Thursday, December 17, 2015

Why Conspiracy Theories Flourish on the Right

David Roberts explains Why conspiracy theories flourish on the right (and not so much on the left). "A [new] study identifies the sorts of people susceptible to conspiracy theories"

The researchers found, after examining two large data sets (details in the paper), that the effect of trust is as expected, across the political spectrum. Lower-trust conservatives and liberals are both more likely to endorse ideologically congenial CTs (i.e., CTs that make the other side look bad).

But beyond that, there are interesting asymmetries. For liberals, more knowledge reduces endorsement of CTs, no matter the level of trust, and more trust reduces endorsement of CTs, no matter the level of knowledge — "knowledge and trust are both independently negatively related to liberals’ endorsement of liberal conspiracies."

For conservatives, on the other hand, more knowledge increases endorsement of CTs among those with low trust; for high-trust conservatives, knowledge seems to have no effect — it neither increases nor decreases tendency to endorse CTs.

In other words, the high-info/low-trust dynamic is in fact the conspiracy theory sweet spot, but primarily for conservatives.

as a result:

[C]onservative politicians and pundits can more readily rely on conspiracies as an effective means to activate their base than liberals. And to the extent that ideologically motivated endorsement is most evident among the least trusting of the knowledgeable conservatives, there is all the more incentive for conservative elites to stoke the fires of distrust.

and in conclusion:

And that's exactly what we're seeing unfold, as illustrated by the horror comedy that is the GOP primary race. Low-trust, high-knowledge conservatives — a.k.a. the conservative base — are bending the political system to their will on the basis of fever dreams that neither the media nor politicians can afford to ignore. Lacking the language or institutional means to dismiss popular conspiracy theories for what they are, feckless US political and media elites are instead normalizing them, "defining deviancy down" as the old phrase goes.

The research suggests that there is only one way to mitigate or reverse this process: restore some level of trust in the US political system. But conservative elites — who have the ear of their base — have no incentive to do so, and it's not clear that anyone else has ability to do so. Declining trust in institutions is broad and deep in America; it may very well be unstoppable. As long as it continues, conspiracy theories will play a larger and larger role in public life.

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