Less Trust, More Conspiracy

“People say” was the way our embarrassing President-elect introduced bizarre conspiracy theories about Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama or others who had offended him in some fashion.

No evidence. No factual basis. In most cases, no plausibility.

The question rational people asked–and still ask–is “why would anyone believe that?” Because clearly, many did. A recent report from Journalists’ Resource offered an answer, or at least the beginning of one.

President Barack Obama was not born in the United States, goes one common conspiracy theory. Another: George W. Bush knew in advance about the 9/11 attacks and let them happen. Conspiracy theories can spread quickly in this era of social media, especially as people sort themselves into information silos, only sharing information with the like-minded. During the 2016 presidential election one candidate frequently leveled charges against his opponent with little evidence, sometimes framing them with the noncommittal phrase “people say.” He won.

A 2009 paper defines conspiracy theories as “an effort to explain some event or practice by reference to the machinations of powerful people, who attempt to conceal their role.” Other researchers add that conspiracies often allege the illegal usurpation of political or economic power.

The authors of a 2014 paper found “over half of the American population consistently endorse some kind of conspiratorial narrative about a current political event or phenomenon.”

A number of studies have found that politically active people–especially conservatives with deeply ideological commitments–embrace conspiracy theories that confirm their beliefs and paint their political opponents in a bad light. A new study builds on that previous research, and adds an important element: the absence of trust.

“Conspiracy Endorsements as Motivated Reasoning: The Moderating Roles of Political Knowledge and Trust,” published in the American Journal of Political Science in October, investigated the hypothesis that people endorse conspiracy theories to serve “both ideological and psychological needs.” They anticipated that people who endorse such theories would be “both highly knowledgeable about politics and lacking in trust.”

Miller and her team explain that people with deeper political knowledge are better equipped to make connections between abstract political ideas, that they are more likely to seek to protect their positions, and thus more likely to endorse “ideologically congruent” conspiracy theories – that is, theories that are consistent with their political positions.

People with a reasonable amount of trust in social and governmental institutions were far less motivated to accept such theories. The study’s authors asked approximately 2,200 Americans who self-identified as either liberal or conservative to consider eight conspiracies. Four were designed to appeal to conservatives and four to appeal to liberals (for example, respectively, Obama was not born in the U.S. and the Bush Administration knew about 9/11 before it happened). The authors also created a “trust index” based on how much the individuals trusted the federal government, law enforcement, media and the public to do what is right.

Here were some of their conclusions:

  • Conservatives are more likely to endorse ideologically congruent conspiracies than liberals.
  • Individuals with a high level of trust in institutions are less likely to endorse conspiracy theories.
  • Conservatives knowledgeable about politics are more likely to endorse ideologically congruent conspiracy theories. There is no evidence of a similar correlation among liberals.
  • Conservatives knowledgeable about politics who also have little trust in institutions are most associated with endorsement of ideologically consistent conspiracy theories: “Highly knowledgeable conservatives are more likely to engage in ideologically motivated endorsement, especially if they believe that the world is an untrustworthy place.”
  • For liberals, greater knowledge about politics and greater trust in institutions both appear to decrease their tendency to endorse conspiracy theories.

As I have previously noted, labels like “conservative” and “liberal” can be inexact. (I’ve been called both–and my own definition of both terms is probably different from that of many other people.) Furthermore, there is a demonstrable difference between principled conservatism and the sort of Tea Party and “alt-right light” individuals who call themselves conservatives these days.

That said, the study is illuminating.


  1. Yes, it is illuminating. Given these facts it is still amazing to me that those who are not ‘conservatives’ have been unable to effectively combat these theories and misinformation. Defining the problem in some form has been achieved. How is it that ‘liberals’ are unable to deal with these facts in some politically constructive way?
    Being self righteous does nothing but polarize the situation and when we look at the ‘liberals’ and the liberal media I have not seen them getting beyond ‘we vs them’ mindset.
    Developing a simple theoretical construct to deal with this phenomena is long overdue.

  2. We need a new definition of the “right-left” political spectrum. When you consider both political parties are pro-capitalism, and both are funded by billionaires and corporations, the spectrum doesn’t fit. The truth is the democratic party was aligned with Wall Street in the 90’s, after several decades of Neoliberal policies which obliterated the working class and downsized the role of government.

    As our representative democracy evaporates, the political parties stop representing the will of the people, and served the interests of donor class. The democrats pretend to care, but they serve the interests of Wall Street which do not coincide with the people’s interest.

