Millions of Americans Believe Conspiracy Theories Exist

Curator's Note

Interest in conspiracy theories periodically blooms in April (along with their attending violent events like Oklahoma City bombing, Waco, Columbine, Virginia Tech Massacre). Last week Public Policy Polling released its survey results of US beliefs in such purported things--a data-based varietal featuring the breakdown of adherents' partisan affiliations.

But what do such statistics tell us? Surveying the media landscape, one senses that the numbers validate expectations, giving a semblance of precision to otherwise woolly (but strident) judgments. They inspire headlines that seem informative: "20 conspiracy theories you should know," declares the Houston Chronicle, as if identifying strains of poison sumac. Others take a more alarmist tone: Vanity Fair warns us of "The Creeping Danger of Conspiracy Theoristswhile The Atlantic Wire announces that “12 Million Americans Believe Lizard People Run Our Country.” The form of these headlines mimics their targets, slightly altering the content to bifurcate an Us/Them.

The affective power of data becomes clearer when we note the wide variety of beliefs that get amalgamated into the master category “conspiracy theories.” It lumps beliefs in extraterrestrial or cryptozoological creatures (nothing more conspiratorial about that than, say, believing in God) together with views regarding Bush regime coverups, adding narratives about shapeshifting global elites and claims about vaccine-autism links. Nothing holds these twenty beliefs together except that someone at some point has ridiculed them. Their grouping is thus rooted in tradition. Numbers retroactively justify a fuzzy category, a recent conceptual invention based in commonsense. The inconsistency (euphemism for willfully ignorant conceptual synthesis) betrays a collective political wish. We want to believe in conspiracy theories. After years of repetition, the term has become an article of faith, one with strong institutional support, canonical works, and now quantitative authority.

The persistent, cyclical quality of these concerns indicates that the desire to believe is never satisfied, resulting in a repetition-compulsion. Whether reacting with dismissive humor or low-intensity panic, the root affect remains an anxiety over politically incorrect knowledge claims. Matthews’ alarmist incredulity mixed with a smug-jectivity signal a desperate need for epistemological security. Sometimes these collective reactions are so strong, you’d think the pundits were afraid of something; something so pervasive yet unseen that only the revelatory power of “research” will illuminate the truth out there.  Even with measuring tools taken as weapons, we remain spectators in a game of “Crackpot Calls the Kettle Wack."


Hi Jack, thanks for a great to post and a great conclusion for our theme week. I especially like your concluding paragraph which sums up the character of this discourse about conspiracy theories quite well. The question I would raise, though, is the following: Do we have any reason to expect a different, more nuanced and conceptually more precise treatment and discussion of conspiracy theories from mass-medial formats like Hardball and the like? It seems to me that this style of commentary is tied up with the rules and conventions of cable news & the mass media in general, whose function might be little more than providing 'newsworthy' information that is at the same time 'entertaining' and reassuring. Surveys like the one you mention seem to provide the ideal fodder for such a discourse, precisely because (as you point out) they reinforce & lend themselves to polarizing and ridiculing commentary that renders the other camp superstitious and stupid (and the polarization of American cable news along partisan lines obviously plays a role here as well). That being said, I like how your post points us to the similarities between this discourse about conspiracy theories and the discourse of conspiracy theorists themselves. I think Mark Fenster (in his book on Conspiracy Theories) has identified the 'repetition-compulsion' as a central aspect of conspiratorial thought, too, and I think conspiracy vloggers like Mark Dice or radio hosts like Alex Jones certainly berate their opponents with a similar smugness (which might again point us to a similar media logic that informs their respective formats).

"Nothing holds these twenty beliefs together except that someone at some point has ridiculed them." In addition to marking the similarities between discourse about conspiracy theories and the discourse of conspiracy theorists, as Felix astutely points out, Jack's posts suggests there can be no conspiracy theories without anti-conspiracy theory smugness. In other words: (yeah, I just made that). This reminded me of one of my favorite theoretical pieces on the conspiracy theory label, "Conspiracy theories and their truth trajectories" by Mathijs Pelkmans and Rhys Machold, which maps the concept of conspiracy theory along a truth/power axis. I would love to hear more thoughts on this.

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