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The United States of Conspiracy

Americans will believe almost anything. Two decades of polling prove that. No matter how insane the claim, at least 10% and up to 40% of people will say it’s true.

This is the first of several posts presenting evidence that mainstream media is more at fault than social media in propagating conspiracy fantasies. To do so requires establishing:

  1. Humans are built to believe B.S.
  2. Social media’s beastly malgorithms spread that B.S.
  3. Mainstream media feeds the beast by obsessively over-covering every piece of socially trending B.S. — boosting the search results that lead people to the lies.
  4. Human nature is hard to change. Social media is unwilling and probably unable to change. So our only hope is a more media-savvy, media-literate mainstream media.

The posts will survey dozens of conspiracist studies, starting with those below which investigate a century of American gullibility, addressing item #1 above.


Americans will believe almost anything. Two decades of polling prove that. No matter how insane the claim, at least 10% and up to 40% of people will say it’s true (even a claim the pollsters made up).

“Sixty-three percent of registered voters in the U.S. buy into at least one political
conspiracy theory,” concluded a 2013 PublicMind Poll, whether it’s “President Bush knew about the 9/11 attacks before they happened” and his “supporters committed significant voter fraud in order to win Ohio in 2004” or “President Obama’s supporters committed significant voter fraud in the 2012 presidential election” and he was “hiding important information about his early life.”

After every Presidential election since 2000, losers accuse the winners of cheating conspiracies. “There were minor voting irregularities on Election Day — long lines, voting machine breakdowns, shortages of provisional ballots — but some people are now leveling charges of voter fraud.” Sounds current, right? But that’s from 2004, “Conspiracy Theories Abound After Bush Victory” (ABC News).

Paranoia strikes deep
Into your life it will creep
It starts when you’re always afraid
Step out of line, the men come and take you away

Stephen Stills, “For What It’s Worth”

Satanic panic attacks

In another 2013 survey, Public Policy Polling asked voters about a menagerie of bat-guano crazy claims: Is Osama bin Laden alive? Is Paul McCartney dead? A significant percentage of our fellow citizens see evil in the air, water, and White House.

National Survey Results, Public Policy Polling 2013
Believe Not Sure Do Not Believe
Media or the government adds secret mind-controlling technology to television broadcast signals.
15% 15% 70%
President Barack Obama is the anti-Christ.
13% 13% 73%
The government adds fluoride to our water supply, not for dental health reasons, but for other, more sinister reasons.
9% 17% 74%
The moon landing was faked.
7% 9% 84%
The exhaust seen in the sky behind airplanes is actually chemicals sprayed by the government for sinister reasons.
5% 8% 87%
Shape-shifting reptilian people control our world by taking on human form and gaining political power to manipulate our societies.
4% 7% 88%

Notice the Q-ness of that last claim, made years before Anon’s first post. Conspiracy fantasies often recycle centuries-old crap, from blood libel to lizard people. These Satanic-panic memes remain an evolutionary success by adapting to absorb new nonsense. Witness these two Q-credos in a 2020 NPR/Ipsos poll:

Identifying Misinformation, NPR/Ipsos 2020
True Don’t Know False
A group of Satan-worshipping elites who run a child sex ring are trying to control our politics and media.
17% 37% 47%
Several mass shootings in recent years were staged hoaxes.
12% 27% 61%
Minnesota state ballot with Lizard People as a write-in candidate
Minnesota state ballot proves Lizard People infiltrated politics (MPR News)

Hearing is believing

Belief is a function of exposure. Here’s how it works: Mainstream media debunks lizard people. Readers, many of whom don’t trust the media, search Google for “lizard people.” Searchers find “evidence” on YouTube and become believers.

Eric Oliver and Tom Wood (“Conspiracy Theories and the Paranoid Style(s) of Mass Opinion”) spent almost a decade asking people if they not only believed in but also had heard of a range of conspiracies. This is from their 2011 poll.

