NATIONAL NEWS

Takeaways from the AP’s look at the role of conspiracy theories in American politics and society

Jan 31, 2024, 7:46 AM | Updated: 3:24 pm

FILE - Silhouettes of people are seen on an American flag as President Joe Biden speaks at Max S. H...

FILE - Silhouettes of people are seen on an American flag as President Joe Biden speaks at Max S. Hayes Hight School, Wednesday, July 6, 2022, in Cleveland. Conspiracy theories are nothing new. Humans have always speculated about secret motives and plots as a way to understand their world and avoid danger. But these days, conspiracy theories and those who believe them seem to be playing an outsized role in our politics and culture. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)
Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

(AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

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.

These days, however, conspiracy theories and those who believe them seem to be playing an outsize 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 he lost to Democrat Joe Biden spurred the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, an event that quickly spun off its own conspiracy theories.

On the left, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has exploited conspiracy theories about vaccines to wage his own campaign for the presidency this year.

Conspiracy theories have also proven lucrative for those cashing in on unfounded 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 on technology, psychology and politics give 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 biggest takeaways from the investigation:

A LONG HISTORY

Conspiracy theories exposed social tensions long before the American Revolution and the birth of U.S. democracy.

Just as now, early conspiracy theories reflected popular worries of the day. In the years immediately after the American Revolution, rumors and hoaxes circulated about dark plots by the Illuminati and Freemasons, suggesting those secret organizations wanted to control the republic.

Likewise, the conspiracy theories of the modern age often reflect uncertainties about technology, immigration and government overreach. Stories about UFO coverups, microchips in vaccines or the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, being an inside job are examples.

While the specific claims in many of these tales can be debunked, 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.

WHY PEOPLE BELIEVE

Humans thirst for 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 big events and forces in their lives.

Disasters, elections, wars and even the outcomes of sporting events can shake our perspective, and make us look 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 of understanding with speculation that often reflects more about the believer’s inner beliefs than the events themselves. Conspiracy theories suggesting vaccinations are being used to implant microchips in people, for instance, 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 elicits strong emotions, like anger and fear.

FACING THE DEMONS

The AP interviewed dozens of current and former conspiracy theory believers to understand what led them to believe. They consistently said conspiracy theories offered them a sense of power and control in a world that can seem random and chaotic.

“The pieces did not fit,” said Melissa Sell, a conspiracy theorist from Pennsylvania who began doubting the official narrative of history after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut in 2012.

They spoke of growing distrust of democratic institutions and the media, and a gnawing feeling 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 Perez, a Hawaii man who became obsessed with Sept. 11 conspiracy theories and QAnon until he decided that they were interfering with his life. But when he first found other online conspiracy theorists, he was ecstatic. “It’s like: My God, I’ve finally found my people!”

TURNING IDEAS INTO ACTION

Polls show nearly half of Americans believe a conspiracy theory and that those beliefs are almost always harmless. But when fringe views interfere with a person’s job or relationships, they can lead to social isolation. And when people put their conspiracy theory beliefs into action, it can lead to violence.

In recent years, conspiracy theorists have tried to stop vaccine clinics, they’ve attacked election officials and they’ve committed murders that they say were motivated by their beliefs. The Jan. 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.

Such rapidly spreading disinformation fuels extremist groups and encourages distrust — a particular concern during a year of big elections in the U.S. and other nations. Russia, China, Iran and other U.S. adversaries have worked to amplify conspiracy theories as a way to destabilize democracy further. Artificial intelligence’s ability to rapidly create lifelike 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 A.J. Nash, vice president for intelligence at ZeroFox, a cybersecurity firm that tracks disinformation. “What happens when no one believes anything anymore?”

PROFITING OFF BELIEF

As long as there have been conspiracy theories, people have tried to make a buck off of them. A century or more ago, peddlers went from town to town selling tonics and pills that they said could cure just about any problem. Nowadays, sales take place online. Business is booming.

