Why Do Most Americans Believe in Conspiracy Theories?

Anna Merlan, author of "Republic of Lies," on what we can learn about life in the U.S. from conspiracy thinkers

Conspiracy theorists at the Oculus

Conspiracies have long been a point of fascination in America, but lately it feels like you can’t spend a day on the internet without encountering the work of a conspiracy peddler or a fake news controversy. In Anna Merlan’s new book Republic of Lies, the reader gets more than this daily sprinkling of the edges of conspiracy thinking: we’re able to gain a fuller understanding of why conspiracies happen, how conspiracy theorists think, and what their prevalence says about life in America today.

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Merlan’s book is far more than a guide to the modern conspiracies of America. Through reporting on conferences with all types of conspiracy theorists: new age devotees, UFO enthusiasts, and even white supremacists, Merlan’s dedication shows through in the book’s fastidiousness. Her conversations with believers in the conspiracies she covers show a deep sensitivity and careful approach to an increasingly volatile subject. Merlan’s work toes a careful line: she never asks the reader to empathize with the most dangerous types of conspiracy, but she does make us understand how a broken social system creates a distrust that can lead to conspiratorial thinking, and in turn how everyone engages in questioning power.

We spoke on the phone about talking to conspiracy theorists, the roots of conspiracy thinking, and how conspiracy entrepreneurs came into being.

Rebecca Schuh: Something I thought about from the beginning of Republic of Lies was imagining you in these scenarios, talking to all your sources at the conferences where you went to interview conspiracy theorists, and how you navigated as though you were having normal conversations with normal people.

Anna Merlan: Most Americans believe in at least one conspiracy theory, so they are normal people. They are definitely in a deeper end of the pool than you or I, but fundamentally, conspiracy theories are not that strange. They’re not foreign to us in our everyday lives. Talking to people about their beliefs is not a huge challenge.

RS: Were you always talking about the topic at hand or did you end up talking about other things?

Most Americans believe in at least one conspiracy theory.

AM: People were pretty focused on talking about whatever we were there to discuss. But something I always try, with people who were in more extreme communities, is seeing if they will tell me anything about their day to day lives, or what they’re doing, when they’re not pursuing some of this stuff. I often find people either don’t have other interests that they really want to talk about, or at least don’t want to share them with me. A lot of times people are really focused, you know, if we’re at the UFO conference they want to talk to me about UFOs.

RS: That makes sense, I think about going to writing conferences and we end up talking a lot about writing and reading.

AM: A big theme of the book is that people believe in conspiracy theories, especially in the U.S., both because they believe they feel locked out of a sense of power, our financial system, our economic system, our medical system, and they find these systems really opaque, really hard to understand, really unjust, and so when people are talking about those feelings, even when I don’t agree with the conclusions that they’ve reached, the sentiment is not unfamiliar to me. It’s not hard for me to understand. It’s pretty easy to find some kind of common ground from which we can start talking about things. I would say the only real exception to that, besides obviously white supremacists, is people who are mass shooting truthers. Those people are not starting from the same vantage point as me or anyone I know, and it’s often hard for me to understand where they got onto that track. It’s one of the only conspiratorial beliefs that I’ve had a really hard time understanding what it is that people leads that people to become crisis actor truthers.

RS: I knew that [crisis actor truthers] existed but I hadn’t really known anything about the reasoning behind it. And then realizing that it came from this idea that shootings were staged by liberals trying to promote gun control and I was like wait…no gun control has happened! Why would this continue!

AM: There’s a big fear, especially on the far right, of government control, of government overreach, so it’s fundamentally about the government taking control and confiscating guns. The interesting thing about conspiracy theorists is that they react more or less the same way every time a mass shooting happens, even though no gun reform ever actually comes. They’re sort of stuck in this amnesia washing machine cycle. Where they can make the same proclamations and have the same warnings over and over again.

RS: That reminds me of the section in the book where you write about that study where it links conspiracist thinking to a belief that the world is getting worse, and you shouldn’t bring a child into the world.

People in the U.S. believe in conspiracy theories because they feel locked out of a sense of power.

AM: That’s a really cool study from a New Jersey researcher about anomia. It’s from November 1994 by Ted Goertzel. It’s less than 350 people, but it found that people who believed in one conspiracy theory believed in others, that people who believed in conspiracy theories had a lack of interpersonal trust, insecurity about employment, and generally a lack of optimism about their own lives, or about the future.

RS: I found the part about that study really interesting because I could identify with a lot of what it was positing, and I normally wouldn’t think of myself as someone susceptible to conspiracy theories.

AM: It’s also important to look at what our cultural and political and economic backgrounds are when figuring out what conspiracies do and don’t have an impact on our own lives. As someone who’s white and has more or less always been middle class, I’ve had access to a lot of privilege and education so conspiracy theories don’t serve the same purpose for me than they do for people who have had a different experience of how the United States works. So one sort of ugly thing about a lot of writing about conspiracy, is that it tends to be white, middle class journalists, sort of making fun of beliefs that people have enacted or developed because they are a lot more pessimistic about the ways that America is going to work. Which is not to say that every conspiracy theory is sympathetic or reasonable. There are a lot of conspiracy theories on the far right that are fundamentally Islamophobic, anti-semitic, that are not in any way excusable or understandable.

