clock menu more-arrow no yes

Why conspiracy theories are getting more absurd and harder to refute

“Democracy requires a minimum amount of mutual trust among citizens, and conspiracism destroys it.”

Donald Trump Holds MAGA Rally In Johnson City, Tennesee
Supporters of President Donald Trump wearing QAnon T-shirts wait in line before a campaign rally at Freedom Hall on October 1, 2018, in Johnson City, Tennessee. QAnon is a wildly popular pro-Trump conspiracy theory.
Sean Rayford/Getty Images

Are we living in a golden age of conspiracy theories?

That’s the argument Harvard politics professor Nancy L. Rosenblum makes in her new book, A Lot of People Are Saying. And it’s not merely that conspiracy theories are thriving — they’re also getting more absurd, less substantive, and harder to refute.

In fact, what we’re seeing now, according to Rosenblum and her co-author Russell Muirhead, is more “conspiracism” and less theory. Which is to say, the purpose of conspiracy theories is no longer to explain reality or offer some account of the world; instead, the point is to erode trust in public figures or institutions.

She points to the recent Pizzagate conspiracy as a perfect example. This was a fake news story alleging that Hillary Clinton and her former campaign chair, John Podesta, ran a child sex ring in the basement of a pizzeria in Washington, DC. It was totally fabricated, but it proliferated enough online that a man eventually showed up at the restaurant with an assault rifle and fired at least one shot.

Rosenblum believes this new form of conspiracism amounts to a direct attack on the foundations of liberal democracy and what she calls “knowledge-producing institutions.” As conspiracism takes root in our politics, she says, we lose our capacity to deliberate about the direction of the country. And ultimately, democracy itself becomes impossible.

I spoke to Rosenblum about the nature of modern conspiracy theories and how they’ve evolved into an existential threat for democratic societies. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Sean Illing

Why write a book about conspiracy theories now?

Nancy Rosenblum

Charges of conspiracy have in the last two years become a malignant element in public life, and I think it’s been really corrosive to our politics. But what struck me and my co-author was this intrusion of conspiracism, which we think is fundamentally different from conventional conspiracy theories.

Not a day passes without some sort of conspiracist claim about rigged elections or fake news or something absurd like Pizzagate. And the cast of characters that are engaged in conspiracy charges now ranges from a compulsively conspiracist president to public officials — elected representatives who either endorse these conspiracist claims or acquiesce to remain silent — to conspiracy entrepreneurs and their followers.

So it’s a not-insignificant part of our population, and it’s a common element now in public life.

Sean Illing

And how do you define a conspiracy theory?

Nancy Rosenblum

A conspiracy theory is an explanation of an event — an event that seems otherwise unintelligible or improbable. And the explanation is that underneath what seems unintelligible is actually some sort of conspiracy or secret plot. Sometimes conspiracy theories are true, sometimes they’re false. It’s often hard to tell the difference, but in all cases, it’s an attempt at some reasoned explanation for a complicated event.

Sean Illing

So a conspiracy isn’t wrong by virtue of being a conspiracy theory, but it’s more likely to be wrong because it’s an attempt to take a complicated event and fit it into a broader narrative framework?

Nancy Rosenblum

That’s right, and I’m so glad you said that, because Wikipedia actually defines a conspiracy theory as a false threat of a conspiracy, and that’s not true. There are both progressive conspiracy theories that are not only true but have advanced American democracy, and there are total fabulations that are pure inventions.

Sean Illing

Can you give me an example of an accurate conspiracy theory and one that was totally fabricated?

Nancy Rosenblum

Examples of sheer fabulation would be the “faked moon landing” (Stanley Kubrick actually filmed it in a studio) or that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is dead (the Democrats found a body double to deny her death in order to prevent President Trump from filling her seat on the Supreme Court). Or, more to the point, perhaps, the recent Pizzagate conspiracy.

As far as useful progressive conspiracy theories go, a good example is the work by academics like Naomi Oreskes documenting conspiracies by the tobacco and fossil fuel industries to cast doubt on climate science, which actually refutes the climate hoax conspiracy that says global scientists are bribed to produce reports of catastrophic human-caused global warming.

Or the Progressive movement in the early 20th century that cast corporate boardrooms and smoke-filled rooms of political bosses as potential roadblocks to democracy; the result of what they called “muckraking” reporting on this corruption was democratic reforms that are still with us, like direct democracy and referenda, etc.