    For instance, Wall Street hedge funds are financing the privatization of public education after the “intentional disruption” of our school systems. These hedge fund managers pump millions into the political campaigns of democrats who also take money from teacher unions. Sorry, but the modern day definition of “political parties” are meaningless. They are both pro-capitalism which by nature and funding, is anti-union, anti-working class.

    Neoliberalism crushed the private sector unions and has started on the public sector unions. With the election of Donald Trump and Mike Pence, neoliberalism just got an injection of steroids and amphetamines. Under democrat leadership it was much slower paced while our POTUS gave very nice speeches, but did nothing for the working class.

    Wait, he did gives us the $14 trillion bill for bailing out Wall Street’s financiers. We just got shafted, but the “press” (also owned by Wall Street – capitalism) made sure we smiled through the whole process. 🙂

  3. My main argument against conspiracy theories is that people are simply too disorganized & self-interested to arrange a proper conspiracy. Even if they were, their egos would require bragging about it, or complaining about being double-crossed when it went sideways, so it could never stay secret.

    Most people have no idea how unmanaged the world is; business & government is almost always done by the seat of their pants. Any history of the CIA demonstrates that even professional conspirators bungle things most of the time.

    Wingnuts seem to crave order & certainty, so maybe conspiracy theories satisfy a need to think that someone, somewhere, is running this planet, even if it’s not to their liking.

  4. Ken,

    “Who was the mother of the “vast right-wing conspiracy”?”

    Are you implying that there is no RIGHT-WING CONSPIRACY? Further: Why are using MOTHER instead of FATHER?

  5. Perhaps there is a correlation between those who hold fundamentalist religious beliefs and those who espouse conspiracy theories. Both require a rejection of fact and reason. Both lead to actions that are against ones self interest. Both have led the most zealot believers to acts of violence.

    Just wondering…

  6. I have always prided myself in rejecting conspiracy theories right or left, but lately my candidates have been losing to right wing nut jobs who peddle Lock Her Up and Crooked Hillary mantras to the unwashed masses. I therefore will break my tradition with a conspiracy theory of my own: that the reason Trump puts down and denigrates the output of his own intelligence services is that he and Putin were actively and knowingly complicit in feeding the Wikipedia through daily putdowns of Hillary that had no basis in fact, that he has to put down his own intelligence services because they may discover this on their own and land him in prison on several different grounds ranging from treason under the Constitution to the anti-sedition act to the Logan Act etc. Proof? I have the same amount of proof Trump had in trashing Hillary’s candidacy – none – but proof (I am now led to believe) is unnecessary these days, so Lock Him Up!

  7. Atta boy, Marv,

    A goofy little so-called Latin phrase just hit me. Left over from “Laugh-In” days, I think. Hadn’t thought of it in years. It certainly applies here: soc et tuum.

    Someone has no legit answer for you today, does he, hmmmm???

  8. Gerald,

    “…Lock him up!

    Make sure you throw away the keys! Trump did it thru TELEPATHY with Putin; the same way Adolph Hitler did when he ordered the destruction of the European Jews. Putin got the message. It was simple.

    See “The Destruction of the European Jews” by Raul Hilberg (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1985)

    te-lep-a-thy (te lep’e the) n. [TELE + PATHY] Parapsychology extrasensory communication between minds–tel-e-path-ic (tel’e path’ik) adj.

    ~Webster’s New World Dictionary

  9. Interestingly, I read an article about fake news. One of the biggest purveyors of fake news said he had tried to do fake news for liberals, but for some reason, they just didn’t buy it. So liberals don’t buy fake news. Liberals don’t buy conspiracy theories. Can we have a study that tells us why this is?

  10. Marv – Telepathy claims in criminal court would not survive exclusionary motions. There is admissible evidence somewhere that would either prove or disprove my conspiracy thesis, so perhaps our intelligence services should use their time and talent to look into my theory. When you think about it, my otherwise unproven theory seems logical. Trump is a hopeless narcissist and lives in his own me-me-me world oblivious to the rights and interests of those he dominates, from women through bankers. It makes sense that he would be worried about what his intelligence services might find in re his complicity with a foreign leader to interfere with political results in this country in such a me-me-me world where the only object is to win irrespective of how one can legitimately win in a constitutional democracy. Given such a win at all costs view, he must now put down the efficacy of his own intelligence services so that if they do come up with something linking him personally to Putin, he has laid the groundwork for not believing what they have to say. It figures, at least in the world he occupies.

