People Continue to Profit Off the Spread of Conspiracy Theories

Climate change denial, laissez-faire economics, conspiracy theorizing – a study suggests that these rather diverse belief systems may lie on a continuum. That climate change denialists don’t believe in anthropogenic global warming is a given, but are there other more general indicators of their belief system that include climate change denial as a subset? Endorsing conspiracy theories is a form of “motivated reasoning” – an effort to gather facts and construct frameworks that “protect or bolster one’s political worldview.” Individuals engage in motivated reasoning as a way to avoid or lessen cognitive dissonance, the mental discomfort people experience when confronted by contradictory information, especially on matters that directly relate to their comfort, happiness, and mental health. The conspiracy theory they believe in provides a framework for understanding the world and bringing order to random events, and provides them with a community of similarly disaffected thinkers who can validate one another’s anxieties and shared worldview.

Why do so many Americans deny anthropologic climate change? Of the many factors identified in a 2017 study, partisanship came out as the most consistent predictor. In general, Democrats accept scientific consensus and Republicans reject it. Party elite are largely responsible for this polarization.  Trust in the political system will tend to mitigate this effect; those with high levels of trust will be less prone to accept conspiracy theories. First, it’s pretty obvious that conservatives are less likely than liberals to trust the political system. It’s built into the ideology. What’s more, conservative anti-government, anti-establishment sentiment has become more and more virulent over the past several decades. But this result can be the consequence of deeper, longer-term social and demographic trends. Low-trust, high-knowledge conservatives are a breeding ground for conspiracy theories, and more and more conservatives are low trust and high knowledge.

Conservative media, activists, and politicians have every reason to convince their most engaged supporters that the whole system is rotten and can’t be trusted – it makes it easier to fill their heads with nonsense about Sharia law, Agenda 21, and all the rest, which in turn increases their intensity and engagement. Conservative politicians and pundits can more readily rely on conspiracies as an effective means to activate their base than liberals. And to the extent that ideologically motivated endorsement is most evident among the least trusting of the knowledgeable conservatives, there is all the more incentive for conservative elites to stoke the fires of distrust. What the study found is the very modest but positive correlation between rejection of climate change and the presence of a general conspiratorial ideology. People who reject climate change don’t believe equally in all the conspiracy theories listed in the questionnaire, but the general trend seems to hold.

Psychologists found that climate change denialists seem to display two other characteristics; a belief in laissez-faire capitalism and more troublingly, a tendency to espouse conspiracy theories. The correlation of climate change denial with free market capitalism was stronger and not completely unsurprising but the correlation with a conspiratorial mindset is more unexpected and intriguing. The results indicated that there is an inverse correlation between espousal of free markets and belief in the scientific consensus on climate change. This free market-dominated rejection of scientific evidence is consistent with denial of important environmental and public health concerns in the past, most notably the link between cigarette smoking and lung cancer and the effects of acid rain on the environment. Once free-market ideologues make up their mind that complete government withdrawal from markets is the only way to ensure prosperity, then it’s not surprising to find them inclined to disbelieve even rigorous scientific evidence that would somehow point to more increased government regulation as a solution.

Rather it draws our attention to the fact that the psychology of climate change denial presents some features that are likely to be shared by conspiracy theorists. The rejection of established science because of its perceived failure to conform to preconceived beliefs is a classic case of motivated reasoning. This would be consistent with the incompatibility of an extreme free-market viewpoint with denial of climate change. Since free-market ideology also usually tracks well with conservative politics, it is not surprising to find most denials of climate change coming from the right. FreedomWorks is a conservative libertarian advocacy group that trains volunteers, assists in campaigns and encourages them to mobilize, interacting with both fellow citizens and their political representatives. In 2009 Mother Jones listed FreedomWorks as a significant climate denier. Ten years after, they are aligned with causes central to President Trump’s re-election, promoting the website behind Protect My Vote.

The Protect My Vote campaign shows how online outfits are at work creating the appearance of evidence for assertions of rampant fraud, promoting “mail balloting results in lost votes and lost rights.” This group purchased over 150 adds on their associated page on Facebook which was viewed over 100 thousand times in a month. They were designed to tap existing anxiety about the integrity of the voting system to convince voters in swing states where minority turnout could be decisive that mail in votes is not reliable amid the uncontained pandemic leading many Americans to alternative ways to be heard on Election Day. During the spring of 2020, mostly conservative activists held protests in at least a dozen states to protest ongoing state stay-at-home orders – FreedomWorks helped with promotion and logistics. While most of the protests have taken place in states with Republican governors, they highlighted only those in states with Democratic governors.

Lacking the language or institutional means to dismiss popular conspiracy theories for what they are, feckless US political and media elites are instead normalizing them, “defining deviancy down” as the old phrase goes. A patchwork of conservative groups funded efforts organized by groups in Facebook for demonstrations calling for a swift end to the government-imposed closures of regular business and for America to “open up.” FreedomWorks portrays itself as a “grassroots” organization that fights for small government and lower taxes. Since January 20, 2021 FreedomWorks started running four different ads on Hulu targeting Republicans and independents across America. Basically, the ads argue that mortality rates for COVID-19 infections is significantly lower for those under the age of 65 and without pre-existing conditions, issue a call to action for the young and healthy to push for a reopening. The message: “tell your Governor to liberate your state and reopen society.

The phrase, “stop the steal,” refers to the president’s baseless charges that the presidential election that he decisively lost was rigged. His supporters proclaimed Jan. 6 – the day Congress accepted the Electoral College votes – as the day to convene in Washington to “save America” and “stop the steal” of the election. In his speech before the riot, Trump praised supporters for showing up to “save our democracy.” He told supporters “we’re going to walk down to the Capitol … You have to show strength, and you have to be strong.” On Jan. 6, pro-Trump rioters overtook the U.S. Capitol by force, smashing windows and forcing lawmakers into hiding in a violent insurrection that resulted in the death of five people, including a Capitol Hill police officer. In the aftermath of the violence, Republicans have scrambled to distance themselves from the mob. Facebook bans ‘stop the steal’ content, 69 days after the election.

It’s very human and normal to believe in conspiracy theories.  It’s a defense mechanism: we’re primed to be suspicious and afraid of things that can’t be explained. However, belief in one often serves as evidence for belief in others, and this quickly turns into a worldview, i.e., a lens through which we view the world, with new information about world events processed not according to the weight of the evidence but rather in terms of how consistent it is with one’s prior convictions. The spread of influential conspiracy propaganda can have serious societal consequences. For example, belief in some conspiracy theories has been associated with aggression, right-wing extremism, racist attitudes against minority groups (e.g., anti-Semitism) and even political violence. The serious societal consequences of conspiracy theories are on full display: the poor response to the coronavirus, and five deaths following the election of Joe Biden.

In 2021 we have ample proof conspiracy theory beliefs can be harmful. The far right has learned to use conspiracy theories effectively. Conspiracy narratives claim that powerful people or organizations cooperate in secret, to achieve sullen objectives by deceiving the public. Conspiracy theories are relevant for social interaction and democracy as they can induce anger, lead to low political participation, and to learned helplessness. Based on attitudinal variables, beliefs in conspiracy theories are positively related to such issues as feelings of powerlessness, to perceived lack of control, to mistrust of other people and authorities. One of the reasons why conspiracy theories spring up with such regularity is due to our desire to impose structure on the world, and incredible ability to recognize patterns. It’s not just social media that contributes to fearmongering and the spread of misinformation: Certain advocacy groups spread conspiracy theories not because they believe in them and want to warn the public, but because they may have other agendas.

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