It feels like a new conspiracy theory is popping up every day. Just look at the social media posts after Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin collapsed during the game against the Cincinnati Bengals. Doctors say the sudden hit to his chest caused a cardiac arrest, but within minutes, vaccine skeptics blamed the COVID-19 vaccine. The next night, Tucker Carlson amplified these lies on his eponymous show, claiming– without evidence– that athletes around the world are contracting an extremely rare heart condition known as myocarditis from the vaccine.
Same playbook when sports journalist Grant Wahl died from an aneurysm in his heart while covering the World Cup in Doha. When he collapsed, anti-vaccine activists falsely linked his death to the COVID-19 vaccine without waiting for results from an autopsy.
The COVID-19 vaccine isn’t the only target of online conspiracy theorists. They also stepped in to fill an information void soon after news broke that Paul Pelosi was attacked in a home invasion in San Francisco. Fringe news sites like the Santa Monica Observer and Gateway Pundit began spreading salacious rumors that Pelosi was on drugs and that the man who attacked him with a hammer was a male prostitute. This baseless theory was soon promoted on social media by right-wing figures like Dinesh D’Souza and Roger Stone, even though police soon confirmed it was a politically motivated attack aimed at then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
This constant drip feed of conspiratorial rhetoric has led many people to conclude that conspiracy theories are on the rise. In a survey last year, nearly three-quarters of Americans said these theories are currently “out of control” and that people are more likely to believe them compared to 25 years ago. Despite these perceptions, there is no evidence this is happening, according to a study by University of Miami Professor Joseph Uscinski and his team of researchers. Their research shows that the number of people believing in conspiracy theories has remained relatively stable over the last 60 years.
They came to this conclusion by asking two thousand people about their beliefs in 37 conspiracy theories, including older ones like the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the existence of alien life, as well as newer ones like QAnon, global warming and the hidden danger of vaccines. They used exactly the same questions from previous surveys to get a precise comparison and discovered that only six conspiracy theories gained followers—the most striking jump found in the number of Americans who believe contact with an alien race is being hidden from the public (now at 33 percent!)
Beliefs in the other 31 conspiracy theories showed no change or actually decreased—some quite dramatically. Only one in five people now believe global warming is a hoax, half as many as just a decade ago.
What is new—and noteworthy—is that a significant number of politicians are embracing conspiracy theories, especially the Big Lie, the baseless claim that Joe Biden did not win the 2020 election. Former President Donald Trump started this one, making allegations of systemic voter fraud in 2016, so his base was already primed to believe the election was stolen in 2020 before the votes were even counted.
Those beliefs have now hardened, and during the 2022 midterms, more than 370 Republican candidates continued to question the legitimacy of the 2020 election despite the recounts, failed lawsuits and overwhelming evidence there were no irregularities. These political leaders may not truly believe in the Big Lie and other right-wing conspiracy theories but acknowledge and even promote them to win over voters. And in many elections, this strategy paid off. According to the Washington Post, at least 179 election deniers won their races in November.
QAnon is another conspiracy theory that is popular among some Republicans. Former President Trump has posted a picture of himself donning a “Q” lapel pin with the words “The Storm is Coming,” a reference to when he will regain power, and his “deep state” enemies will be prosecuted in court and executed on live television.
The conspiracy theory about Paul Pelosi was also amplified by several elected Republicans. The Seattle Times put out a list of nine officials who spread these lies or cast doubt on the facts of the attack. Among them Sen. Ted Cruz, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Rep. Claudia Tenney.
Northwestern University Professor Cynthia Wang says that the public’s recent preoccupation with conspiracy theories is not unique. “With COVID-19, the elections, the war in Ukraine, the economy, and inflation, the world is just rife with uncertainty, and people are just looking to understand things,” says Wang. She argues that what’s different today is that conspiracy theories have gone mainstream thanks to social media, which spreads these lies faster than ever and creates echo chambers that keep reinforcing conspiratorial beliefs. According to Wang’s research about leaders who embrace conspiracy theories, it’s no surprise that politicians from the former president on down parrot these fringe ideas to connect with their base.
“For political leaders in a sharply polarized electorate, conspiratorial rhetoric can be very appealing,” says Wang. “Leaders are incentivized to use this language because it’s attractive and it works. And, if they don’t use this language, they may be punished for it.”
Especially when about 70 percent of all Republicans still believe the 2020 election was stolen. All of which means the Big Lie may be around for a long time.