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Is America addicted to conspiracy theories?

Experts say theories are usually benign, but sometimes carry hidden dangers

FILE - In this July 30, 2008 file photo, Jeffrey Epstein, center, appears in court in West Palm Beach, Fla.
In this July 30, 2008 file photo, Jeffrey Epstein, center, appears in court in West Palm Beach, Fla. The wealthy financier and convicted sex offender has been arrested in New York on sex trafficking charges. Two law enforcement officials said Epstein was taken into federal custody Saturday, July 6, 2019, on charges involving sex-trafficking allegations that date to the 2000s.
Uma Sanghvi, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY —

#TrumpBodyCount and #ClintonBodyCount both trended on Twitter shortly after disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein’s apparent suicide in New York’s Metropolitan Correctional Center Saturday. Multiple — and competing — conspiracy theories have blown up across the internet as conservatives and liberals, celebrities and typical Joes alike speculate about how Epstein, accused of sex trafficking minors, died.

Experts say conspiracy theories are as American as apple pie, though they are not always as benign.

“We like to think that people who believe in conspiracies are a marginalized group of people — they’re the ones that wear the tinfoil hats,” said Steven Smallpage, assistant professor of political science at Stetson University in DeLand, Florida. “But research shows 80 percent of Americans — and that’s a conservative estimate — are prone to conspiracy thinking. There’s a misconception that is a fringe phenomenon, when in fact it’s the opposite.”

Most people believe in at least one conspiracy, Smallpage said. And there are plenty to choose from: Time magazine’s list of conspiracy theories includes the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the notion 9/11 terrorism was faked to to get Middle East oil, the idea alien bodies are stashed in Area 51, belief that secret societies — think the Illuminati — control the world, and claims the moon landing didn’t happen, among others. And who hasn’t heard Donald Trump’s theory that Barack Obama was born in Kenya?

Epstein’s death is rare, however, because it fuels theories across the nation’s political divide and inflames two types of conspiracy thinking: general conspiracy, which most people exhibit at some point, and also partisan conspiracy, which lets one side view the other with suspicion, said Smallpage.

“Usually, it’s a partisan one-way street,” said Smallpage, who noted Republicans rejected the notion 9/11 was a conspiracy within the U.S. government that would have implicated George W. Bush, while some Democrats believed it. But Democrats derided the Obama birther conspiracy and some Republicans believed it.

Trump fanned the feeding frenzy around Epstein’s death by retweeting a conspiracy theory that suggested the Clintons were involved. Others have suggested Trump himself or his supporters were involved.

“What conspiracy theories do is impose order in a disordered world,” said James Tabery, associate professor of philosophy at the University of Utah. “We live in a world where crazy things, where random things, where awful things happen, from presidents like Kennedy getting shot to election surprises to labor markets and economies doing weird things. A lot of those things are unpredictable.”

The idea is simple: Surely a lone gunman couldn’t take down the leader of the free world or a “handful of Middle Eastern terrorists launch the single most devastating assault on the United States in hundreds of years,” Tabery said. People counter with ramped-up explanations that seem to better match the enormity of the event.

The imbalance between events and the apparent explanation can be seen in Epstein’s death, too, though on an entirely different scale.

“There’s a powerful individual who knew lots of influential people, doing something truly heinous, the sexual assault of children. He can’t have just killed himself. That doesn’t feel like it fits the justice we need. There needs to be something more to it, so we gravitate to a cabal that’s behind it that explains it. Maybe a Democrat cabal led by the Clintons or a Republican cabal led by Trump and (William) Barr,” said Tabery.

People believe what bolsters their own views, experts told the Deseret News.

People apply “motivated thinking,” in which they look for information that matches their thinking, and “confirmation bias,” in which they pay more attention to and give greater credence to information that supports their view and thus confirms their opinion.

The human mind

Psychological research shows people are pattern finders, according to Tabery. That usually serves them well, explaining things like gravity, nature, and cause and effect. Patterns enable predictions and help explain what has already happened. But “when random things, unfortunate things, low-probability things happen, our pattern-searching minds don’t find that pleasing. We end up constructing something that seems like a better fit,” he said.

People kid themselves about their own thinking, said Peter H. Ditto, professor of psychological science at University of California Irvine, who studies motivated reasoning.

“We all have this sense that we kind of think like scientists and take information and put it together to get unbiased, agnostic conclusions,” he said. “But people don’t think like that. People think emotionally.”

Thoughts are influenced by the thinker’s needs, favorite teams, group affiliations and how they see their own morality, he said. Against that background, people choose “beliefs that make us feel good, make our team feel good.”

Research suggests people are not ideological most of the time. “They don’t think in the left-right dimension,” is how Smallpage puts it. But both Democrats and Republicans use conspiracy notions to build group identity, he added.

Still, embracing conspiracy theories can chill participation in political processes. Voters are less likely to flock to the polls if they think the Illuminati predetermined the outcome. Why bother voting?

