Conspiracy Theories are for Losers
Posted: 1 Aug 2011 Last revised: 18 Aug 2014
Date Written: 2011
What drives conspiracy theorizing in the United States? Conspiracy theories can undermine the legitimacy and efficacy of government policy, and sometimes lead to violence. Unfortunately prior studies on the topic have been anecdotal and impressionistic. For purchase on this problem, we attempt the first systematic data collection of conspiracy theories at the mass and elite levels by examining published letters to the editor of the New York Times from 1897 to 2010 and a validating sample from the Chicago Tribune. We argue that perceived power asymmetries, indicated by international and domestic conflicts, influence when and why conspiracy theories resonate in the U.S. On this reasoning, conspiracy theories conform to a strategic logic that helps vulnerable groups manage threats. Further, we find that both sides of the domestic partisan divide partake in conspiracy theorizing equally, though in an alternating pattern, and foreign conspiracy theories crowd out domestic conspiracy theories during heightened foreign threat.
Keywords: conspiracy, conspiracy theory, epistemology, threat, truther, birther
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