Sean Illing

I think of conspiracy theorists as people who have rejected a world they don’t fit into, and the theories themselves offer a way to make sense of it and invert the cause of the problem. In other words, if I’m unhappy or alienated, it’s not my fault; it’s these shadowy forces that are aligned against me. Plus, it gives the conspiracy theorist a sense of power — they understand what’s really going on in a way no one else does.

Nancy Rosenblum

That’s probably the most common social psychological source of conspiracy thinking. People don’t fit in, they feel dispossessed or alienated or put upon by some elite or expert, and then they have a story that seems to make sense of why that has happened to them. It’s a kind of scapegoating.

It’s incredibly empowering to believe you have the true picture of reality and that everyone else is delusional. And if you look at conspiracists today, even the wackiest, like those writing about QAnon, they see themselves as the cognoscenti. They understand how the world really works, and they understand that the rest of us are brainwashed.

Again, I’d just add the caveat that some conspiracy theories are real and the people who engage in them are making a good-faith effort to explain what’s happening.

Sean Illing

The psychology of conspiracism seems to appeal to a wide range of people, some smart and some not. Why is that?

Nancy Rosenblum

Cognitive and political psychologists will tell you the cognitive afflictions that result in the worst and most zealous kind of conspiracy theory really are common; we all share them. We like to think that agents are the causes of things, rather than accidents or unintended consequences being the cause. We like to think there’s a proportionality between cause and effect, and that causes us to overreach for explanations.

But there’s a difference between those people who earnestly want to know what’s happening and those who have a conspiracist mindset; the latter tend to see the world entirely that way. They tend to see the world in terms of enemies, not just events that need an explanation.

Sean Illing

In the book, you argue that conspiracy theorizing is different today, that we have the conspiracism without the theory. What does that mean?

Nancy Rosenblum

I mean that conspiracy theorizing today dispenses with the burden of explanation. In fact, sometimes, as in Pizzagate, there’s absolutely nothing that needs to be explained, and there’s no real demand for truth or facts. There are no actual dots that need to be connected to form a pattern.

Instead, we have conspiracy charges that take a new form: bare assertion. Instead of trying to explain something that happened in the world, it’s about creating a narrative that itself becomes the reason for the conspiracism. And it even spreads in a much different way.

For instance, much of the conspiracism today spreads through innuendo. You’ll hear people say, “I just want to know more, I’m just asking questions.” Or, as President Trump likes to say, “A lot of people are saying...” This is conspiracy without any theory. It’s about validating preexisting beliefs by constantly repeating false claims that reinforce what you already believe.

So it’s not merely that someone thinks Hillary Clinton is an unworthy candidate; we have to make up a story about her sex trafficking in children. And by repeating these things and assenting to them, you’re signaling a kind of group affinity. Conspiracy without the theory has become a form of political participation.

Sean Illing

You also emphasize that the point of conspiracism today isn’t to explain but rather to delegitimize. Why is this a significant distinction?

Nancy Rosenblum

It’s a way to delegitimize what it means to know something at all. So you often find today that people don’t really care if something is totally true. They’re just looking for something they can hang their hat on, to create enough doubt to justify their core beliefs and sow cynicism at the same time.

We think of this sort of conspiracism as an attempt to own reality. Trump is exhibit A: He has a compromised sense of reality that he imposes on the nation, for instance, when he lied about the crowd size at his inauguration.

The conspiracists who traffic in this sort of dishonesty aren’t interested in arguments or evidence. It’s about confirming their picture of the world and undermining the institutions charged with reporting the truth in the first place. And it’s a declaration that only their way of knowing is credible and everyone else is brainwashed.

We call this “epistemic polarization”: There is no ground for argument or persuasion or even disagreement. And we think it is more profound and unbridgeable even than partisan polarization.

Sean Illing

Why does it seem like the conspiracism today is mostly a right-wing phenomenon?

Nancy Rosenblum

It goes back to what we were just saying about delegitimization: The right wing wants to delegitimize the government and, really, all of our knowledge-producing institutions. So it’s naturally beneficial for them to spread conspiratorial thinking. The Democrats, on the other hand, generally like government and want to improve it, so they have less reason to embrace conspiracism.

But I want to be clear: There’s plenty of conspiracy theory on the left. Jane Mayer’s book Dark Money, for example, or Elizabeth Warren’s claim that the business model of Wall Street is rigged — these are technically conspiracy theories, and I think they’re true. The difference, though, is that these are attempts to explain what’s going on; it’s not the sort of conspiracism I’m talking about here.

