Law and Politics Research

Study debunks rise of conspiracy theories

New research by University of Miami academics, supported by a U-LINK grant, offers insight into the opinions on conspiracy theories and puts things in perspective.
In this July 21, 1969 file photo, U.S. Air Force Sgt. Michael Chivaris, Clinton, Mass.; Army Spec. 4 Andrew Hutchins, Middlebury, Vt.; Air Force Sgt. John Whalin, Indianapolis, Ind.; and Army Spec. 4 Lloyd Newton, Roseburg, Ore., read a newspaper headlining the Apollo 11 moon landing, in downtown Saigon, Vietnam. (AP Photo/Hugh Van Es)
In this July 21, 1969, file photo taken in Vietnam, U.S. soldiers look over The Saigon Post, which featured news on the Apollo 11 moon landing. Some people believe that the moon landing was a hoax. Photo: The Associated Press

It seems like reports on followers of conspiracy theories are a constant feature in the news.

The latest one: Alex Jones, a radio host and conspiracy theorist—who said that the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting of 26 people, including 20 schoolchildren, was a hoax and carried out by actors—was ordered by a Texas jury to pay $45.2 million in punitive damages to the parents of a child who was killed in the massacre.

To the public there seems to be an increase in the number of people who follow these theories. However, the new research article “Have beliefs in conspiracy theories increased over time?” published by University of Miami professors and other colleagues in the journal PLOS One in July debunks that notion.

The paper is part of a University of Miami Laboratory for Integrative Knowledge (U-LINK) grant received by a group of University scholars. The funded project was to study the “Extremist Content and Conspiracy Theories in Online Social Networks” and was also supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

“There is a prevailing narrative in the media and among some scholars that we are in a ‘golden age’ of conspiratorial thinking, that belief in these theories is at unprecedented high levels,” said Casey Klofstad, professor of political science in the College of Arts and Sciences, and one of the researchers in the study. “Our data suggest that this narrative is an incomplete picture of the current state of global public opinion.”

Mainstream media is also adding fuel to the fire, the research found.

“The media persist that the spread of conspiracy theories has accelerated due to social media and that more people believe in conspiratorial messaging,” said Michelle Seelig, associate professor of interactive media at the School of Communication. “However, scant systematic evidence confirms this to be true.”

Along with Klofstad and Seelig, other scholars conducting the study include Joseph Uscinski, professor of political science; Kamal Premaratne, professor of electrical and computer engineering; Manohar Murthi, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering; Adam Enders, professor of political science at the University of Louisville; and Hugo Drochon, professor of politics and international relations at the University of Nottingham.

Uscinski said the research was important because the false belief that conspiracy theories are on the rise has prompted politicians to pass bills to curtail some elements of free speech from the internet.

“We have to put things in perspective before the government limits our freedom of speech,” he said. “If not, we are no better than the conspiracy theorists that we criticize.”

As part of the research, the scholars conducted polls beginning in 2018 but also used polling archival material going back 60 years. The archival material allowed the scholars to compare beliefs from the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s to beliefs today, said Uscinski.

Beginning in March 2020, about 2,000 people in the United States were asked about 50 conspiracy theories. The researchers repolled a sample of the U.S. public by repeating the exact question wordings used on national polls fielded between 1966 and 2020.

Questions included:

  • Was John F. Kennedy assassinated as part of a conspiracy or by a lone gunman?
  • Was the moon landing a hoax?
  • Is the U.S. covering up the presence of aliens?

The results suggest that the same number of people believe in these theories now as they did then, reported Uscinski.

The scholars also surveyed U.S. residents in March 2020, just as the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic and then followed up with surveys on later dates.

The questions were related to whether the pandemic was used as a bioweapon to harm U.S. citizens and whether the coronavirus was being used to force a dangerous and unnecessary vaccine on residents. 

There was no notable increase in the beliefs of those conspiracy theories, the researchers found. The study also revealed that people have not become more “conspiratorial or prone to believe that others are conspiring against them,” said Uscinski.

Partnering with YouGov and the help of Drochon in the United Kingdom, the second part of the study covered eight European countries. Those countries were England, Scotland, Wales, Italy, Poland, Portugal, Germany, and Sweden.

The surveys studied in Europe were from the period of 2016 and 2018 and there were no major increases in conspiracy theory believers there either, according to Uscinski. 

He acknowledged that further studies should be carried out in other countries since it is possible that there may be increases in conspiracy theory thinking in other areas of the world.

“Although this is not a definitive study, it shows that people will believe what they want to believe and that some conspiracy theories may become popular but at the same time others will diminish in popularity,” he said.