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Conspiratorial thinking: Why conspiracy theories are difficult to eliminate – even before Donald Trump

In this Jan. 6, 2021, file photo supporters of President Donald Trump are confronted by U.S. Capitol Police officers outside the Senate Chamber inside the Capitol in Washington.  (Manuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press)

The beliefs that prompted hundreds of people to violently break into the U.S. Capitol earlier this month are not the kind that can be easily explained away.

“If the worldview is powerful people are lying and cheating, how do you get past that?” said Joe Uscinski, an associate professor of political science at the University of Miami who studies conspiracy theories.

Uscinski’s recent book, “Conspiracy Theories: A Primer,” argues that conspiracy theories entered mainstream politics with the election of President Donald Trump in 2016. But conspiratorial thinking by supporters of the loser of an election existed long before then, and those who unlawfully entered the chambers of the House of Representatives and the Senate weren’t just radicalized in the past few weeks following Trump’s re-election loss, he said.

“If you try to pin this on social media, that’s a mistake. You’ve had social media after the last handful of elections,” Uscinski said. “It is entirely the power of the presidency to influence actions.”

Trump ran campaigns in both 2016 and 2020 that embraced several conspiracy theories, including an overarching theme that the election would be rigged against him. Such a narrative helped build support among a voting bloc that believed the political system was stacked against them, a belief that could transcend party lines, according to Uscinski.

“A good chunk of the country are people who are ideologically innocent. All they see is a corrupt establishment, corrupt elites who are working against good people,” he said.

Uscinski used the example of Jacob Chansley, the man who appeared during the Capitol riot wearing animal horns with his face painted the colors of the American flag. Chansley has been indicted on six federal criminal counts related to his actions, and earlier this week offered through his lawyer to enter testimony against Trump at the impending impeachment trial.

“That’s not a normal Republican. He was induced into this with anti-establishment rhetoric,” Uscinski said.

The inducement happens for a lot of people when there’s ambiguity combined with fear, said Jillene Seiver, a senior lecturer of psychology at Eastern Washington University.

“If I don’t know, and I’m scared, I’m going to try to come up with an answer that makes me feel like I have some control over the situation,” Seiver said.

Conspiracy theories spread when there’s a breakdown in scientific thinking, she said. That’s more likely to occur online, in the echo chambers of social media. Hearing something over and over again, even if it’s from the same person or small group of people, makes it more believable, Sevier said.

“You select the people that you’re hearing from. That gives it more and more credibility in your mind,” she said.

Conspiracy theories exist across the political spectrum, said Cornell Clayton, director of the Thomas S. Foley Institute for Public Policy and Public Service at Washington State University. But Republicans, he argued, have ignored the calls from some within the party – including, famously, the conservative writer William F. Buckley Jr. in the 1960s – to reject conspiratorial factions.

“This has been going on, on both the left and the right, but it’s been asymmetrical,” Clayton said.

Experts say rooting it out once it’s taken hold is a difficult, if not impossible, task. Clayton pointed to the current movement by social media outlets to remove accounts that peddle in conspiracy theories as a good first step.

“One thing that everyone agrees about, both political parties, is we need to look at internet regulation better. I think that’s one place you go to look at this,” Clayton said.

But Uscinski is dubious about regulation of online content, both for its First Amendment implications and because not all conspiracy theories are false.

“Should governments or tech companies ban or bury conspiracy theories, they may be suppressing vital ideas that might be found to be true if investigated further,” Uscinski writes in his book. “Also, even if many of them turn out to be false, conspiracy theories may help uncover truth by calling for further investigation.”

Seiver also had doubts that taking away the platforms would stem conspiracy beliefs, and said that could, in fact, make them worse.

“Deplatforming people is basically putting gasoline on these conspiracy theorists’ thinking,” she said. “They think, ‘They wouldn’t be silencing us if there wasn’t a bit of truth to what we’re saying.’ ”

Instead, people should be taught early to adopt the critical thinking skills and humility that will allow them to spot a conspiracy theory and be able to interrogate it themselves, Seiver said. She referenced the work of 20th century philosopher Karl Popper, who famously argued in his theory of falsifiability that if you truly want to prove all swans in the world aren’t white, it’s not a white swan you should be looking for. It’s a black one.

“If you teach people to try and disprove what they believe, that will really undermine these conspiracy theories,” Seiver said.

One thing that has become ubiquitous but is unlikely to sway conspiracy theorists is fact-checking, Uscinski said.

“Go convince a Republican to be a Democrat, a Catholic to be a Jew, or a Jew to be an atheist,” he said. “If someone has a worldview, a link, a tweet or a fact check isn’t going to change that.”

Instead, voters should insist their government perform transparently and resist candidates who peddle conspiracy theories, Uscinski argued. But those theories aren’t going away.

“When we measure conspiracy beliefs, the general theory, there have been no increases” during the Capitol riot, Uscinski said. “As much as the media is concentrating on this as a topic now, that does not mean it’s increasing. We find a lot of stability.”