Conspiracy theories: beliefs that are not new!

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It is one of the popular beliefs for which evidence seems useless. In the same vein as the infodemic, which consists in believing that disinformation has never been more present than today, believing that we have never subscribed to conspiracy theories so much seems to go without saying. However, the concept of infodemic is widely questioned in the social science literature. Political science scholars have also questioned the mainstream popular narrative that support for conspiracy theories has never been higher than it is today. Their study, published on July 20 in Public Library Of Science One, contradicts this hypothesis.

A shared belief

In order to justify the need for their study, the researchers show that most (73%) of Americans believe that conspiracy theories are out of control and more than half (59%) believe that they are more present today. than 25 years ago. In France, few data exist on this subject, but journalistic investigations or artistic creations show that the subject is of growing interest. This type of assertion is found in political and journalistic discourse with other platitudes such as the fact that social networks and Internet would be responsible and that we are currently in the era of post-truth (which are very controversial hypotheses in the literature). For the authors, showing that a significant percentage of the population adheres to conspiracy theories is not enough to answer the aforementioned question. Indeed, it is necessary to be able to compare the data over time. This is the challenge they undertook by measuring the appeal of conspiracy theories in four different ways.

Membership, conspiracy and conspiracy thinking

In the first two studies conducted, the investigators measured direct adherence to different conspiracy theories using closed-ended surveys, among the American and European population. In the third study, they assessed respondents’ propensity to believe conspiratorial groups existed, without focusing on specific conspiracy theories. Finally, in the fourth study, they focused on the way of thinking plotter.

Here’s what to take away from their results. First of all, on short time scales (from 7 months to 1 year), adherence to conspiracy theories on recent news topics (the Covid-19 pandemic, the QAnon movement) do not appear to have increased in the US population. On the other hand, when we focus on other conspiracy theories on various time scales (from a few years to half a century), it appears that support for 6 of them (including Big Pharma or the assassination of President Kennedy) increased out of 37 theories tested (15 remained stable and 16 showed a decline in support).

For the authors, it is clearly not sufficient to speak of generalized adhesion and of a real increase over time given that the magnitude — the tendency of the decrease or the increase observed — of the decrease in membership is more important than that of the increase. On the European side, seven theories were tested on large samples in several countries (Italy, Sweden, Poland, Great Britain, Germany and Portugal). The only one that showed a slight increase is Holocaust denial in Sweden from 1% to 3%. All other conspiracy theories point to a drop in membership. The researchers recommend interpreting these results with caution since few theories have been tested.

Concerning support for the belief that there are conspiratorial groups, although in absolute value (out of nine conspiratorial groups, the American participants increased their support for six of them), we observe an increase, when the we focus on the magnitude, the decline in support for the three other groups is greater than the increase observed in the six other groups combined. Here too, it is difficult to conclude that a real increase is observed. Finally, concerning the mode of conspiracy thinking (evaluated by a psychometrically valid questionnaire), which is perhaps the most relevant variable, we observe an upward trend between 2012 and 2016 but a fairly clear stability in general until 2021. .

What should we conclude from this?

Adherence to conspiracy theories is a real social problem and there is no denying it. This is not the objective of the authors of this study. They consider the work of psychological researchers specializing in the subject of conspiracy essential. However, this widespread belief that support for conspiracy theories has never been higher than it is today, combined with the infodemic and the post-truth era, can have sociopolitical consequences, in particular by pointing the finger at a new scapegoat who was not there before and who would be the cause of the current ills of society. For the authors, this lack of general increase suggests that support for conspiracy theories is, in a way, a ubiquitous characteristic of human societies.

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