The impending US Presidential election between incumbent Donald Trump and his Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, might be the most divisive in the country’s history. One underlying factor that could influence voter behavior in 2020 more than past elections is conspiracy theories.
Traditionally, voters are influenced by sociological factors such as education, gender, age, religion, and psychological factors such as political party identification, the candidates’ personality, and issues specific to the campaign such as the economy, national security, social justice. Conspiracy thinking has recently found its way into mainstream political discourse and occurs on both sides of the political spectrum.
Because conspiracy thinking can be situated along a continuum, it isn’t easy to formulate a precise definition. However, broadly speaking, a conspiracy theory constitutes “…a secret arrangement by a group of powerful people to usurp political or economic power, violate established rights, hoard vital secrets, or unlawfully alter government institutions.” Conspiracy theories are not specific to Western culture but part of human nature and have found tractions in different regions, including the Arab world.
According to Gray (2008), the state’s role in the Middle East in narrating and encouraging conspiracy theories permeates and resonates in society on all levels, regardless of political affiliation. Various leaders, such as Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein, have incorporated conspiracy theories into their speeches and comments focusing on Israel, Zionism, or the influence of the US Central Intelligence Agency. Rulers often use conspiracy theories to divert attention away from the state’s political failures. However, until Trump, US presidential candidates have rarely used this tactic.
This insight seeks to shed light on the phenomenon of conspiracy theories and their potential impact on the upcoming US Presidential elections.Explaining the Spread
Many conspiracy theories have entered the mainstream about topics such as climate change, Russian collusion, the deep state, and, most recently, Covid-19. Other prominent examples of recent conspiracy theories focus on the rigged election process and voter fraud conspiracies, evil cabals raping and torturing children, and Democrats planning on bringing in UN troops before the elections to prevent Trump from winning.
How are these theories perpetuated?
The rise of social media has been crucial to spreading disinformation and helps to explain viral phenomena. QAnon, an anonymous person or people purporting to be connected to high government levels who post alleged “insider information” on imageboard websites such as 4Chan and 8Chan and is viewed by many as the leading platforms for conspiracy theories. One of the dominant themes of these posts is “… the theory that Trump was elected to root out a secret child-sex trafficking ring run by Satanic, cannibalistic Democratic politicians and celebrities.” Dedicated followers then repost screenshots of QAnon’s posts and add their own “research” to social media services such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, where their propaganda gains further traction.
Frequently larger media companies cover various conspiracy theories. The most popular communication mediums are often right-wing outlets such as Breitbart, Fox News, and OAN (One America News). The resulting “information disorder” has now become part of the public debate. While a healthy dose of skepticism of official narratives is warranted, rejecting objective facts wholesale can undermine society. A willing and receptive audience imbued with a general predisposition to interpret events as part of a particular conspiratorial world view while discarding evidence that runs counter to their beliefs is part of the mechanism and helps explain the susceptibility of some people over others.
A recent book on conspiracy theories by Russell Muirhead and Nancy L. Rosenblum (2020), A Lot of People are Saying: New Conspiracism and Assault on Democracy, argues that so-called “new conspiracism” is based on repeating false claims endlessly without evidence. Repetition and Retweets of unproven claims make them credible and real in the eyes of the believers.
Making provocative and outrageous statements and spreading unfounded falsehoods creates an aura of spectacle and garners attention. Specifically, rumors and innuendos propagated by authority figures have amplified different conspiracy theories. Some have argued that President Trump’s fear-mongering and divisive rhetoric is part of a political strategy, the sole purpose of which is to weaponize misinformation to advance his political goal of winning re-election. The political strategy’s point is to purposefully divert voters’ attention away from substantive issues to a more sinister alternate reality.
Historically, conspiracy theories have been embraced and propagated by groups or parties out of power or on society’s margins. Typically, conspiracy theories accuse “powerful groups or individuals” of conspiracy, and by scapegoating them, they are creating a seeming balance against the existing power structure. In this way, Trump is an outlier.
Understanding the Allure
Not all people are equally susceptible to conspiracy thinking. To help us understand why some people are more prone to conspiracy theories than others, Jan-Willem van Prooijen suggests looking at the educational level, political ideology, and collective narcissism. The less educated are more prone to believing conspiracy theories, though the highly educated are not immune to such narratives. In addition, the more radical a person’s beliefs and the more a person believes that their group is superior to others, the more likely they are to believe in conspiracy theories.
