While the willingness of people to believe unfounded and conspiratorial explanations of events is fascinating and troubling, few have addressed the broader impacts of the dissemination of conspiracy claims. We use survey experiments to assess whether realistic exposure to a conspiracy claim affects conspiracy beliefs and trust in government. These experiments yield interesting and potentially surprising results. We discover that respondents who are asked whether they believe in a conspiracy claim after reading a specific allegation actually report lower beliefs than those not exposed to the specific claim. Turning to trust in government, we find that exposure to a conspiracy claim has a potent negative effect on trust in government services and institutions including those unconnected to the allegations. Moreover, and consistent with our belief experiment, we find that first asking whether people believe in the conspiracy mitigates the negative trust effects. Combining these findings suggests that conspiracy exposure increases conspiracy beliefs and reduces trust, but that asking about beliefs prompts additional thinking about the claims which softens and/or reverses the exposure’s effect on beliefs and trust.
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For example, we dropped “September” from the headline and article and replaced “July” and “August” with “the two previous months.”
Our participants were paid 75 cents, which is consistent with standard rates on MTurk. We restricted participation to those in American who had at least a 95 % approval rate on at least 50 HITs—which are surveys or tasks in mTurk’s lingo—and we dropped respondents from the second experiment who participated in the first by using their random MTurk ID numbers.
Because the article was unrelated to the BLS data, we included the following transitional preface to questions in this condition: “Speaking of numerical data, the government provides a lot of economic data of its own. For example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports monthly economic data”.
The liberal and young nature of MTurk demographics suggest some caution in extrapolating these results to the elderly and extremely conservative segments of the American population. However, if anything, we would expect the elderly and conservative to be even more sharply affected by our conspiracy exposure than the young and liberal; so, our results likely downplay the effect of conspiracy exposure as a consequence of our sample’s demographics. Moreover, while our sample skews young and liberal, we do have a sizable number of elderly and conservative respondents (indeed, we control for both age and partisanship in our models).
The full models, including results for all of the institutions including those for which we do not expect confidence effects can be found in the Supplementary material, Table A4. All results remain substantively the same when we calculate a series of individual OLS estimates; the seemingly unrelated regression equations simply provide more efficient estimates.
Ideally one could also investigate the independent effect of the rebuttal, but doing so may not have much substantive meaning and/or confuse participants since a rebuttal without the conspiracy claim it relates to does not make much sense. Rebuttals on their own only make sense when they refer to well known conspiracy claims. In such an instance, though, the rebuttal is likely serving the role of the conspiracy exposure by reminding people of the claim as well.
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They would like to thank Adam Berinsky, Jennifer Hochschild, Doug Kriner, Brendan Nyhan, Dustin Tingley, seminar participants at Dartmouth College, and five anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments.
Electronic supplementary material
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Survey Question Wording
Do you think that recent monthly unemployment data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics are always calculated as accurately as possible or are they politically manipulated? (1) Calculated as accurately as possible (2) politically manipulated.
Confidence in Government
Below is a list of institutions in American society. Please indicate how much confidence you have in each one. (1) Very confident (2) somewhat confident (3) not so confident (4) not confident at all.
Four Question Racial Resentment Index
How strongly do you agree or disagree with the following statement? Irish, Italian, Jewish, and many other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up. Blacks should do some same without any special favors. (1) Strongly agree (2) agree (3) neither agree nor disagree (4) disagree (5) strongly disagree.
How strongly do you agree or disagree with the following statement? Generations of slavery and discrimination have created conditions that make it difficult for blacks to work their way out of the lower class. Strongly agree (1) strongly agree (2) agree (3) neither agree nor disagree (4) disagree (5) strongly disagree.
How strongly do you agree or disagree with the following statement? Over the past few years, blacks have gotten less than they deserve. Strongly agree (1) strongly agree (2) agree (3) neither agree nor disagree (4) disagree (5) strongly disagree.
How strongly do you agree or disagree with the following statement? It’s really a matter of some people not trying hard enough; if blacks would only try harder they could be just as well off as whites. (1) Strongly agree (2) agree (3) neither agree nor disagree (4) disagree (5) strongly disagree .
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Einstein, K.L., Glick, D.M. Do I Think BLS Data are BS? The Consequences of Conspiracy Theories. Polit Behav 37, 679–701 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11109-014-9287-z
- Conspiracy theories
- Trust in government