Percentage of Americans Agreeing with Various Conspiracy Theories, 2011
Strongly Agree Agree Neither Disagree Strongly Disagree
Heard Before?
The current financial crisis was secretly orchestrated by a small group of Wall Street bankers to extend the power of the Federal Reserve and further their control of the world’s economy.
8% 17% 38% 20% 17%
47%
Certain U.S. government officials planned the attacks of September 11, 2001, because they wanted the United States to go to war in the Middle East.
7% 13% 22% 18% 41%
67%
The U.S. invasion of Iraq was not part of a campaign to fight terrorism, but was driven by oil companies and Jews in the U.S. and Israel.
6% 13% 33% 22% 27%
44%
Vapor trails left by aircraft are actually chemical agents deliberately sprayed in a clandestine program directed by government officials.
4% 5% 28% 21% 42%
17%
The U.S. government is mandating the switch to compact fluorescent light bulbs because such lights make people more obedient and easier to control.
4% 7% 24% 24% 41%
17%

That last poll question, about fluorescent mind control, is insightful because… the pollsters invented it: “This particular conspiracy narrative was made up by the researchers and has not been visible in public discourse. Yet, 17% of respondents said they had heard of this conspiracy, and 10% said they agreed with it.”

It gets weirder. In 2020, the Observatory on Social Media also did a poll asking about conspiratorial beliefs and awareness. The results hid a surprise: More people believed several narratives than had heard of them!

Tracking public opinion about unsupported narratives, OSoMe 2020
To what extent do you believe the following statement is true?
Definitely True Likely True
Have you encountered this, or similar stories about this issue, on social media or the internet?
Definitely Yes Probably Yes
The book/TV series ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is based on the secretive religious group, People of Praise, to which the recently confirmed Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett belongs.
10% 31%
12% 27%
QAnon is correct that pedophiles and cannibals currently serve in US government positions.
15% 28%
12% 26%
President Trump faked COVID-19 to win support before the election.
15% 27%
20% 23%
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation sponsored a vaccine that causes polio in Africa.
24% 12%
22% 12%
President Trump went to the hospital last year because he suffered a stroke.
9% 23%
18% 22%
Dr. Anthony Fauci funded the lab that is responsible for the spread of the Covid-19 virus.
11% 17%
12% 20%

That’s right, without any research or social-media push, people will fall for absurd allegations they just heard for the first time from a stranger. In statistical terms, this, according to my calculations, is hilarious.

Could it be true, I asked the poll’s project lead, James Shanahan? “Yes, there were some [narratives] where more people believed than said they saw the story.… And I agree, it’s funny!”

Lizard People's Catacomb City Hunter, frontpage, Los Angeles Times,1934
Los Angeles Times,. frontpage, January 29, 1934

Does a bear soliloquize in the woods?

One sees more devils than vast hell can hold…
In the night, imagining some fear,
How easy is a bush supposed a bear!

William Shakespeare (via Theseus), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (c. 1595)

Why do people so easily believe B.S.? The many wherefore-conspiracism psychological studies offer scores of answers, occasionally contradictory, often distorted into misleading clickbait by the press.

My only explanation: It’s likely a byproduct of an eons-old survival skill.

You hear a noise in the woods. Is it a bear? Early humans had to react with an immediate “yes”; becoming bear food was a realistic possibility. We moderns can risk answering “no,” as we spend nearly 100% of our lives nowhere near a bear. The ancient instinct remains, though. When we hear noise about lizard people or malevolent airplane exhaust, our brains still shout “bear” first before taking time to question whether it’s B.S.

Evolution is a slow process. Global events like pandemics and climate change force us to comprehend probability. Perhaps that new survival skill will become an instinctual part of our instant-response belief systems, in 100,000 years or so, if we make it.

Paranoia strikes deep

The 2014 American Conspiracy Theories published what the book’s authors, Joseph Uscinski and Joseph Parent, correctly call “the only long-term representative sample of conspiratorial beliefs.” Their team took a clever approach: They scrutinized “121 years of letters to the editor of The New York Times and Chicago Tribune — more than 100,000 in total…, the only consistent public record of conspiracy talk over a century.”

The book quotes journalists in nearly every decade declaring their decade the age of conspiracy. But whether the age was industrial, information, or internet, conspiracy ratios have been relatively steady (with two spikes of fear: of communists mid-century and monopolists at the century’s turn). “While alarms are continually sounded for the rising tide of conspiracy theories, the prevalence of U.S. conspiracy theorizing has not varied much”.

Line chart of conspiracy letters to the editor, 1890-2010, from American Conspiracy Theories
Conspiracy letters to the editor, American Conspiracy Theories

The 1890s and 1950s were the true high points, the real ages of conspiracy in the United States. The prevalence of conspiracy talk in the United States has diminished slightly across time since those heydays, especially since the mid-1960s.