Conspiracy theories tend to flourish in times of collective uncertainty, such as 9/11 or the current pandemic. Fear and uncertainty allow conspiracy theories to provide comforting explanations to help them deal with the resulting anxieties. Conspiracy theories also fulfill a psychological need in that they provide a degree of meaning and a sense of agency by empowering people to make sense of a complex reality.
Dramatic or traumatic events and a feeling of exclusion provide the context in which conspiracy thinking can manifest itself and thrive. The sense of exclusion leads many to reject the political system and makes people feel disdain for the mainstream media and a decline in trust in a government institution. The expansion of the mainstream and social media has led to an information overload and a shortened attention span, making people prone to accepting straightforward explanations.
For many Americans, the growing skepticism and distrust in government is a catalyst for self-investigation. In a volatile socio-political context, those who feel disfranchised are looking to conspiracy theories to reclaim some form of control over the political system. For instance, a minority of Americans still believe that 9/11 was an inside job; more recently, one in three Americans deemed the coronavirus pandemic to be a Chinese ploy.
Social psychologists have suggested that conspiracy thinking often leads to a heightened sense of group polarization. The in-group of conspiracy theorists engage with the like-minded, reinforcing their existing beliefs and commitment while resisting anything that does not fit their world view. Lack of evidence for their claims is often taken as evidence of a group’s nefarious use of power to conceal their tracks. Looking for grand explanations in particular tragedies can miss the extent randomness and coincidences can play in driving certain natural events.
The Social and Political Consequences
One conventional explanation of voter behavior in the US attributes the election outcome to the rigid two-party divisive and polarizing system. Most supporters of each party hold diametrically opposed opinions and viewpoints that cannot be reconciled or bridged.
The effect of conspiracy thinking leads not to a reflective diversity of viewpoints but to an inability to engage in nuance. Conspiracy theories are a danger to society at large and to the democratic fabric in the U.S., in particular, since people cease to differentiate fact from fiction and base their vote on bogus claims and “alternate reality.” It is admittedly hard to gauge to what extent conspiracy theories ultimately factor into the electorate’s decisions. Conspiracy thinking might be but one relevant factor, along with several other contributing variables.
The occasionally cynical appropriation of conspiracy theories by many politicians diverts attention away from substantive policy matters to absurd accusations and disinformation to change the narrative and ensure support for the campaign. It also hardens the camps by strengthening supporters’ beliefs.
Conspiracy thinking also creates a toxic environment that has ramped up nativist hate speech, racism in general, and xenophobia. White supremacists have increasingly promoted prejudice and spewed notions of a “white genocide,” thereby claiming that immigrants are increasingly threatening the white race. These ideas have experienced an increase in popularity in the US As a consequence, Nacos et al point out that: “Donald Trump’s hate speech and demonization of non-whites, mainstream media, and oppositional politicians, and his implicit and explicit praise of violence resulted in many verbal and corporal attacks against members of the denigrated groups.”
Efforts to Control the Threat
The decision to crack down on misinformation and conspiracy theories on social media has been long overdue. Only recently did the tech giants, Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube put stricter policies in place, pressured by the public and Congress members. In the wake of the current pandemic, Twitter set warning prompts on misleading content on COVID-19, not fully censoring them, but providing access to a credible source instead. At the same time, Facebook dismantled posts that contained inaccurate information about the novel virus.
To curb the spread of false claims before the 2020 elections and to ensure a fair and nonviolent democratic process, social network platforms have enforced harsher measures on political conspiracy theories and misleading information spread by political leaders. Facebook and Twitter permanently suspended accounts and removed posts associated with the QAnon movement. YouTube has recently followed Facebook and Twitter’s steps, eliminating QAnon videos and channels that encouraged violent acts. Twitter, more specifically, utilized its policy and restricted access to misleading information on mail-in voting by political leaders, most prominently, President Trump.
This raises some concern about the threat to the First Amendment and the obscure algorithms that shape and control peoples’ exposure to information available on social media platforms. These social media sites have approached misinformation cautiously throughout the years to avoid violating peoples’ fundamental rights for free expression. Inadvertently, however, they have been providing their platforms as facilitators for conspiracy theories and radical groups, partly bearing the responsibility of the status quo.
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