The rise of QAnon, widespread belief in Covid-19 misinformation and false claims of election fraud have led to concern that Americans no longer have a shared definition of reality, but belief in conspiracy theories has not actually increased over time, according to a study published Wednesday in PLOS ONE.
The research paper, by political scientists at the University of Miami, the University of Louisville and the University of Nottingham, which included data from seven nations and analysis of a variety of public opinion polling over the past 50 years, found only “scant evidence” that belief in conspiracy theories has increased over time.
The researchers surveyed Americans using questions from polls dating back to 1966 on belief in 46 conspiracy theories ranging from misinformation about AIDS to UFOs – they found belief in seven increased while falling in 17 and remaining unchanged in 22.
The researchers also conducted online polls with YouGov of residents of six European countries in 2016 and 2018, finding that beliefs remained the same or decreased for the majority of 35 conspiracy theories, including alien contact or the global warming “hoax.”
In another set of surveys in the U.S. between 2012 and 2020 examining beliefs about which groups are conspiring “against the rest of us,” the researchers found slight increases in conspiratorial perceptions of groups such as Freemasons or Democrats, but note the increases are balanced out by decreased conspiracism toward corporations, international organizations and unions.
The researchers also conducted surveys of American adults between 2012 and 2021 to test the general predisposition to explain events with conspiracy thinking by asking questions like “Much of our lives are being controlled by plots hatched in secret places,” finding no increase in conspiracism over time.
Nonetheless, the researchers noted that the baseline level of conspiracism in society is “concerning,” and more work is required outside of the U.S. to further test their hypothesis.
“Despite popular claims about America slipping down the conspiracy theory rabbit hole into a state of post-truth, we do not find that conspiracism has increased over time. We examine beliefs in dozens of specific conspiracy theories, perceptions of who is likely to be involved in conspiracy theories, and the general predisposition to interpret events and circumstances as the product of conspiracy theories –– in no case do we observe an average increase in conspiracy beliefs,” said Adam Enders, study coauthor and professor of political science at University of Louisville.
The study runs counter to conventional wisdom: according to a 2021 Quinnipiac University poll, 73% of Americans believe that conspiracy theories are “out of control,” while a 2018 CBS poll found that 59% of respondents agreed that people were more likely to believe conspiracy theories compared to 25 years ago. In 2021, Enders and other scholars published similar findings in the Journal of Politics which showed that support for the far-right QAnon conspiracy theory remained “meager and stagnant” despite a strong online presence, and which tied support for QAnon to individual displays of “dark” traits like Machiavellianism and narcissism instead of partisan preferences.
What We Don’t Know
Comprehensive opinion polling about conspiracism in the past is lacking. The authors note that their 2012 survey marks the earliest known measure of conspiracy thinking on a national scale. Dartmouth College political science professor Brendan Nyhan wrote in an email to Forbes that scholars are limited by the historical record of polling on this topic, adding that the new research in today’s study is “compelling.”