  11. Gerald,

    We have similarities. I have both an economics degree and a law degree. And if I’m not mistaken the same goes for you. But I started to go to M.I.T., I wanted to be an architect.

    You look to the ARGUMENTS in the courtroom; I look to the STRUCTURE, for example, of the courthouse. I believe the faulty structure of the Tea Party movement is a better target than attempting to prove Donald Trump’s guilt. Structures can’t defend themselves even by “hook or crook.” The structure can’t argue; it is what it is.

  12. Marc! I used mother because the “vast right-wing conspiracy was borne by Hillary Clinton who is a mother rather than a father. I pointed it out, because the article seemed to suggest that conspiracy theories are only fabricated by the right. Or more accurately, that assertions of left-wing conspiracies are delusional but right-wing are real.

  13. Ideologically congruent conspiracy theories are not the only matters that people will believe. In “alternative medicine” many believe in the healing power of acupuncture and homeopathic treatments. Then, of course, there is religion. Crazy world isn’t it?

  14. Ken,

    First of all, it’s Marv not Marc, and the “vast right-wing conspiracy” wasn’t borne by Hillary Clinton. As a matter of fact, the Clinton’s failed to take action when they first saw they were the targets of it. However, it is possible the phrase the “vast right-wing conspiracy” was first used by Hillary Clinton to describe the attacks, especially, on Bill Clinton during his presidency. She used that phrase in an interview, if I remember correctly, with the author, Christopher Hitchens, in a book he had written about the Clintons sometime in the 90’s. Hitchens was a “liberal” who became a “conservative” a few years before he died.

    This is from the post by Sheila you have been describing: “Conservatives are MORE LIKELY to endorse ideologically congruent conspiracies than liberals.”

    Your description of Sheila’s post:

    “I pointed it out, because the article seemed to suggest that conspiracy theories are ONLY FABRICATED by the right. Or more accurately, that assertions of left-wing conspiracies are delusional but right-wing are real.”

    Talking about delusional…..

  15. Fake news and more specifically misleading news abounds on Facebook. On any given day, I can scroll through the FB ‘news feed’ and see the most outrageous posts including 1) a picture of Pres Obama wearing African tribal dress followed by a few juicy sentences saying that Obama visits Africa to consult with his witch doctor, and 2) an official looking article from the World Daily News Report entitled “SARAH PALIN APPOINTED AS SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY ADVISER, PROMISES TO GET RID OF CLIMATE CHANGE ‘HYSTERIA’”. The Palin story, complete with all caps bold headline, was reposted by a FB group named ‘Democrat Paraphernalia’.

    Yes, there are people out there who read this junk journalism and then post it on Facebook where it gains traction exponentially.

    Coincidentally, I read a fascinating research article earlier this week that mirrors the article referenced by Sheila’s blog. From December 15, 2016, Pew Research Center/Journalism & Media, “Many Americans Believe Fake News Is Sowing Confusion”, http://www.journalism.org/2016/12/15/many-americans-believe-fake-news-is-sowing-confusion/

  16. Sheila seems to have unleashed theories on conspiracy theories today. The “behind closed doors” meetings by Republicans are actual conspiracies…regarding their theories of what is best for the GOP and just how much they can get away with. The games have begun even before the inauguration; Pence approves Trump’s lies and believes his general behavior makes him an interesting president-elect.

    One commenter on the Facebook post about Hillary and Bill attending the inauguration is laughable and frightening in it’s total lack of basic knowledge of our election process. The woman states she was glad Hillary is attending; if Trump doesn’t make it through the inauguration Hillary will be there to “take over”. When another commenter pointed out that the Electoral College elected Trump, not Hillary, and has been used for 240 years; her response was that we used outhouses during that time and don’t want to go back there. It is frightening to think Americans with so little knowledge voted – on both sides – in this last election. It points out a basic reason we so quickly ended where we are today…maybe we should pay attention to some of the so-called conspiracy theories which probably helped us reach this point by convincing Trump/Pence supporters. There may be some to help us crawl back out of this current situation.

  17. Today’s blog reminded me of an article from SPLC’s “Intelligence Report”, 2013 Winter Edition, regarding actor Richard Belzer titled, “Conspiracy Act”. The article saddened me because I have been a Belzer fan since he did stand-up comedy on TV decades ago and watch all reruns of Law & Order.

