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Conspiracy theories are spreading wildly. Why now?

The Buffalo shooting shows how deadly such theories can be.

- May 18, 2022

Ten Black Americans were killed at a supermarket in Buffalo, allegedly by a White gunman who promoted a racist conspiracy theory. A congressional candidate who supports QAnon has won a Republican primary. Pennsylvania GOP Senate primary candidate Kathy Barnette has repeatedly spread the conspiracy theory that former president Barack Obama is Muslim. Tucker Carlson and Glenn Greenwald have spread the falsehood that the United States is secretly funding biological weapons research in Ukraine, part of a wider campaign to spread misinformation about the coronavirus pandemic.

Conspiracy theories are playing an outsize role in U.S. politics.

Once such theories simmered in fringe movements. Today, numerous elected officials, media figures and political candidates have embraced these theories in their campaigning and outreach. And a growing number of Americans agree with some or more of these seemingly outlandish ideas.

Why is the United States seeing such growing acceptance of conspiracy theories? Social science research suggests that extreme polarization, political anxiety and a rapidly changing media environment can help explain the rapid spread.

QAnon and the “great replacement” conspiracy

QAnon first appeared in late 2017 on a website called 4chan, known as a breeding ground for conspiratorial and violent rhetoric. Someone who claimed to be a government employee with a special security clearance called himself “Q Clearance Patriot” and vowed to expose a “deep state” cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles who allegedly control the U.S. government.

The cabal is allegedly composed of prominent liberal celebrities and Democratic politicians who capture children to sell them into sex trafficking. Former president Donald Trump was supposed to be its messiah figure, rescuing the children and publicly executing their captors.

MNQAnon believers have tried to use its core framework to explain the pandemic, 5G technology, and the “Big Lie” election conspiracy theory. QAnon is what some researchers call a “big tent” conspiracy theory, meaning that it seeks to continually expand and absorb all related sub-theories. QAnon’s false claims have coalesced into an extremist ideology that has radicalized its followers. It has incited violence and criminal acts, and the FBI has designated it a domestic terrorism threat.

The “great replacement” theory similarly claims that a powerful cabal is out to “replace” White Americans by bringing in non-White immigrants and by manipulating birthrates. The theory has been touted by Rep. Paul A. Gosar (R-Ariz.), among others. These shared beliefs are what scholars who study conspiracy theories have termed “monological” belief systems, meaning that if people believe in conspiracy theories at all, they are likely to believe in more than one.

Why aren’t Americans more alarmed about white-supremacist violence?

How polarization and political anxiety fuel the spread of conspiracy theories

Political polarization is not new to the United States. It means that fewer Americans hold moderate political views; Americans more generally are less willing to listen to the other party’s ideas. But starting in the 2000s, scholars found that many Americans were beginning to feel what’s called “affective polarization,” in which ordinary Republicans and Democrats disliked and distrusted anyone who identified with the other party, their party identities becoming more personal and tribal.

This results in extreme in-group/out-group bias, where partisans are more likely to believe conspiracy theories about the “other” group. With such extreme dislike, some people begin to feel they are justified in doing anything, including resorting to violence, to supposedly protect their perceived community — as did the accused Buffalo shooter.

Finally, affective polarization also works with political anxiety, or intense and persistent worry about political topics, to fuel the spread of conspiracy theories. Political scientists Bethany Albertson and Shana Kushner Gadarian find that political anxiety causes people to want to learn more about politics — but pushes them to pay particular attention to threatening or frightening information. In the Buffalo suspect’s screed, for instance, he claims to have been drawn to these conspiracy theories while browsing the Internet during the covid-19 lockdowns.

Social media makes it easier to spread conspiracy theories

In the 18th and 19th centuries, conspiracy theories spread primarily via print news. That changed in the late 1920s, when Catholic priest Charles Coughlin used his popular radio show to spread antisemitic conspiracy theories and to promote fascist politicians. Some argue that Fox News host Carlson is the modern-day Coughlin.

However, print media, radio and cable television typically only allow information to flow in one direction, from the source to the audience. The Internet and social media platforms have changed that dramatically. QAnon believers discuss their conspiracy theories on Twitter, Gab, Facebook, YouTube and Telegram, among other platforms. The Buffalo shooting was live-streamed on Twitch, a popular video game streaming platform, and the suspect posted his screed on 4chan.

Interactive media help users cultivate a sense of community and belonging, far more so than simply reading an article or listening to a broadcast. While an article might spark an emotion or push someone to search for more information, social media and affective polarization can elicit feelings of being on the same team.

Some say the U.S. is heading toward civil war. History suggests something colder.

“Gamification” spreads conspiracy theories farther

My dissertation research into QAnon builds on the growing field of gaming and extremism research and investigates how QAnon has “gamified” conspiracy theories. Researchers use the term “gamification” to refer to everyday systems designed to motivate users and shape their behavior, using the kinds of rewards you get from playing a game. For example, Starbucks has a rewards program that uses games and challenges to incentivize customers to keep purchasing their products, offering chances to win discounts or free goods.

The Buffalo suspect may well have felt a sense of community with and responsibility toward the white supremacist digital communities where he first learned the “great replacement” conspiracy theory, and where he discussed his alleged plans in advance. He sought recognition and reassurance that his alleged actions would serve his “team.” While allegedly live-streaming his shooting, he was probably performing for his viewers, as happened with previous racially motivated attacks.

In the past, theorists like historian Richard Hofstadter, who wrote the influential essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” treated conspiracy theories as pathological, leading some policymakers to dismiss them. But more recently, political scientists J. Eric Oliver and Thomas J. Wood have argued that conspiracy theories must be treated as part of public opinion.

Conspiracy theories, fueled by extreme political polarization and anxiety, have found a new stronghold in our digital media ecosystem. Until we understand how these platforms function, we will likely see more heartbreaking tragedies.

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Margaret Appleby is a PhD student at Virginia Tech who researches conspiracy theories, white nationalism, and extremism.