Watch the replay of this event held October 27, 2021. (Transcript below.)

Conspiracy theories played a role in the insurrection at the US Capitol in January and continue to fuel resistance, in some circles, to getting vaccinated for Covid-19. It may seem like conspiracy theories are more prevalent now than ever, and more common on the political right than on the left — but are they really?

Recent research suggests that no one is totally immune. That’s because conspiracy theories tap into fundamental aspects of human psychology, helping to explain why they’re so alluring — and so hard to dispel once they take hold. Researchers are trying to develop ways to disrupt their influence on our minds and our society.

Watch this discussion with two experts — a social psychologist and a political theorist — about the psychological underpinnings and political consequences of conspiracy theories.


Rosenblum headshot

Nancy Rosenblum, Harvard University

Dr. Nancy Rosenblum is the Senator Joseph Clark Professor of Ethics in Politics and Government emerita at Harvard University. Her field of research is historical and contemporary political thought. She is co-editor of the Annual Review of Political Science, and co-author with Russell Muirhead of the 2019 book A Lot of People Are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy, which argues that the rise of a new type of conspiracy thinking during the Trump era has undermined American democracy.

Sander van der Linden headshot

Sander van der Linden, University of Cambridge

Dr. Sander van der Linden is Professor of Social Psychology in Society and Director of the Cambridge Social Decision-Making Lab in the Department of Psychology at the University of Cambridge. He has won numerous awards for his research on human judgment, communication and decision-making. He recently co-designed the award-winning fake news game “Bad News,” and frequently advises governments and social media companies on how to fight misinformation. His research is regularly featured in outlets such as the New York Times, NPR, Rolling Stone and the BBC. He is currently working on his new book The Truth Vaccine.


Greg Miller headshot

Greg Miller, science journalist and contributing editor to Knowable Magazine

Greg has covered biomedical and behavioral science research for nearly 20 years. Previously, he was a senior writer at Wired and a staff writer at Science. He has a PhD in neuroscience from Stanford University and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.


This event is part of Reset: The Science of Crisis & Recovery, an ongoing series of live events and science journalism exploring how the world is navigating the coronavirus pandemic, its consequences and the way forward. Reset is supported by a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Knowable Magazine is a product of Annual Reviews, a nonprofit publisher dedicated to synthesizing and integrating knowledge for the progress of science and the benefit of society. Major funding for Knowable comes from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.


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Rachel Ehrenberg: “Hello, and welcome everyone. This is ‘The Psychology and Politics of Conspiracy Theories.’ I’m Rachel Ehrenberg, an editor at Knowable Magazine from Annual Reviews. This is the 12th event in Reset, our series of conversations about the pandemic, its consequences and the way forward. We also have a second event today, beginning right after this one, on making scientific knowledge available to everyone. It will feature three one-to-one conversations between noted gerologist Harmit Malik, IPCC climate scientist Diana Ürge-Vorsatz and Knowable’s own executive editor, Rosie Mestel. They’ll take questions, too, and I think it’s going to be a fascinating discussion on a topic that’s really important to all of us. This event is also free to attend, but it does require a separate registration. So we’ve dropped a link in the chat box.

“And the registration is also now open for our November event, which will dive into virus variance, Covid, but also the flu and others. We’ll drop a link, to register for that one into the chat box as well.

“Today, now, I’m very excited to learn more about conspiracy theories. They’ve had a big impact on politics and public health in the past year. And while it may seem like they’re favored by one political spectrum more than another, no one is immune. I learned that reading a terrific story by our moderator, today, Greg Miller.

“Greg is a contributing editor to Knowable Magazine, and we’re very happy to have him here today, leading this discussion. Over to you, Greg.”

Greg Miller: “OK. Thanks, Rachel, and thanks everybody for joining us. I think it’s going to be a really interesting discussion and we have a lot of ground to cover. As Rachel said, conspiracy thinking seems to be all around us recently. We’ve seen, throughout the pandemic, conspiracy theories circulating about the virus and about the vaccines. We’ve seen the role they’ve played in the aftermath of the 2020 election here in the US, and attacks on the Capitol in January. And, I think closer to home, many of us, in our social media feeds and conversations with friends and family, probably know people in our own lives who’ve gone down the conspiracy rabbit hole. I know I do.

“I wrote a story for Knowable earlier this year because I was really interested in the psychological underpinnings of conspiracy theories, what makes them so appealing, and also on the impact that they seem to be having on our political institutions and our society. And we’re lucky, today, to have two really great people here, joining us to discuss this. They come at the issue from different perspectives.

“Nancy Rosenblum is a political theorist who specializes in historical and contemporary political thought. She’s a professor emerita, at Harvard University, and coauthor of a 2019 book, A Lot of People are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy.

“Sander van der Linden is a social psychologist at Cambridge University. His research focuses on human judgment, communication and decision-making, and he frequently advises governments and social media companies on how to fight misinformation, including, but not limited to conspiracy theories.

“And both of them, I should add, are joining us today under challenging circumstances. Nancy has a power outage where she lives, and Sander is technically on paternity leave. So thank you, both, very much, for being here, especially under the circumstances.