    The article reveals Belzer’s long held beliefs regarding government conspiracies since the assassination of President Kennedy. The 2013 article quotes, “In recent years, Belzer has gone far beyond anywhere even the fictional Munch (his character on Law & Order – SVU) would, into never-never land of florid, political conspiracy theories that are doubtful at best, and frequently without the slightest basis in fact.” “Belzer has now reached the point where he describes the United States as a “fascist state” conspiracist claims about a vast array of alleged plots,…” Belzer does seem to have a grim view of the government..”Our country now, I’m sad to say…by Mussolini’s definition, we are a fascist state. The cabal of people with power in the U.S., they’re sociopaths.”

    Keep in mind these were his views in 2013; conspiracy theories, was he prophetic or did he see something we missed? I, for one, would like to see an updated article from Richard Belzer to know his views of the upcoming inauguration of our newly elected fascist, sociopath president-elect.

  18. Just a note: the “vast right wing conspiracy” is real. It has existed in present form since the New Deal was enacted and butthurt aristocrat wannabes joined forces to put an end to it via the John Birch Society and associated organizations through to today’s Koch-organized web of think tanks, dark money donation “non-profits,” etc.

    In case you didn’t notice, they won.

  19. I do find it amusing that liberals are accused of all these conspiracies when they are so hobbled by their own fear of being politically incorrect that they will not drill down to the core issues facing society and formulate useful plans to address them. Because that would, I don’t know, allow them to win elections? You would think that might be appealing to them, but maybe not. Maybe winning is not the ultimate goal of the liberal mindset.

    Example: authoritarianism, conservatism, the “tea party, “devout religiosity, Trumpism, the acceptance of right wing radio and Fox News… what do all of these things have in common? One might think the common thread is stupidity. Which, according to our friends the scientists, has something to do with childhood environment and much to do with genetic inheritance. So will we ever be able to address the issue of the coming Idiocracy openly or is talk like that simply too distasteful to contemplate?

  20. Copied and pasted from the Scientific American, “Why Do People Believe in Conspiracy Theories? Who believes in conspiracy theories—and why”, December 1, 2014…

    “People on both the political left and right, for example, believe in conspiracies roughly equally, although each finds different cabals. Liberals are more likely to suspect that media sources and political parties are pawns of rich capitalists and corporations, whereas conservatives tend to believe that academics and liberal elites control these same institutions. GMO conspiracy theories are embraced primarily by those on the left (who accuse, for example, Monsanto of conspiring to destroy small farmers), whereas climate change conspiracy theories are endorsed primarily by those on the right (who inculpate, for example, academic climate scientists for manipulating data to destroy the American economy).”

    The complete article follows at the below link.

  21. Todd at 7:11 am. Great comment best today. So many people do not want to admit the 1% control both major political parties. Eugene Debs said it best, “The Republican and Democratic parties are alike capitalist parties — differing only in being committed to different sets of capitalist interests — they have the same principles under varying colors, are equally corrupt and are one in their subservience to capital and their hostility to labor.”

    It was and is rather clear a Single Payer system for Health Care was superior to ACA. One man Max Baucus, Democratic Senator from Montana blocked even the consideration of Single Payer. From 2003-08, Baucus received $3,973,485 from the health sector, including $852,813 from pharmaceutical companies, $851,141 from health professionals, $784,185 from the insurance industry and $465,750 from HMOs/health services, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. A conspiracy by the Health Care Industry behind closed doors to scuttle Single Payer – not really it was right out in the open for all to see.

  22. Louie: single payer…what a great plan. If only the orange one would consider that the alternative for O care.

    But as you all know, I’m just a dreamer.

    I’ve priced health care for my move. $666.00 a month for me (only) and doesn’t the 666 mean the devil? Shocking. Nearly twice as much as my expensive Swiss care and 4,000 more in a deductible for the silver plan. I am thinking, why bother? ugh.

  23. Thank you Louie, for the details on Senator Baucus receipt of funding from lobbyists groups to defeat something which would be a better deal for the average citizen, voter, taxpayer, and common man and woman in our country. Now that could also be called a conspiracy I think. And the IBJ was just full of lobbyists activity here in our state of Indiana…..from elected representative to Lobbyist….Sheila was a commentator in one of the articles. Perhaps we locals could make a decisive move locally? That would give some hope to many.

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