A favorite thesis holds that “losers” espouse conspiracies, and there’s truth to that, but not the way some people think. “Loser” doesn’t refer to some guy playing first-person shooter games alone in his parents’ basement. “We mean it electorally,” said Smallpage. If you or your candidate lose a major campaign, you’re more likely to cite conspiracy to explain the loss. “Candidates, regardless of party, don’t say ‘the American people were not on my side.’ They are far more likely to raise the specter of voter fraud or suppression, things that may or may not be true,” Smallpage said.

Conspiracy theories are nothing new. They are part of the stew on which America’s founders supped; They’ve been nurtured by succeeding generations.

“We like to believe that people are reasonable, more ideological, more persuadable,” said Smallpage. “They aren’t and never really were.” Nor is partisan hatred a required element for conspiracies to thrive.

He points to moments in time: Many conspiracies attributed by Founding Fathers to King George proved to be untrue or exaggerated. And two enduring theories, the JFK assassination and moon landing conspiracies, both happened at “the peak of American camaraderie.”

Danger ahead?

Conspiracy theories are typically pretty benign and not especially long-lasting. But researchers ponder when or if they can be dangerous. Some think a mixture of conspiracy theory and partisan extremism portends hazards. Thinking that conspirators kept your candidate from winning can build solidarity politically; believing conspiracy paired with extremism can lead to being radicalized.

So the idea that immigrants are part of a conspiracy to replace whites may have different results “when we dislike each other emotionally more than we did in the 1970s, for example,” said Smallpage.

Mixing political extremism with conspiracies, then stirring up partisan in-group/out-group solidarity could contribute to events like the Christchurch shootings or Pizzagate, he said.

“The part that’s dangerous is not the majority who think that politicians lie or things might not be as they seem,” Smallpage said. “The danger comes from an elite who use conspiracy theories and promote them not merely to build solidarity but to push a particular agenda, to create enemies so that people can attack them.”

The risk seems greater now with America in the middle of what Ditto called a “giant political food fight.” He said the relationship between conservatives and liberals has “metastasized” so some no longer see each other as simply possessing different opinions, but have layered in “different intentions and goals. They are bad. Evil. There’s a sense of grievance and animosity. And when you feed conspiracy theories into that, how do you settle on an answer? You are most likely to settle on an answer that makes your own side feel good and that confirms your view. ... It provides just another reason to hate ‘them.’”

Technology supercharges the process, spreading information, innuendo and misinformation fast and far. “If you hear something that makes sense to you, it lights everything up and you share that. Belief is really a team sport,” Ditto said.

Extremism can feast on anything, said Tabery; conspiracy theories are “just another element that polarizes people, and people with extreme thoughts gravitate to justify extreme beliefs.”

People sometimes even vote based on the theories they believe. “We would normally like to think that when you’re voting for someone, you’re voting because of Medicare for all, or building a wall — all these sorts of actual issues,” said Smallpage. “We need to relax that assumption and realize people vote for a whole slew of reasons that don’t have anything to do with policy” — including voting based on conspiracy theories.

Fact or fiction

People may also endorse — or not reject — a theory because it’s what their team says to believe. Ditto thinks that happens with global warming. Most people aren’t scientists and can’t assess the issue scientifically. So they go for something akin to solidarity, adopting a “team” stance more than committed belief.

“Sometimes believing the truth doesn’t buy you anything but trouble,” said Ditto, who said politicians may follow a party line because a “path of least resistance is a nice path to be on lots of times.”

Some people build conspiracies on missing information, to which they assign extra importance. “It’s like imagining what a puzzle would look like using its missing pieces,” said Smallpage.

If others — preferably lots of others — share your view? “That’s what’s so powerful. … Truth is really something that other people believe with you.”

Confirmation bias is powerful — that’s where fake news takes hold. If people see what they want to believe, they accept it as true, said Ditto. Otherwise, they’re more thoughtful.

“We are too easy on things we want to believe,” he said. “If we see something on Facebook we agree with, we just share it. We should try to treat information from our own side the way we treat information from the other side and fact check it. “

The long tail of a conspiracy theory may depend not on its truth but on how hard it would be to disprove. Because Kennedy’s assassination can’t be disproven, it lingers. But produce a birth certificate, and the ranks of birthers shrink.

Experts caution, however, against ignoring or dismissing conspiracy theories. History has proven many true, from Watergate to the Iran-Contra arms scandal and others.

“I wouldn’t want to say you should never investigate,” Tabery said. “It would be unwise in the Epstein case to say don’t, not because it’s tied to Trump or the Clintons, but because someone committed suicide in prison. Something broke down. That’s not supposed to happen.”

Investigations take time and it’s quite likely that as more data comes in, some conspiracy theories will fade, he added.

“Things peter out. Conspiracy theorists do not issue publicity statements that ‘I want to notify everyone that I got that wrong.’ They move on to the next conspiracy theory and see if they get traction there. We are only talking about conspiracy theories when hand grenades are being thrown. Nobody talks about them when they fizzle out, but the vast majority fizzle out,” said Tabery.