“Nancy, I’ll start with you. So, one of the things that surprised me most in researching my story was just the long history that conspiracy theories have in US politics. And you write, in the book, that even the Declaration of Independence, that was sort of the founding document for our country, is based on a conspiracy theory. Can you say a little bit about that? What, exactly, was the conspiracy there?”

Nancy Rosenblum: “Yes, that’s right, Greg. The United States was born of a conspiracy theory. So, if you read the Declaration of Independence, on July 4, you’re familiar with conspiracism in its classic form. We value the declaration for its aspirational ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal,’ but for the framers, the truth of the conspiracy directed against the colonies’ basic liberties was not self-evident. So they had to lay out the evidence scrupulously, in a list of 20 grievances that make up the bulk of the declaration. The most familiar is probably no taxation without representation.

“So, in the declaration, a series of actions taken by the Crown and his ministers in Parliament and the colonial governors, were the dots that once put together, formed a pattern that added up in John Locke’s famous phrase, to ‘a long train of abuses and usurpations,’ all tending the same way, to reduce the colonies to absolute despotism, which is to say that he put together all of these dots to form the pattern. And then you see that a tiny tax on tea is not just a tiny tax on tea, but a fatal precedent, the thin edge of an entering wedge of despotism.

“And the declaration also directs a course of action. There could be no redress of grievances or reconciliation. They had to resolve to dissolve the political bounds that bound them to Britain by armed resistance, and to declare themselves independent states. So the declaration is a fully articulated classic conspiracy theory.

“If I could just add one caution that I think is necessary, we use the phrase ‘conspiracy theory,’ today, as if it’s false by definition. But some conspiracy theories really are true. Whether the declaration is true or not, was accurate or not, is the real question. I sometimes imagine that I would’ve been a loyalist exiled to Canada. But some conspiracy theories really do identify covert corruption and treachery. The progressive movement to the United States at the turn of the century found smoke-filled rooms and corporate boardrooms, and it led to radical democrat reform. And Exxon Fuel did alter the data about fossil fuel and climate change to become what my colleague …”

Greg Miller: “Nancy, are you still there?”

Nancy Rosenblum: “I’m here.”

Greg Miller: “OK.”

Nancy Rosenblum: “Can you see me and hear me?”

Greg Miller: “Yeah. Sorry. No, I was just saying, since your communication situation’s a little perilous, maybe we should... I’ll stick with you for another question, and then we’ll come back to Sander.”

Nancy Rosenblum: “OK.”

Greg Miller: “But, in the book, you were talking about how the Declaration of Independence is based on the classic conspiracy theory, but in the Trump era, you argued that we’ve seen a new type of conspiracism. What have you seen there?”

Nancy Rosenblum: “Right. Well, what we’ve seen in the United States is what we call conspiracy without the theory. It, too, insists that things are not as they seem. But it dispenses entirely with the burden of evidence. There’s no exhausting amassing of facts, no signs that reveal a pattern, no interpretation, no argument. It takes the form of bare assertion. You’ve heard Trump say many, many times, ‘The election is rigged.’ Just one word suffices to charge that the presidential primary or the presidential election was manipulated, without any reports of fraudulent voters.

“So he says that about the 2016 election and 2018 mid-terms, that undocumented immigrants vote many, many times. So, then, the question is, if ‘rigged,’ to take the example, is not accompanied by any evidence or argument, what gives this conspiracism — conspiracy without any theory — its power and appeal. I mean, after all, thousands of political lies come and go. They’re fact-checked, or they’re filed away, or they fade away. But conspiracist claims have a very long half-life. I think that several things make them politically important. The first is that bare assertion, saying something is a hoax or rigged, even without rudimentary evidence, is easy to communicate, even in 280 characters on Twitter, and it’s a very gratifying form of aggression to claim rigged, or hoax, or traitor.

“And the regular rhythms of democratic politics don’t offer this kind of emotional relief. Neither does the complexity of real conspiracy theory. And conspiracy without the theory has this characteristic, too. What validates it, if not argument, is just repetition. You’ve heard the mantra: ‘You know a lot of people are saying that,’ and ‘A lot of people are saying bad things.’ Social media allows this. It allows anyone to speak to everyone instantly in courses, but it has a special value for conspiracism, because likes and shares and tweets and retweets are measurable. We don’t have to verify substantive claims. But we can verify that a lot of people are saying that there’s something going on here.

“And, as a matter of fact, that’s how Senators Cruz and Hawley justified the attempt to overturn the Electoral College results after the 2020 Election. It was enough to say, and I’m quoting here, ‘By any measure, the allegations of fraud and irregularities exceed any in our lifetime.’ And the other thing, the final thing, really, that makes this so powerful is that subscribers to these conspiracy claims don’t have to believe the particulars. It’s not really a matter of believing the fact of the matter, nor of repeating it while believing that it’s false. It’s true enough, and true enough means that the accumulation of objective evidence is not necessary to warrant the claim, because the claim carries a deeper truth that goes beyond any kind of evidence that might be required.