RS: You approached all of it in such a careful way.  

AM: I think there is no purpose in going to talk to people if you’re only going to ridicule them. Fundamentally I think why we’re so interested in conspiracy theories is because they are about a process of deciding what to believe and what to trust in how we view the world. One of the only ways we figure that out is talking to people who are not like us. There has to be some level of being able to listen to people while fact checking them while also resisting the urge to make fun of beliefs that are not like yours. It’s a balancing act.

RS: There are things in the past that you mention throughout the book, Iran-contra, government conspiracies that did turn out to be actual conspiracies, and I was curious about the line between something that ends up being a true conspiracy. Is that just an evidentiary line?

Conspiracy theories are about a process of deciding what to believe and what to trust in how we view the world.

AM: True conspiracies, especially involving the federal government, do not tend to stay secret forever, because of the number of people involved. There’s a really famous study that’s sort of about that, about the likelihood of conspiracies staying secret goes down as more people are involved. And so, some of it is about the legal and judicial process that brings these things to light, some of it is about real reporting, there are some examples of things that sound too crazy to be true being brought to light and being shown to be real. Iran-Contra is one, Watergate is another. At the start of the Watergate investigation it just sounded completely absurd, that the president could have been directly involved in something like this. The FBI harassing civil rights leaders and other activist groups throughout the ’60s and ’70s —these are things that sound crazy, but are true.

RS: Kind of on the opposite end of that, while reading I was thinking about the conspiracies that have become jokes in a certain subset of modern culture. In the section of your book about Bush and 9/11, I kept just hearing in my head, “Bush did 9/11” because of how many people have latched onto that as an online joke format. Taking a conspiracy and taking it on in an ironic way. What’s the relationship there, between irony and conspiracies?

AM: I think the fact that we make jokes about Bush did 9/11, jet fuel can’t melt steel beams, tin foil hats—I think these are signs of how ingrained humor and irony in the culture, and how ingrained conspiracies and conspiracy culture is in America.

I think a lot of people, especially younger left leaning people, see the way the Bush administration used the 9/11 attacks to their political advantage, and saying “Bush did 9/11” is a shorthand for a bunch of different things. One is the political utility of the attack, the other end of the spectrum is people who are saying that they literally believe that. It serves a wide variety of purposes.

RS: That’s a great way to put it. Something I had not heard of before I read about it in your book was the fact of conspiracy entrepreneurs. Do you have a sense of when that began?

AM: When we talk about conspiracy entrepreneurs (and that’s not a term that I coined, it’s a term that’s been in use for a while), we’re talking about people who make money promoting conspiracy theories either directly or indirectly. The most famous example is Alex Jones who has a pretty profitable media platform and also sells supplements through his Infowars store. A growing number of people are trying to monetize conspiracy theories, whether it’s monetizing Youtube videos, Periscope, or peddling e-books, lifestyle products, there’s any number of ways that people are trying to make money off of the practice of spreading conspiracy theories. Increasingly it is people like Mike Cernovich, who was previously a men’s rights activist, then dabbled in a bunch of really odious movements, who is now presenting himself as a journalist. They’re deciding that is one of the more straightforward ways to peddle their wares.

RS: I’m interested in the connection between health supplements and conspiracies. I sense that they’re connected, but also it seems random at first glance.

Conspiracy culture has a huge overlap with classic new age culture and far right natural health stuff.

AM: A lot of conspiracy theories are fundamentally about a fear of outside contamination. Outside influence or contamination. A lot of supplements are based on the idea that you need help being physically protected or guarded. The other thing is that most conspiracy theory peddlers will tell you that mainstream institutions, including mainstream medical institutions, are not trustworthy, so you need to be looking elsewhere for ways to be healthy, which obviously creates a really big market for them. And the last thing is that conspiracy culture has a really huge overlap with classic new age culture and far right natural health stuff. So there’s all these different places where the interest in supplements and natural health products come together.

RS: Given the current political climate and people holding onto the Russia stuff, do you think that you’re going to keep covering this type of thing as it’s so ingrained in the current conversation?

AM: I don’t see conspiracy culture dying down anytime soon. I see it growing in different ways on the right and the left. There will be space to cover it and to cover new information, fortunately or unfortunately.

RS: I’ve always thought of it as more of a right wing thing, but we really see in your book how conspiracy theorizing pendulums back and forth between the left and the right.

AM: It does, and there’s a tendency among folks on the left to say that conspiracy culture is for other people and not for us. But I think we know that that’s not true. When we examine some of the more extreme ends of the Russiagate stuff, we see that people do it because anyone who is not part of the dominant power group or dominant political party will find themselves more party to conspiracy thinking.

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