There are supplements that claim to reverse aging, bogus treatments for COVID-19, T-shirts, investment scams claiming a new financial order is just around the corner.

The AP took a close look at conspiracy theories involving medbeds, which are futuristic-looking devices that believers think can reverse aging and cure a long list of illnesses. According to claims circulating online, the U.S. military is hiding the technology from the public but Trump, if he wins another term as president, will make them available for free. For people desperate to find help with a medical condition, the claims can be too tempting to ignore.

“There have always been hucksters selling medical cures, but I do feel like it’s accelerating,” said Timothy Caulfield, a health policy and law professor at the University of Alberta who studies medical ethics and fraud. “There are some forces driving that: obviously the internet and social media, and distrust of traditional medicine, traditional science. Conspiracy theories are creating and feeding this distrust.”

National News

FILE - In this image provided by KFOR-TV, a heavily damaged vehicle is seen off a road in Tishoming...

Associated Press

After crash that killed 6 teens, NTSB chief says people underestimate marijuana’s impact on drivers

DETROIT (AP) — A horrific crash that killed six high school girls in Oklahoma two years ago has the head of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board urging parents to warn teenagers about the risk of driving after using marijuana. Chairwoman Jennifer Homendy made the appeal to parents Thursday as her agency released the final […]

13 minutes ago

FILE - Rohit Chopra, director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, speaks as President Joe ...

Associated Press

US agency says apps that let workers access paychecks before payday are providing loans

NEW YORK (AP) — The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau said Thursday that apps that allow workers to access their paychecks in advance, often for a fee, are providing loans and therefore subject to the Truth in Lending Act. If enacted, the proposed rule would provide clarity to a fast-growing industry known as Earned Wage Access, […]

2 hours ago

Botanist Florencia Peredo Ovalle works in her greenhouse in Gardnerville, Nevada, Tuesday, May 21, ...

Associated Press

Green agendas clash in Nevada as company grows rare plant to help it survive effects of a mine

GARDNERVILLE, Nev. (AP) — A botanist gently strokes the pollen of endangered wildflowers with a paintbrush as she tries to reenact nature inside a small greenhouse in the shadow of the Sierra Nevada. It’s part of a lithium mining company’s grand experiment intended to help keep an extremely rare desert plant from going extinct in […]

3 hours ago

Sergio Solano, an immigrant from Mexico, gets ready for his next delivery, June 21, 2024, in New Yo...

Associated Press

Newly arrived migrants encounter hazards of food delivery on the streets of NYC: robbers

NEW YORK CITY (AP) — Brad Song thought he was about to get his e-bike stolen a second time in a less than a month after delivering an order for Chinese food app Fantuan Delivery. Seven strangers surrounded the Chinese immigrant and knocked him off the scooter. He was rescued when a nearby motorist revved […]

3 hours ago

Associated Press

Illinois sheriff’s deputy charged with murder in fatal shooting of woman who called 911

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — An Illinois sheriff’s deputy has been charged with murder in the fatal shooting of a woman insider her home. Sonya Massey was killed after Sangamon County deputies responded to her 911 call early on July 6, State’s Attorney John Milhiser said. A statement from Milhiser doesn’t describe the circumstances that preceded […]

3 hours ago

FILE - This undated file photo shows members of the Grateful Dead band, from left to right, Mickey ...

Associated Press

The Grateful Dead and Francis Ford Coppola are among the newest Kennedy Center Honors recipients

WASHINGTON (AP) — An iconoclastic filmmaking legend and one of the world’s most enduring musical acts headline this year’s crop of Kennedy Center Honors recipients. Director Francis Ford Coppola and the Grateful Dead will be honored for lifetime achievement in the arts, along with jazz trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, blues legend Bonnie Raitt and the legendary […]

3 hours ago

Takeaways from the AP’s look at the role of conspiracy theories in American politics and society