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The long-term consequences of Trump’s conspiracy theory campaign

Trump’s normalization of conspiracy theories could pose a lasting threat to our democracy.

President Donald Trump gesturing from behind a podium and wearing a MAGA hat.
President Donald Trump speaking at a Miami campaign stop on November 1, 2020.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Shirin Ghaffary is a senior Vox correspondent covering the social media industry. Previously, Ghaffary worked at BuzzFeed News, the San Francisco Chronicle, and TechCrunch.

Over the past few months, President Trump has repeatedly attacked the integrity of the US election by pushing a conspiracy theory that mail-in voting will lead to mass voter fraud.

Never mind that mail-in ballot voter fraud rates have historically been extremely low, and Americans have voted by mail with very few problems since the Civil War. Trump has still baselessly called the election “rigged,” accused Democrats of trying to “steal” the election, and urged his followers to join an “army” of poll watchers to monitor this unproven voting malfeasance.

Democrats, too, have spread unproven theories and anxiety about voting. Some have alleged that Trump was trying to cripple the US Postal Service in order to slow the election. (The USPS is struggling to deliver ballots in time but it’s not proven this is due to a directive by Trump.) And some have asserted that Republicans are engaging in voter suppression tactics. (Trump’s campaign is making legal efforts to make it harder for people across the country to vote; it says these efforts are in support of election transparency.)

The result is that a high percentage of Americans believed the election would be unfair in some way, even before it started.

About 42 percent of Americans — evenly split between Democrats and Republicans — thought it was somewhat or very likely that fraud would play a role in the 2020 election if their favored presidential candidate didn’t win, according to a national poll in October of more than 2,000 people conducted by political science professor Joseph Uscinski and his colleague at the University of Miami.

Some of the conspiracy theories split across party lines — 70 percent of Republicans versus 30 percent of Democrats polled believed that allowing ballots to be sent by mail would increase instances of voter fraud, suggesting that Trump’s repeated promotion of this theory has had some impact on his Republican base. Democrats, meanwhile, were more likely to believe that there is an effort to stop the US Postal Service from processing mail-in ballots.

“There are always a good amount of people who believe the election is going to be rigged — that’s sort of standard,” Uscinski told Recode. “This year, those numbers tend to be really high.”

This is bad news for the 2020 election. But it also has potential ramifications that extend far beyond it. If the conditions that made people likely to believe in fraud continue, some experts worry we may see a prolonged loss of confidence in the voting process.

“What’s worrisome to me is that no matter what the election outcome is, the effect found on our democratic institutions are going to be felt for years to come,” said Nina Jankowicz, a researcher on disinformation for the Woodrow Wilson Center. “People are not trusting that their ballots are going to be counted. I mean, this is pretty fundamental stuff.”

Other experts, like Uscinski, aren’t so sure.

“Trump is different than any other president in that he is not really a party politician. He ran not just against the other party but against establishment writ large, and he built a coalition using a lot of unsavory rhetoric, including conspiracy theories,” said Uscinski. “I think it’s largely unhealthy, but I think once he’s gone and we have another president who doesn’t engage in that, things may return to normal.”

It’s too soon to say how much of a lasting effect Trump’s presidency will have on political norms in this country (whether he remains in office beyond 2020 or not). But the increase in conspiratorial thinking about this election shows how the public’s trust in facts has eroded — and that poses a threat to our democracy and society.

Right now, some of the most prevalent conspiracy theories are focused on the election. But conspiracy theorists have already gotten to work spreading misinformation about arguably an even higher-stakes issue: Covid-19, which continues to spread at a record pace in the US as the country heads into winter.

Around 30 percent of the American public believes in some coronavirus conspiracy theory, including that the threat of the virus is exaggerated to harm Trump and that the virus was purposely created, according to a recent study published in the Harvard Misinformation Review. This denial of the basic science about things like mask-wearing or the seriousness of the disease, both endorsed by Trump, have contributed to real harm. Almost 230,000 Americans have died from Covid-19.

The question moving forward, researchers say, is whether or not Trump will continue to influence people’s beliefs. How much will movements that have formed in the last four years continue to infiltrate mainstream thinking and politics, even if Biden does win?

Why it feels like we’re hearing about conspiracy theories more than ever

Polls show that, overall, the percentage of Americans who believe in conspiracy theories hasn’t changed much over time. So then why do we hear about them so often lately — including on major political stages?

“It’s not a new phenomenon, but it feels like we are living in a new era because information spreads so quickly,” said Kathryn Olmsted, a professor at UC Davis who has studied the history of conspiracy theories. “In the Middle Ages, with something like blood libel [which is the idea that Jewish people were using Christian people’s blood for ritualistic sacrifices], people heard about that by word of mouth. But now you can reach a lot more people through social media.”

Take Plandemic, a 26-minute video that made egregiously false claims about the coronavirus, including that it was planned by Anthony Fauci and global elites like Bill Gates. Within days of being posted in May, the video racked up 8 million views across social media platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter.

Though social platforms eventually took the Plandemic video down, Trump and his advisers tweeted a video with some similar claims a few months later.

Still, there’s no tangible data that videos like Plandemic have actually changed most people’s beliefs. Uscinski’s polling showed that the percentage of Americans who say they believe Covid-19 is a hoax remained stable in the months before and after Plandemic was released.