Sean Illing

The examples of conspiracy theories on the left you pointed to so far appear to be good-faith attempts to find the truth, while the examples on the right seem to be outlandish theories meant to destroy faith in institutions. But did you find any conspiracy theories on the left that were straightforwardly delusional, or at least not serious attempts to find the truth? And conversely, were there any on the right that turned out to be true, that uncovered real conspiracy?

Nancy Rosenblum

I can think of several left conspiracy theories that I’d assess as outlandish: the left 9/11 Truthers who argue that the government knew about the attack in advance and let it happen, or even organized it, in order to justify war against Iraq — and to advance the attack on civil liberties and the Patriot Act. There’s also an element of the left that believes Bush and Cheney went to war in Iraq purely to get the oil; unwarranted on my view, but still held by friends and colleagues.

I can’t think of a right-wing conspiracy claim that turned out to be warranted, however. Today’s conspiracism seems to be uniquely right-leaning, and it’s hard to find a scrap of it that’s true; after all, it is not trying to explain the world, it is trying to recast reality. Or to see regular processes, like investigations and oversight, as attempted coups d’état.

In addition to other reasons I’ve explored, it’s the right, not the left, today that insists on its victimization and therefore is intent on identifying the enemies responsible for their humiliation — even as they gain office. The right that sees a liberal agenda to seize guns, dramatized by Alex Jones’s claim that the Sandy Hook parents were crisis actors paid to advance the gun control agenda.

That said, perhaps there is a cost to insisting on placing classic conspiracy theory on the right-left axis. For the most part, it’s a radical suspicion of government and of official findings, and it comes at us episodically from many quarters.

Sean Illing

Is there something about the world today, about how we communicate and acquire information, that has lowered the bar for conspiracy theories?

Nancy Rosenblum

You would know this better than me, since you’re writing a book about new media technologies. But I’ll say this: The decline of gatekeepers, the decline of legacy media, and the rise of the internet and social media have taken down all the barriers. Now information can spread so fast and so cheaply that it’s nearly impossible to contain. And the influence of algorithms and curated newsfeeds is certainly pushing people deeper and deeper into self-confirming bubbles.

One difference between the classic conspiracy theorists and the new conspiracism is that the former would use the internet all the time, because there’s an infinite amount of bits of signs and data and information that they can get and plug into their theories. But the new conspiracists are into social media, and what they’re doing is affirming one another. They’re tweeting and retweeting, and sharing and liking, and building out their tribe.

Sean Illing

You argue very forcefully in the book that this new conspiracism is a direct threat to the foundations of democratic society. Can you briefly explain why?

Nancy Rosenblum

You can’t have a functioning democracy without a plurality of knowledge-producing institutions. You need universities and scientists and government agencies, and so on. And to the extent that those institutions are discredited in the public’s mind, to the extent that people think they can make policy without relying on the knowledge those institutions produce, the government will become dysfunctional. And the more dysfunctional it becomes, the more illegitimate it will seem to more and more people.

At the same time, all this conspiracism erodes trust not just in public institutions but in our fellow citizens. We’re obliterating trust in each other and in the political competition, and that’s a direct attack on the foundations of democracy. Liberal democracy requires a minimum amount of mutual trust among citizens, and conspiracism destroys it.

Sean Illing

How do we reason with conspiracy theorists? Or how do we check the influence of conspiracism?

Nancy Rosenblum

I don’t think we reason with conspiracy theorists. I think it’s a closed system. I think they are incorrigible. I think we have to speak truth to conspiracy, but not with the thought that we’re going to change the minds of conspiracy theorists. And we have to be especially critical of the institutions that help spread conspiracism.

But it’s my view that the people who can counter this are elected political representatives, people who have a partisan connection to their constituents and people who should in many situations say, “That’s not true. That’s not what’s happening. Here’s how it works.” And the tragedy we’re seeing now is that for opportunistic reasons, elected representatives are failing in their responsibilities to do this.

If elected officials cannot find the courage to do this, we’re in trouble. And the fact that the president of the United States and the leader of one of our two parties is one of the prime spreaders of conspiracism today is obviously a very bad sign.

Can I just add one more cautionary note before we end?

Sean Illing

Please.

Nancy Rosenblum

I’ve learned something stunning while doing this work, which is that this conspiracism is destructive all the way down. It’s destabilizing, it’s degrading, and it’s destroying our democratic institutions without any countervailing constructive impulse.

And what this tells me is that in this perilous time for democracy, it doesn’t take an alternative political ideology to degrade democracy — it doesn’t take communism, or authoritarianism, or fascism, or anything else. Conspiracism can demolish democracy on its own, and we ignore that at our peril.