WASHINGTON (AP) — Conspiracy theories have a long history.
People have always speculated about secret motives and conspiracies as a way to understand their world and avoid danger.
Today, however, conspiracy theories and those who believe them seem to play an outsized role in politics and culture.
Republican Donald Trump has amplified conspiracy theories about climate change, elections, voting and crime, and expressed support for the QAnon conspiracy theory. His lies about the 2020 election that he lost to Democrat Joe Biden fueled the attack on the U.S. 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 fuel his own campaign for president this year.
Conspiracy theories have also proven lucrative for those who make money from unsubstantiated medical claims, investment proposals 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 impact our mental health, our politics, and our society.
A look at some of the biggest takeaways from the study:
A LONG HISTORY
Conspiracy theories exposed social tensions long before the American Revolution and the birth of American democracy.
Just as today, early conspiracy theories reflected the concerns of the people of the time. In the years immediately following the American Revolution, rumors and hoaxes circulated about dark plots of the Illuminati and Freemasons, suggesting that these secret organizations wanted to control the republic.
Likewise, the conspiracy theories of the modern era often reflect insecurities about technology, immigration, and government dominance. Stories about UFO coverups, microchips in vaccines or the attacks of September 11, 2001, which are an inside job, are examples.
While the specific claims in many of these stories can be debunked, the stories reflect the concerns shared by millions of people.
“We are the stories we tell ourselves,” says John Llewellyn, a professor at Wake Forest University who studies conspiracy theories and why people believe what they believe.
WHY PEOPLE BELIEVE
People desire information that can help them protect themselves and help them make better decisions for the future. This information, along with personal experiences, upbringing, and cultural perspectives, creates a view of the world that helps people understand major events and forces in their lives.
Disasters, elections, wars and even the outcomes of sporting events can shake our perspective and leave us searching for explanations. Sometimes that means accepting the facts. But sometimes it can be easier to embrace an alternative explanation.
Conspiracy theories can act as a shortcut to understanding. They fill in the gaps in understanding with speculations that often say more about the believer’s inner beliefs than about the events themselves. For example, conspiracy theories suggesting that vaccinations are used to implant microchips in people reflect concerns about technology, medicine, and government power.
With the internet, false claims and conspiracy theories can travel further and faster than ever. Social media algorithms prioritize content that evokes strong emotions such as anger and fear.
THE DEMON FACE
The AP interviewed dozens of current and former followers 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,” says Melissa Sell, a Pennsylvania conspiracy theorist who began to doubt the official narrative of history after the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.
They spoke of a growing distrust of democratic institutions and the media, and of a nagging 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,” says Antonio Perez, a Hawaii man who became obsessed with the 9/11 conspiracy theories and QAnon until he decided they were disrupting his life. But when he first found other online conspiracy theorists, he was thrilled. “It’s like: My God, I finally found my people!”
TRANSFORMING IDEAS INTO ACTION
Polls show that nearly half of Americans believe in a conspiracy theory, and those beliefs are almost always harmless. But when marginal views interfere with someone’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 striking 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.
Such fast-spreading disinformation fuels extremist groups and encourages mistrust — a particular concern during a year of major elections in the U.S. and other countries. Russia, China, Iran and other US adversaries have worked to amplify conspiracy theories as a way to further destabilize democracy. Artificial intelligence’s ability to quickly create lifelike video and audio only increases the challenge.
“I think the post-truth world may be a lot closer than we would like to believe,” said AJ Nash, vice president of intelligence at ZeroFox, a cybersecurity firm that tracks disinformation. “What happens when no one believes anything anymore?”
BENEFIT FROM FAITH
For as long as conspiracy theories have existed, people have tried to make money from them. A century or more ago, peddlers went from town to town selling tonics and pills that they said could cure virtually any problem. Nowadays sales take place online. Business is flourishing.
There are supplements claiming to anti-aging, fake treatments for COVID-19, T-shirts, investment scams claiming that a new financial order is just around the corner.
The AP has taken a closer look at conspiracy theories about drugs, 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 will make it available for free if he wins another term as president. For people desperate for help with a medical condition, the claims can be too tempting to ignore.
“There have always been hucksters selling medical treatments, but I feel like it’s accelerating,” said Timothy Caulfield, a professor of health policy and law at the University of Alberta who studies medical ethics and fraud. “There are a number of forces driving this: obviously the internet and social media, and distrust of traditional medicine and traditional science. Conspiracy theories create and fuel this mistrust.”