Researchers compared historical data to results of current opinion polls and found no evidence that the percentage of people who believe in conspiracy theories has increased in comparison to previous times. In a series of four studies, they compared results of recent opinion polls on a number of conspiracy theories including those about the origin of the coronavirus pandemic, QAnon and plots to rule the world, beliefs about groups that are conspiring and general conspiracy thinking.
Although there are conspiracy theories that lost popularity recently and others that became more popular, there is no evidence of an overall increase in such beliefs. The same holds for general tendencies towards conspiracy thinking. This series of studies was published in PLOS One.
Beliefs in conspiracy theories have attracted lots of public and media attention in recent years. With 73% of Americans believing that conspiracy theories are currently “out of control” and 59% agreeing that people are more likely to believe them now compared to quarter of a century ago, many scholars view conspiracy theories as an indication of a modern crisis.
However, conspiracy theories change over time. While in previous decades popular conspiracy theories were linked to sightings of UFOs, the origins of the AIDS virus, the purpose of adding fluoride to water and the assassination of president Kennedy, the most novel conspiracy theories are about origins and nature of COVID-19, effects of vaccines and 5G cellphone technology. But have beliefs in conspiracy theories indeed increased over time?
To answer this question, Joseph Uscinski from the University of Miami — a political scientist and a well-known researcher of conspiracy theories — and his colleagues conducted four studies in which they compared historical data to results of recent polls. The data came from a variety of polls organized between 1966 and the present date and many of these have been done or commissioned by the authors of this study themselves. All polls were done on large samples (1000+ participants for most) and using sampling techniques known for having a good likelihood of producing representative samples.
In the first study, the researchers tested the hypothesis that the proportion of people believing conspiracy theories has increased over time. To do that, they first compared percentages of respondents who declared belief in various COVID-19 related conspiracy theories and pieces of misinformation in four opinion polls conducted between March 2020 and May 2021.
In these polls, participants reported their level of agreement with statements such as “Bill Gates is behind the coronavirus pandemic”, “5G cell phone technology is responsible for the spread of the coronavirus” or “Putting disinfectant into your body can prevent or cure COVID-19”. In the next step they conducted similar comparisons for QAnon related beliefs.
For the last part of study 1, authors searched the Roper Center for Public Opinion database, a repository of publicly available polling data in the US, for results of historical surveys on beliefs in conspiracy theories. They identified 37 such questions in polls conducted between 1966 and 2020, and asked the same questions in their own 2021 survey.
What all these results showed is that some conspiracy beliefs became somewhat more popular and some became less popular between compared timepoints, but that no overall increase in the belief in conspiracy theories can be noted.
In study 2, the researchers compared the results of two polls conducted in 2016 and 2018 in six European countries, while study 3 compared answers of respondents of opinion polls conducted in 2012, 2016, 2018 and 2020 about which groups “are conspiring.” Finally, the fourth study tested whether “people have become more conspiracy-minded, in general, over time?” To do that, authors compared assessments of a particular cognitive property called “conspiracy thinking” across eight polls conducted between 2012 and 2021.
None of the results indicated any overall increase in either proportion of people endorsing conspiracy beliefs, nor in the average levels of conspiracy thinking. The authors note, however, that “the average levels of conspiracy thinking are concerning, even though they are not increasing.”
The study, “Have beliefs in conspiracy theories increased over time?”, was authored by Joseph Uscinski, Adam Enders, Casey Klofstad, Michelle Seelig, Hugo Drochon, Kamal Premaratne, and Manohar Murthi.