people I don’t like.’”

Some people believe conspiracy theories because they’re searching for a coherent explanation for seemingly incomprehensible events, seeking patterns where they may or may not exist.

Some are deeply skeptical of authority, which they believe has misled them or ill-served them. Why, they ask, should we trust that vaccines will help us or that climate change is real?

A landmark U.N. climate report this week broke new ground by finally highlighting the role of misinformation in obstructing action, singling out the United States as hotspot.

Often conspiracy theories get traction because of “confirmation bias,” in which people believe things that confirm what they already thought or theorized. So Republicans may believe assertions that Democrats stole the 2020 election, while Democrats are more likely to believe that Russian President Vladimir Putin has a secret file of compromising information on Trump.

Often believers are unmoved by evidence that disproves their theories.

Part of the appeal of QAnon, I think, is that people find it fun. I’ve spent hours reading the posts of QAnon adherents, and for them, it’s like a video game or TV thriller. They’re suddenly characters and participants in a drama, part of a community heroically unraveling a mystery and saving the world.

How they’ve so totally conflated fact with fiction I can’t explain.

Uscinski says studies show that people who are especially prone to conspiracy theories tend to be younger, less educated, less wealthy, more accepting of political violence and more likely to have higher levels of antisocial personality traits.

Are they more likely to be politically to the left or to the right? Apparently there are conflicting studies on this. Uscinski believes that at any given time, one side or the other might be more likely to engage with conspiracy theories, but over time it evens out.

Instead of convincing Donald Trump’s most loyal supporters of his misdeeds, the revelations from the hearings into the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol are prompting many of them to reassert their views that he was correct in falsely asserting a claim to victory

Obviously, it is irresponsible for leaders like Donald Trump to encourage groundless theories — as when he hinted that President Obama was born in Kenya or that Ted Cruz’s father was connected to the Kennedy assassination. (Does Trump actually believe this nonsense or is he cynically exploiting it? We may never know. But the damage is done either way.)

One final point: Conspiracy theories should be debunked, unless of course they turn out to be true. It has happened.

Project MK-ULTRA sounded like a paranoid fantasy but was a real top-secret CIA brainwashing-and-mind-control program in which experiments using LSD were performed on unwitting Americans.

Watergate was a conspiracy.

Here’s my own experience. In 1997, as a Middle East correspondent, I got a tip that two Israeli Mossad agents traveling on fake Canadian passports had been captured trying to stab a poisoned needle into the ear of a Hamas leader on a street in Amman, Jordan. I merely laughed, because I heard such outlandish stories all the time, and they never checked out. I didn’t jump on a plane to Amman.

But it was absolutely true, and I missed what would’ve have been my biggest scoop ever.