Joseph Uscinski and Joseph Parent, American Conspiracy Theories

The two Joes concluded, after examining 100K letters from 100 years of newspapers, “Conspiracy theorists… are, as a rule, not really paranoid or even that unusual. On the whole, nearly all Americans hold conspiracy beliefs, so it is hard to argue that nearly everyone is extreme or freakish.… They are as likely to be men as women and Republicans as Democrats.”

Conspiracism is multicultural, gender-neutral, and bipartisan, say the Joes:

Probably the hardest finding for many to swallow is that conspiracy theorizing is approximately equal among Republicans as Democrats. This risks offending the totality of our readership, who see their group’s conspiracy theories as real and other groups’ conspiracy theories as absurd. But… the survey data suggest that Democrats are a match for Republicans in conspiracy theorizing… over the last hundred years.

Oliver and Wood arrived at the same conclusion: “Conspiracy theories are embraced across the ideological spectrum. More conservatives than liberals believe that Barack Obama fabricated his birth certificate, but plenty of liberals believe 9/11 was an inside job.”

Ralph Steadman, Lizard Lounge (illustration for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas)

Terrible things were happening all around us. Right next to me a huge reptile was gnawing on a woman’s neck, the carpet was a blood-soaked sponge – impossible to walk on it, no footing at all. “Order some golf shoes,” I whispered. “Otherwise, we’ll never get out of this place alive. You notice these lizards don’t have any trouble moving around in this muck – that’s because they have claws on their feet.”

Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A savage journey to the heart of the American dream

America the Conspiratocracy

Before the 9/11 truth movement were the Pearl Harbor truthers whose beliefs, based on bogus documents, began by asserting America had pre-knowledge of the attack, then morphed (as these fantasies often do) into blaming FDR for the entire invasion. The believers were a pro-appeasement, anti-Semite group calling themselves — wait for it — America First. (See David Aaronovitch. Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History.)

Richard Hofstadter’s seminal 1964 article, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, quoted from the extensive history of American conspiracism: A 1855 Texas newspaper reported, “It is a notorious fact that the Monarchs of Europe and the Pope of Rome are at this very moment plotting our destruction and threatening the extinction of our political, civil, and religious institutions.” In the 1820s Freemasonry was “not only the most abominable but also the most dangerous institution that ever was imposed on man.… It may truly be said to be Hell’s master piece.” And the 1790s Illuminati had a secret substance that “blinds or kills when spurted in the face” and a “method for filling a bedchamber with pestilential vapours.”

The paranoid style has always been All-American. There’s a train of thought that our country was founded on a conspiracy fallacy. (The Joes are among those on board: “It is curious and consequential that the justification for independence was a shaky conspiracy theory.”)

The 1770s revolutionaries convinced themselves the tea tax was really part of a tyrannical English plot. A sinister scheme for which historian Bernard Bailyn, when perusing the pamphlets of the American Revolution, found little evidence but many proponents: “There seems to be a direct and formal design on foot to enslave all America” (John Adams, Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law, 1765). “A deep-laid and desperate plan of imperial despotism has been laid, and partly executed, for the extinction of all civil liberty” (Boston Town Meeting, 1770), “endeavoring by every piece of art and despotism to fix the shackles of slavery upon us” (George Washington, Fairfax Resolves of 1774).

Perhaps that paranoia is what prompted an otherwise complacent American populace to take up arms. Historian David Brion Davis wonders: “Is it possible that the circumstances of the Revolution conditioned Americans to think of resistance to a dark, subversive force as the essential ingredient of their national identity?”

Single acts of tyranny may be ascribed to the accidental opinion of a day; but a series of oppressions… too plainly prove a deliberate and systematical plan of reducing us to slavery.

Thomas Jefferson, In a Summary View of the Rights of British America (1774)

Jefferson seems oblivious to his own unrepentant tyranny as a lifelong slaveholder. To ignore your own faults while accusing those you disagree with of monstrous, diabolical plots — that’s as American as a pizzagate pie.

Lizard People's Catacomb City Hunter, page 5a, Los Angeles Times,1934
Los Angeles Times,. page 5, January 29, 1934 (also see LA Magazine)

Top image: David Dees, conspillustrator. Editors: Josef Verbanac and Claire Golding.

Articles in this series:

  1. The United States of Conspiracy
  2. (Assume) Everything on Social Media Is Wrong (upcoming)
  3. Mainstream Media Spreads Conspiracy Memes (upcoming)
  4. The Bullshit Storm Is Here (upcoming)