WASHINGTON– WASHINGTON (AP) — Conspiracy theories have a long history.
Humans have always speculated about secret motives and plots as a way to understand their world and avoid danger.
Today, however, conspiracy theories and those who believe in them seem to be playing a huge role in politics and culture.
Republican Donald Trump has amplified conspiracy theories about climate change, elections, voting and crime, and has expressed support for the QAnon conspiracy theory. His lies about the 2020 election that he lost to Democrat Joe Biden sparked the attack on the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, an event that quickly spawned his own conspiracy theories.
On the left, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has exploited conspiracy theories about vaccines to launch his own campaign for the presidency this year.
Conspiracy theories have also proven lucrative for those who profit from unfounded medical claims, investment pitches or fake news websites.
The Associated Press has examined the history of conspiracy theories in the United States.
Interviews with experts in technology, psychology, and politics provide insight into why people choose to believe and spread conspiracy theories, and how those beliefs are affecting our mental health, our politics, and our society.
A look at some of the most important conclusions of the research:
Conspiracy theories exposed social tensions long before the American Revolution and the birth of American democracy.
As now, early conspiracy theories reflected the popular concerns of the time. In the years immediately following the American Revolution, rumors and hoaxes circulated about dark plots by the Illuminati and the Freemasons, suggesting that these secret organizations wanted to control the republic.
Likewise, modern-era conspiracy theories often reflect uncertainties about technology, immigration, and government overreach. Stories about UFO cover-ups, microchips in vaccines, or the attacks of September 11, 2001, as an inside job, are examples.
While the specific claims of many of these tales can be refuted, the stories reflect anxieties shared by millions of people.
“We are the stories we tell ourselves,” said John Llewellyn, a professor at Wake Forest University who studies conspiracy theories and why people believe what they believe.
Human beings thirst for information that can help them protect themselves and make better decisions for the future. This information, along with personal experiences, education, and cultural perspectives, creates a worldview that helps people understand the major events and forces in their lives.
Disasters, elections, wars, and even the results of sporting events can alter our perspective and cause us to search for explanations. Sometimes that means accepting the facts. But sometimes it may be easier to adopt an alternative explanation.
Conspiracy theories can act as a shortcut to understanding. They fill gaps in understanding with speculation that often reflects the believer’s internal beliefs more than the events themselves. Conspiracy theories suggesting that vaccines are being used to implant microchips in people, for example, reflect concerns about technology, medicine and government power.
With the Internet, false claims and conspiracy theories can travel farther and faster than ever. Social media algorithms prioritize content that provokes strong emotions, such as anger and fear.
The AP interviewed dozens of current and former believers of the conspiracy theory to understand what led them to believe. They consistently said that conspiracy theories offered them a sense of power and control in a world that can seem random and chaotic.
“The pieces didn’t fit,” said Melissa Sell, a Pennsylvania conspiracy theorist who began to doubt the official narrative of the story after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut in 2012.
They spoke of a growing distrust of democratic institutions and the media, and a persistent feeling that they were being lied to. The world of online conspiracy theories offered answers and a built-in community of like-minded people.
“I was suicidal before I got into conspiracy theories,” said Antonio Pérez, a Hawaii man who became obsessed with 9/11 conspiracy theories and QAnon until he decided they were interfering with his life. But when he first encountered other conspiracy theorists online, he was ecstatic. “It’s like: Oh my God, I finally found my people!”
Polls show that nearly half of Americans believe in a conspiracy theory and that those beliefs are almost always harmless. But when fringe opinions interfere with a person’s work or relationships, they can lead to social isolation. And when people put their conspiracy theory beliefs into practice, it can lead to violence.
In recent years, conspiracy theorists have tried to stop vaccine clinics, attacked election officials and committed murders they say were motivated by their beliefs. The January 6 riot is perhaps the most notable example of how conspiracy theories can lead to violence: The thousands of people who stormed the Capitol and fought with police were motivated by Trump’s election lies.
This rapidly spreading misinformation fuels extremist groups and fosters distrust, a particular concern during a major election year in the United States and other nations. Russia, China, Iran and other US adversaries have worked to amplify conspiracy theories as a way to further destabilize democracy. The ability of artificial intelligence to quickly create realistic video and audio only increases the challenge.
“I think the post-truth world may be a lot closer than we’d like to believe,” said AJ Nash, vice president of intelligence at ZeroFox, a cybersecurity firm that tracks disinformation. “What happens when no one believes in anything anymore?”
For as long as conspiracy theories have existed, people have tried to make money from them. A century or more ago, street vendors went from city to city selling tonics and pills that they said could cure almost any problem. Nowadays, sales are made online. Businesses are thriving.
There are supplements that claim to reverse aging, fake COVID-19 treatments, t-shirts, and investment scams that claim a new financial order is just around the corner.
The AP took a closer look at conspiracy theories involving medical beds, which are futuristic-looking devices that believers believe can reverse aging and cure a long list of diseases. According to claims circulating online, the US military is hiding the technology from the public, but Trump, if he wins another term as president, will make it available for free. For people desperate to find help with a medical condition, the claims may be too tempting to ignore.
“There have always been peddlers selling medical cures, but I feel like it’s accelerating,” said Timothy Caulfield, a professor of health law and policy at the University of Alberta who studies medical ethics and fraud. “There are some forces driving this: obviously the Internet and social media, and distrust in traditional medicine and traditional science. Conspiracy theories are creating and fueling this distrust.”