A question I am often asked by journalists is if more people believe in conspiracy theories now than before. Sometimes, the question is not even asked; the answer is simply inferred. Of course they are.
Even I often feel like it must be true. The COVID-19 pandemic has a twin, an infodemic, which often relies on grand conspiracy theories to be believable. We have all heard the stories that a shadowy “they” don’t want you to know that ivermectin is miraculous and that the vaccines, funded by Bill Gates, are full of tracking devices.
But is conspiracy thinking really worse now than it has ever been?
A team of researchers put this hypothesis to the test and their results were recently published.
The surprising conclusion is that, no matter how the scientists looked at this question, the answer was invariably the same: for the most part, belief in specific conspiracy theories has been stable over time, as has the general predisposition to see conspiracies as valid explanations for world events.
Thus, what often feels true to many of us is not supported by the evidence.
Or maybe it’s all a conspiracy to hide the truth from the rest of us.
The unchanging face of America
The authors of this paper conducted four different studies to look at this question.
In the first study, they focused on America, often portrayed as a hotbed for conspiratorial thinking. Americans themselves agree that their situation is dire: as reported by the authors of the paper, nearly three-quarters of Americans believe that conspiracy theories right now are “out of control.”
But the data reported here does not show escalation. In fact, the authors conclude that conspiracy theories tend to lose, rather than gain, believers over time, and that novel conspiracy theories do not seduce more people than older ones.
Americans have been polled on their beliefs in specific conspiracy theories as far back as 1966, so the authors compared these answers to those given by Americans to the same questions much more recently. Only six conspiracy theories gained adherents over time. Eleven lost steam. The rest, namely the vast majority, remained constant.
Here's a little quiz.
Between 2013 and 2021, what happened to the number of Americans who believe that the government uses mind-control technology in TV broadcasts? Has it gone up, down, or stayed the same?
It’s roughly the same number: 15% then, 17% now.
What about the belief that global warming is a hoax, between 2013 and 2021?
It has significantly decreased, from 37% to 19%.
Contact with an alien race being hidden from us, between July 2019 and March 2020?
In this admittedly very short time span, the number of American believers dramatically increased from 23% to 33%, the largest increase reported in the study.
American believers in COVID-19 conspiracy theories did not grow in numbers from June 2020 to May 2021, with one exception: more people started believing that the number of deaths attributed to COVID-19 was inflated. But the Bill Gates “plandemic” myth and the idea of vaccines as surreptitious trackers? No change in belief over time. In fact, blaming COVID-19 on 5G technology and thinking disinfectant inside the body might cure or prevent the disease lost adherents from 2020 to 2021.
Even QAnon, the über conspiracy theory involving a covert cabal of Satanic pedophiles and an anonymous tipster on a message board, did not accrue believers according to the polling data showed here. Whether the question was overt (“are you a believer in QAnon?”) or roundabout (asking about a deep state or about elites engaged in a massive child sex trafficking racket), the numbers did not significantly budge between 2019 and 2021.
These comparisons are limited, because we are only looking at two points in time for each theory, and these points may be as close as 7 months apart or as far as comparing 2021 to 1966. I definitely would have liked more time points to see clearer trends. Also, these are not the same people being polled over time, but different representative samples of the population.
I was surprised at how the belief in secret alien contact had, in the span of eight months, drawn in an additional 10% of the U.S. public. The increase might be explained by the leaked video of U.S. fighter pilots seeing unidentified aerial phenomena, which hit the news in between the two time points. Then again, a similar survey question, that the government is hiding evidence of alien visitation (not necessarily contact), remained stable at roughly 50% between 1996 and 2021. Did it not also rise in tandem with belief in alien contact? It might have if it dipped between 1996 and 2021, but we are missing that time point. I am left wondering what “normal” fluctuations in these beliefs look like.
Speaking of fluctuations, a 2017 comprehensive look at 104,803 published letters written by Americans to the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune between 1890 and 2010 and analyzed for their conspiratorial content shows rises and falls, but no clear increase in this content over time (as reported here). Two spikes in the data were found during periods of major societal change: just before 1900, during the second industrial revolution, and in the late 1940s and early 1950s, i.e. the beginning of the Cold War.
The cabal will not be accepting new members at the moment
Leaving America behind, the authors of this new paper brought their attention to six European countries that differed based on GDP, population, income inequality and political systems: Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Poland, Portugal, and Sweden. They compared belief in six conspiracy theories in 2016 and in 2018, and again report that most change was not significant, but when it was, it was more likely to be a decrease. The only belief that went up was Holocaust denial in Sweden, which increased from 1% to 3%.
For their third study, they wondered if the number of malevolent groups accused of conspiring against the public had changed over time. While who gets blamed does vary, there was no overall increase in the number of groups being included in the shadowy cabal.
Finally, while looking at surveys of U.S. adults between 2012 and 2021, the researchers report no average increase in overall conspiracy thinking, which is measured by asking people if they agree with broader statements like “the people who really ‘run’ the country are not known to the voters” and “much of our lives are being controlled by plots hatched in secret places.”
I found the paper to be very interesting (despite the paucity of time points) with regards to examining a question that many of us felt had already been answered. But that’s the danger of using our personal experience of the world to make sweeping generalizations about the state of things. As someone who spends quite a bit of time tracking and reporting on scientific misinformation, which is often embedded within a larger conspiratorial frame, I am particularly susceptible to believing that conspiracy thinking has overtaken the world recently.
There is another take-home message, though, which might be overlooked given how surprising the main conclusion is. Just because conspiracy thinking has not significantly increased in recent years does not mean it wasn’t already high. When asked in 2013 and again in 2021 if the Food and Drug Administration was deliberately hiding natural cures as a favour to the pharmaceutical industry (a myth we tapped into for our viral video a few years ago), roughly the same percentage of Americans said “yes” both times… but that percentage was 36%. This is more than a third.
Similarly worrisome percentages are reported for Americans who, today, say that health officials know cell phones cause cancer but are keeping mum about it (20%), that the real dangers of GMOs are being hidden from us (40%), and that a single group of people secretly controls the world (35%).
The situation is bad, particularly in the United States, even if the data presented here shows it is not worsening. It looks like online conspiracy theories reinforce existing views more than they persuade people to make the jump, but if the proportion of people with existing conspiratorial views is already high, we have a big problem on our hands.
One element that was not looked at by the researchers? How much easier it is for conspiracy-minded folks to find each other online. This is how communities grow, reinforcing their beliefs and fuelling action. The Internet may not be converting masses of people to believing in grand conspiracies, but if it facilitates their assembly, the consequences in the real world can be considerable.
- A new paper provides evidence that the number of people who believe in conspiracy theories has, on average, remained stable over the years
- The percentage of people who believe in conspiracy theories may not be going up, but it is already quite high