A different way to study the effects of something like the Plandemic video would be to track if the specific behavior and beliefs of people who watched it changed over time. But Facebook and other social media companies make it very difficult for academics to do that because they limit access to such data due to what they say are privacy concerns.

But perhaps whether or not these conspiracy theories are recruiting more believers via social media isn’t the biggest concern. A more important question, researchers told Recode, is whether social media can push people into echo chambers of their own beliefs and nudge them toward being more extreme.

“If you just spend time with people who say the same thing you think, you’re going to say that more and more and more. Your notion of what constitutes neutrality is completely skewed by comparison groups,” said Dannagal Young, a communications and political science professor at the University of Delaware. “Chronic exposure to homogeneous opinions will cause people’s own opinions to become more extreme in the direction they were already inclined.”

A recent example of the real-world dangers of conspiracy theories can be found in QAnon, which started off as a relatively fringe idea in the dark corners of the internet three years ago but has now penetrated mainstream American politics. It’s gained the tacit endorsement of some established Republican politicians, including Trump himself — despite the fact that the FBI has designated the theory as a domestic terrorism threat. About a dozen people inspired by QAnon have been charged with committing or attempting to commit violent crimes, including two murders and an armed police standoff at Hoover Dam.

Nearly two dozen people who have been linked to QAnon are now running for Congress, including one, Marjorie Taylor Greene, who will likely win. And Trump himself has implicitly endorsed the theory, sharing posts from social media accounts promoting the theory hundreds of times and twice refusing to condemn the theory when questioned about it during an election town hall this month, saying he agrees with parts of the theory.

Recent polling suggests only a small percentage of Americans actually believe that there is truth to QAnon’s wild claims. But Trump’s normalization of something that’s considered a domestic terrorist threat proves how dangerous conspiracy theories can be, regardless of their scale — especially if they’re exploited and promoted by political leaders.

Beyond Trump: Factors associated with conspiracy theories

Conspiracy theories influencing politics isn’t new. Before Trump’s presidency, parts of the American public have long embraced conspiratorial thinking. Some conspiracy theories, such as doubts about JFK’s assassination, had at one point as much as 80 percent support with the American public, far higher than the 30 percent of people who believe in Covid-19 conspiracies today.

Researchers told Recode that conspiracy theories tend to thrive in times of heightened fear and uncertainty. When people feel scared, they may seek explanations in anything that provides a sense of control. That’s where we’re finding ourselves now, right before a presidential election that some believe will shape the future of US democracy and as Covid-19 cases spike eight months into a global pandemic.

“People are looking for some certainty now, even if that certainty comes in the form of something that is totally outlandish,” said Jankowitz.

“I always come at these questions from a standpoint of evolutionary psychology,” said Young. “We are all social animals, all looking for cues around us to cue to our systems how we are supposed to react. And everything around us is telling us we are supposed to be reacting as though there’s an imminent threat.”

And during this flurry of uncertainty about a new disease, official sources of information — like the White House and National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci — are often actively in conflict with each other.

Take the topic of masks. In the early months of the pandemic, public health officials like Fauci initially told Americans not to wear masks and reserve them for front-line health care workers, a message echoed by major media publications and politicians. But as the virus progressed, agencies like the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reversed their guidance, as did most major media outlets. Yet Trump for months refused to wear a mask in public; he only recently changed his stance somewhat — while continuing to mock people who wear them.

This is just one example out of the vast number of false and misleading statements Trump has made during his four years in office, eroding the public’s trust in basic facts.

Part of the strategy of Covid-19 conspiracy theorists is to frame the initial mixed messaging in mainstream media and public health leadership as a deliberate plan to cause harm. And since many people have lost confidence in major media outlets to report the truth, they are turning to online communities as sources of information instead, where it’s easy to find such theories.

“When the information in the world is confusing, and when there are so many competing messages, what we can rely on is an understanding of group allegiances and group identity — primal allegiances to groups,” said Young.

A Biden presidency could disempower but not get rid of conspiracy theories

A Biden presidency would be likely to reduce the influence of conspiracy theories in politics. His record indicates that he listens to scientific and academic consensus rather than fringe beliefs when it comes to major issues.

But in the case of a Biden victory, Trump’s supporters could be even more likely to embrace conspiracies and feel the system is working against them.

In fact, research suggests that conspiracy theories are perpetuated more often by the political party of the “losers” in an election, meaning if Trump loses, we could expect to see more conspiracy theories launched against liberals. Until now, Trump has bucked this trend — in part, people think, because though he’s president, he presents himself as facing constant opposition.

Whether or not people will continue to listen to Trump when he leaves office — whether it’s when his current term ends or four years from now — is a harder question to answer. If Trump doesn’t continue to attract a steady stream of media attention, interest in the conspiracy theories he promotes may die down.

But politics aside, a bigger conspiracy theory battle may play out post-election as the US tries to overcome Covid-19.

Scientists are racing to develop a vaccine, but it will only curb the pandemic if a critical mass of people take it. In a September poll by Pew, only 51 percent of Americans said they would take a coronavirus vaccine if it were available today — a decline from some 72 percent of Americans who said they would take a vaccine in a July poll, also conducted by Pew.

That’s worrying, because scientists say about 70 percent of the population needs immunity to the coronavirus in order to end the pandemic.

Olmsted, who has studied the history of conspiracy theories across decades of US history, said she can’t think of a scenario involving conspiracy theories that’s higher stakes. “It’s terrifying because if these conspiracy theories mean that fewer people take the vaccine, then that endangers all of us.”

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