Who believes in conspiracy theories? Statistically speaking: almost everyone.
A team of researchers recently showed several thousand Americans a list of 20 common conspiracy theories and asked if they believed them. These included false conspiracy theories about the John F. Kennedy assassination, 5G cellular wireless technology, Barack Obama’s birth certificate, covid-19 and climate change. The result: Nine in 10 Americans believed in at least one conspiracy theory.
The study — led by Adam Enders of the University of Louisville and Joseph Uscinski of the University of Miami — surveyed a representative sample of 2,023 Americans in March 2020 and 2,015 more in October 2020. This article uses questions from their surveys to test your knowledge — and your credulity.
So, can you tell fact from fiction, or will you fall down the rabbit hole? Scroll down to find out.
1/6 Let’s get started: Which of the statements below is true?
Jeffrey Epstein, the billionaire accused of running an elite sex trafficking ring, was murdered to cover up the activities of his criminal network.
President John F. Kennedy was killed by a conspiracy rather than by a lone gunman.
The FBI kept tabs on civil rights leaders such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., attempting to find compromising information and damage his reputation.
Regardless of who is officially in charge of the government and other organizations, there is a single group of people who secretly control events and rule the world together.
2/6 Partisanship plays a role in what people believe: Both Republicans and Democrats are prone to believe conspiracy theories that make the other party look bad. Can you pick the true statement — or will you be blinded by party loyalty?
Republicans cheated their way to win the 2000, 2004 and 2016 presidential elections.
Hillary Clinton conspired to provide Russia with nuclear materials.
During Ronald Reagan’s presidency, government officials secretly and illegally sold weapons to Iran, and used the money to fund Nicaraguan revolutionaries.
Barack Obama faked his citizenship to become president.
Real-world events sometimes follow this formula as well. Example: The Reagan administration acted secretly and illegally in the Iran-contra affair, and the FBI did spy on King. But the key difference is that these real incidents are backed up by evidence, facts and witnesses.
Conspiracy theories are different. They’re just theories. Most have no evidence to support them. They often connect unrelated facts to create an impression of plausibility.
Yet almost everyone believes at least one. According to Enders, “One thing I notice a lot in talking to colleagues, journalists and students — people don’t realize that a lot of people just believe weird stuff. A lot of this commotion about conspiracy theories, especially in the last four or five years, is fueled by this complete misunderstanding of the basic contours of public opinion.”
3/6 Conspiracy theorists commonly seize on subjects that most people have little expertise in, such as health and science, and therefore cannot easily be debunked. Half of Americans believe one of the claims in the list below, but only one is backed by evidence. Which of these is true?
The dangers of genetically modified foods are being hidden from the public.
The U.S. government secretly dosed Americans with LSD in an attempt to develop mind control technology.
The AIDS virus was created and spread around the world on purpose by a secret organization.
The coronavirus was purposely created and released by powerful people as part of a conspiracy.
4/6 Some conspiracy theories are like astrology — entertaining nonsense that ultimately doesn’t hurt anyone. But some are bizarre, sinister or downright offensive. Which of these statements, if any, is correct?
School shootings, such as those in Newtown, Conn., and Parkland, Fla., are “false flag” attacks perpetrated by the government.
The number of Jews killed by the Nazis during World War II has been exaggerated on purpose.
Satanic sex traffickers control the government.
None of the above
Some of these theories are transparently absurd: The Holocaust was not exaggerated, mass shootings were not faked, and Satan worshippers don’t control the government.
But the least believable conspiracy theories can have the biggest consequences. Holocaust deniers and believers in “false flag” theories often support political violence and exhibit sociopathic personality traits. Many of the rioters involved in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol showed some allegiance to QAnon — a belief system built on conspiracy theories about Satanists.
Most Americans aren’t drawn to these dark ideas — instead, they more casually rely on false theories to explain tragedies including terrorist attacks or presidential deaths; or they enjoy nasty rumors about their political opponents. The belief in one false theory does not necessarily mean the belief in an alternate reality. But it sometimes can.
As Enders told us: “The political and psychological and social motivations that fuel beliefs in conspiracy theories are shared among all people.”
5/6 Let’s try another one: Which of the three statements below is true?
The U.S. government knew hundreds of Black men in Alabama had syphilis, but told them they had “bad blood” and withheld treatment as part of a medical experiment.
President Donald Trump faked having covid-19 in order to help his chances at reelection.
Donald Trump colluded with Russians to steal the presidency in 2016.
6/6 Conspiracy theories often help powerful people — sometimes by putting other powerful people in the crosshairs, or by playing on prejudices. Which of these statements is correct?
A powerful family, the Rothschilds, through their wealth, controls governments, wars and many countries’ economies.
There is a “deep state” embedded in the government that operates in secret and without oversight.
Fossil fuel companies like Exxon knew about climate change for decades, but spread misinformation about the issue to deflect blame and influence environmental policies.
Even reasonable people fall for conspiracy theories. During George W. Bush’s presidency, half of Democrats said Bush let the 9/11 attacks happen so he could start wars. Two-thirds of Republicans believe the “big lie” — that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump.
These theories have consequences. Since the 2020 election, Republicans have pursued election “audits” — recounts aimed at casting doubt on Joe Biden’s win. Other conspiracy theories, such as anti-vaccine narratives, threaten public health.
Eventually, you’ll run into a conspiracy theory that appeals to you politically or psychologically. So be careful and double-check your sources — or you could fall down the rabbit hole, too.
Editing by Sergio Peçanha, Kate Woodsome and Michael Duffy. Illustrations by Sergio Peçanha. Design editing by Chris Rukan. Copy editing by Ryan Vogt.