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The Media and Public Acceptance of Conspiracy Theories: The Case of 9/11

- April 7, 2008

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Conspiracy theories of major sociopolitical events abound. The September 11 tragedy is no exception — indeed, it may be the textbook case. Who believes in conspiracy theories of the September 11 attacks, and where did they get these ideas?

Those are the questions that motivated Carl Stempel, Thomas Hargrove, and Guido Stempel III’s study of “Media Use, Social Structure, and Belief in 9/11 Conspiracy Theories” (Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, Summer 2007).

The study drew on two theoretical perspectives. According to the “paranoid style” theory, “conspiratorial thinking is more prevalent among members of marginalized … or declining groups for reasons of insularity, status insecurities or declining status, powerlessness, and weak communal ties.” Moreover, “less legitimate and less regulated media sources, such as tabloids, Internet blogs [Now hold on a minute! “The Monkey Cage” is an extremely legitimate source!], and radio talk shows” play a major role in creating and spreading conspiracy beliefs,but “establishment’ media have no such impact.

The “cultural sociology” theory places greater emphasis on the rational aspects of conspiracy thinking. “In this view the media do not promote conspiracy theories so much by circulating particular rumors and conspiracies, as by raising people’s awareness and cynicism about how much goes on in the backstages of governmental and corporate power.” This perspective implies that belief in 9/11 conspiracy theories shouldn’t be restricted to a small group of social and cultural isolates; rather, it should be “aligned with mainstream political divisons and the discourses built up around those divisions.” Thus, for example, Democrats might be more accepting of 9/11 conspiracy theories “because they fit their view that influential members of the Bush administration were looking for an excuse to invade Iraq.”

Overall, 36% of the members of the national sample for his study considered it at least somewhat likely that “People in the federal government either assisted in the 9/11 attacks or took no action to prevent the attacks because they wanted the United States to go to war in the Middle East.” 12% went so far as to consider it somewhat or very likely that “The Pentagon was not struck by an airliner but instead was hit by a cruise missile fired by the millitary.” And 16% thought it somewhat or very likely that “The collapse of the Twin Towers in New York was aided by explosives secretly planed in the two buildings.”

Whereas readers of daily newspapers were less likely to consider the first of those three scenarios likely, getting news from blogs and tabloids was positively associated with conspiratorial thinking; blogs were the only news source related to believing in that U.S. forces had bombed the Pentagon; and both blog and tabloid readers were more likely to accept the idea that bombs had been planted in the World Trade Center. In terms of social characteristics, believers of all three conspiracy ideas were, as expected, more likely to be members of less powerful social groups or categories.

These findings wee consistent with predictions based on both of the theories from which the authors drew their research hypotheses, suggesting that acceptance of conspiracy theories of September 11 ican be understood in ways that are consistent with two broad perspectives on social structuring and media use.

These results are provocative, but it remains an open question whether Stempel et al. have really isolated a causal relationship in which certain social factors —> media use patterns —> acceptance of conspiracy theories. The obvious fly in the ointment is that of self-selection. That is, an assumption underlying the “paranoid style” and “cultural sociology” theories was that reading certain types of material fosters certain types of beliefs. It could well be, though, that holding certain types of beliefs leads people to read certain types of material. Although untangling that causal knot is a task well beyond the capacity of a cross-sectional survey, the findings presented in this study could provide a good starting point for experimental research that can speak more directly to the issue of causality.