Conspiracy theories are dangerous even if very few people believe them | Opinion

By Keith Raymond Harris

There is an open question among pundits and researchers: Do more Americans believe in conspiracy theories now than ever before?

But as a scholar of conspiracy theories and their believers, I am concerned that focusing on how many Americans believe conspiracy theories can distract from their dangers.

Even if most people dismiss conspiracy theories or accept them only in some limited sense, leaving very small numbers of true believers, the high visibility of these false ideas can still make them dangerous.

Association without belief

Philosophers often suppose people can explain their actions in terms of what they want to do or get, and what they believe. However, many of people’s actions are guided not by explicit beliefs but rather by gut feelings. These feelings aren’t set in stone. They can be influenced by experience.

This principle is taken to heart by advertisers who aim to influence behavior, not by changing how people think but how they feel. Manipulating feelings in this way can be accomplished by subtly associating a product with desirable outcomes like status and sex.

This can also take a negative form, as in political attack ads that aim to associate an opponent with threatening imagery and descriptions. Forging similar mental associations is one way in which conspiracy theories, like other misinformation, might have consequences even without being believed.

Some Examples

Consider conspiracy theories alleging that the 2020 U.S. presidential election was rigged. Some people no doubt believe that. But even if people don’t buy the whole lie, they may still believe that something about the 2020 election doesn’t “feel right,” “seem right” or “smell right.” They might, therefore, be more inclined to support efforts politicians claim will protect election integrity – even if such efforts result in targeted voter suppression.

Next, consider anti-vaccination conspiracy theories. Anti-vaccination content, whether about vaccines in general or specifically about the COVID-19 vaccines, often takes the form of pictures and videos purporting to illustrate disturbing side effects of vaccines. Material of this sort can proliferate rapidly across social media and, by relying on disturbing imagery rather than explicit false claims, can often escape moderation.

Exposure to anti-vaccination information might give readers or viewers a vague feeling of unease, and consequent hesitancy concerning vaccines, even without producing explicit anti-vaccination beliefs. In fact, previous studies have shown that people who tend to rely on their intuition and who have negative emotions toward vaccines are more likely to refuse vaccination. While that research involved other vaccines, it’s likely that similar factors help explain why many Americans have gone without full COVID-19 vaccination, and most have gone without boosters.

A crowd storms the U.S. Capitol building.
Whether they were true believers or not, Capitol rioters were influenced by conspiracy theories (AP Photo/John Minchillo).

Pretense and coordination

Scholars often suggest that many people merely…

Read More: Conspiracy theories are dangerous even if very few people believe them | Opinion

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