Conspiracy theories are shaping today's politics, expert shares how to spot them

Last December, a 28-year-old armed man allegedly walked into a Washington, D.C., pizzeria and fired shots during a 30-minute confrontation. The man later told police he was there to “self-investigate” an internet story that the restaurant housed a child sex ring run by Hillary Clinton and her former campaign chairman, John Podesta. The story spread via social media and although it was completely debunked by mainstream media sources, it lived on.

“Pizzagate” was one of umpteen conspiracy theories that shaped the 2016 election. Some believe the internet has fueled the growth of the theories and in recent years they’ve come under the microscope of academics like Joseph Uscinski, a political science professor at the University of Miami in Florida and author of “American Conspiracy Theories.”

click to enlarge Joseph Uscinski, a professor of political science at the University of Miami in Florida and author of "American Conspiracy Theories," will speak about conspiracy theories in politics at WSU Feb. 6.
Joseph Uscinski, a professor of political science at the University of Miami in Florida and author of "American Conspiracy Theories," will speak about conspiracy theories in politics at WSU Feb. 6.

A conspiracy theory almost always involves an ill-intentioned group or individual that is somehow out to get you. There’s an unlimited supply of conspiracy theories, Uscinski said.

“Most of them come and go in the night without notice.”

However, once in awhile they prove to be true, like Watergate; or worse, people act on false information. The Salem witch trials, World War II Japanese internment camps and the Red Scare of the 1940s and ‘50s were all fueled by conspiracies.

Most Americans believe in at least one conspiracy theory, according to Uscinski, who will speak at Washington State University in a series of lectures focused on the Trump presidency (find dates and times below). Inland 360 caught up with him beforehand to learn more about his work.

What led you to study conspiracy theories?

Uscinski: About eight years ago it became a big topic both for political scientists and social psychologists. It was driven by Barack Obama conspiracy theories in the U.S. That’s what drove a lot of academics to get into it. It’s going to be an evergreen topic.

What makes a conspiracy theory work?

Uscinski: If you want to be a successful conspiracy theorist, here’s what you do. You have to go after the biggest enemies that everybody hates. .... political parties, evil corporations, the big banks. In the abstract everybody hates those groups. It’s easy to believe. If you get specific (for example) there are lizard people who rule the planet, you’re going to be much less successful.

Do you think there were more conspiracy theories in our recent election than there have been in the past?

Uscinski: I think there were more in our mainstream political discourse and I think they were sort of highlighted in a way they haven’t been before; that doesn’t necessarily mean people believe in them more.

We had two mainstream candidates who built their campaigns on conspiracy theories, Trump and (Bernie) Sanders. Most of Trump’s point a finger at the political establishment and the basic idea of his campaign was that there’s something going on here. The mainstream elite and institutions are not looking out for you. Sanders went after both the political and economic establishment. He said the 1 percent control our entire political and economic systems; and both of them believed when they did not win it was rigged against them.

And, I have to point out, that during the election as much as Hillary Clinton chastised Trump for using conspiracy theories she used them as well when they were useful to her.

What role does the media have in the spread of conspiracy theories?

Uscinski: When you look at how the mainstream media covers conspiracy theories what you find is they’re very negative toward them. (For example, Uscinski said, the Washington Post did not investigate Pizzagate as a legitimate news story when it began to circulate online.) Most of the time they’re against conspiracy theories but even when you’re against it you’re still giving it a voice when you report on it. They’re in a weird place. They should be saying it’s not true but it also gives it exposure.

What about social media’s role in spreading conspiracy theories?

Uscinski: The neat thing about the internet is this, anyone can be a journalist. Social media allows anyone to spread their ideas far and wide very quickly. I don’t have a problem with people spreading conspiracy theories. It’s one way to hold power accountable. What concerns me more is when people abuse social media to spread things they know are false.

Are Americans more willing to buy into conspiracy theories than people elsewhere?

Uscinski: There’s not a lot of good research on this so we don’t know but I don’t see any reason why that would be the case. Everyone thinks the place they’re in is going crazy. … If you were to compare the U.S. to say closed societies, most of the conspiracy theories they think about may very well be true because in authoritarian countries there is a lot of corruption and if you don’t believe in conspiracy theories you’re probably a dupe.

So conspiracy theories aren’t necessarily all bad?

Uscinski: They can be good. In the end they serve a good purpose here, to an extent. (For example, JFK conspiracy theories.) Because of them we know more now about the assassination than we did 20 some odd years ago.

You’ve said there’s nothing wrong with conspiracy theories but what are the dangers of conspiracy theories?

Uscinski: Many times they’re not true and if people act on that information than they are likely to take bad actions.

What’s your bottom line when it comes to conspiracy theories?

Uscinski: It’s good to be skeptical of power and it’s also good to be skeptical of conspiracy theories.

Some Conspiracy Theories Past and Present

Women are witches in league with Satan. Freemasons control the world. Jews control the world. The U.S. government has an alien spacecraft that crashed in Roswell, N.M. Kennedy’s assassination was not due to a lone gunman. The government is exploring alien technology at Area 51. The Holocaust didn’t happen. The government was behind 9/11. Barack Obama was not born in the U.S. The U.S. government was behind the Sandy Hook shooting. Climate change is a hoax. Progressives are waging a war on Christmas. Immigrants are murderers, rapists and terrorists. Pharmaceutical companies are hiding the connection between vaccines and autism. The economy is controlled by a billionaire class. Agriculture and biotech companies are hiding the fact that GMOs are dangerous to our health. Trump is a Russian pawn. The mainstream media is colluding to hide the truth.

If You Go

What: U.S. politics experts discuss Donald Trump’s presidency When: Wednesday, Feb. 1 and Monday, Feb. 6 Where: Washington State University, Pullman Cost: Free

Events: Noon Wednesday, Feb. 1: “Race and Politics,” a conversation between Paul Pierson, professor of political science at the University of California, Berkeley; and Christopher Parker, professor of political science at the University of Washington, Bryan Hall 308.

4:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 1:  “Trump and the Changing Political Landscape in America,” Pierson, Compton Union Building auditorium.

Noon Monday, Feb. 6: “The Role of Conspiratorial Theories in Politics Today,” professor Joseph Uscinski, Bryan Hall 308.

4:30 p.m. Monday, Feb. 6: “Trump and the Media,” with: Scott McClellan, White House press secretary under President George W. Bush; Matthew Eshbaugh-Soha, professor and chairman of political science, University of North Texas; and Uscinski, CUB auditorium.

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