“So when conspiracists’ claims are challenged, we see that ‘true enough’ is the official response. I remember, very early on, that when President Trump tweeted a video that falsely purported to see a migrant Muslim committing an assault, his press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, offered the ‘deeper truth’ claim. She said, ‘Well, whether the video is real, the threat is real.’ ‘True enough’ floats conspiracism, then, even as it corrodes what it would mean to know, for example, whether this Muslim immigrant committed an assault.

“So tweeting and posting and liking and sharing the aggression, the repetition, the deeper truth, also signal to people their identification with others. And this is what takes conspiracism out of the realm of individual psychology and into politics, because to supporters, the bottom-up repetition of a conspiracy charge is not only proof that a lot of people are saying it, but it’s the signature of a new collective we. And its active repetition is, I think, the first step on the path to malignant action in the world.”

Greg Miller: “And you think this is having a real impact on our political institutions and society?”

Nancy Rosenblum: “Well, yes, but it goes beyond my thinking that. I think that there are devastating consequences for democracy in America and, likely, other places, as well. And let me just stick to one because it’s so familiar to people. Democracy doesn’t secure the peaceful transition of power. It presupposes it, and democracy rests on a system of regulated party rivalry, in which the political opposition is recognized as legitimate opposition. Now this is an extraordinary historical achievement, because it means that partisans, political actors, are committed to political pluralism. And I think it requires a real, kind of, personal moral discipline to recognize that your party — as the term ‘party’ suggests — is just a part, and it’s not going to be able to claim to represent all real Americans, or Hungarians, for that matter.

“So legitimate opposition is not just an idea, but a practice. It’s carried out whenever winners of an election refrain from using their power to harass or intimidate or humiliate or jail or exile or murder the opposition. It’s really right to say that democracy depends on the losers as well as the winners. And what we’ve seen here is the delegitimation of opposition coming in stages. And each stage is based on a conspiracy claim that Obama, for example, was not a natural-born citizen, that the Democratic Party was held hostage by far-left activists and angry mobs and antifa and deep state radicals, so that if they’re elected, we won’t have a country anymore.

“So we begin to see that the big lie about the rigged 2020 election was really two big lies, because it followed years of characterizing the political opposition as a public enemy, and it allowed finally to the claim that the insurrection took place on November 3, on Election Day, that January 6 was just a protest. And I want to make one thing clear, in talking about the delegitimation, in this case, of the party system. It’s that delegitimation is not just sowing mistrust or doubt or discrediting the opposition. To delegitimate a party or the press or a knowledge-producing institution is to drain it of all meaning and value and authority so that it can no longer claim our consent or our compliance.

“And this, I think is conspiracism’s distinctive work in politics, to delegitimate these key democratic institutions. And I think it’s a … path to harassments and threats and violence, not just on January 6, but now every day, against ordinary officials going about the ordinary business of governing.”

Greg Miller: “Sander, I want to turn to you. I know there’s a long current of debate and discussion about whether conspiracy thinking is more prevalent on the political right or the left, and I’m curious to hear your take on this body of research.”

Sander van der Linden: “Yes, clearly a complex issue — somewhat, you can say, a politicized issue. So, in our research, we try to step back and be as neutral as we can about this question. You have to raise the question of, is there something that’s unique about the brain or the psychology of conservatives versus liberals that makes one side more susceptible or interested in endorsing and spreading conspiracy theories? And there’re some clues as to why that might be the case.

“So, one issue is that you could argue, for example, that it’s just a function of the political climate. So, maybe it appears as if people on the political right — and when I say political right, I mean extreme right, mostly — are spreading more conspiracy theories because there’s a lot going on at the moment that’s congenial to extreme right wing populist movements. So, in another time and place, in another point in history, maybe it would’ve been extreme left wing. And it’s right that it’s just the function of who’s in government and what’s the current situation?

“Another methodological problem, when we do this kind of research, is — and this may be helpful for the audience — a typical conspiracy study will include a scale asking you, to what extent do you believe in a series of conspiracy theories? Do you think the government’s hiding aliens? Do you think that vaccines are a plot to inject microchips into our bodies? To what extent do you believe that the moon landing was a hoax? And what we do is we generalize conclusions based on the average indicator of to what extent people endorse these items.

“But what we discovered — and a lot of research does this, most research does this — what we discovered is that you can’t really say anything about the role of politics in this, because the items that comprise this scale are ideologically slanted in and of themselves in unpredictable ways. So, some researchers will use a scale with mostly right-leaning conspiracy theories. Some researchers will use a scale that has a lot of left-leaning conspiracy theories. Some use a mix of both, but it’s unbalanced. So that led us to conclude that, actually, you can’t really say much about the role of politics when you do that. So, instead, what we did in our research was, are there new scales, newer ways of measuring belief in conspiracy theories that do not ask people about any specific conspiracy theory? So it’s content-free, but it does get at the underlying thinking pattern that is characteristic of conspiratorial reasoning.

“So let me give you an example of scales that have been devised to measure this. Instead of asking you about a specific conspiracy, I would just ask you, do you think it’s likely that people are plotting, in secret, people are devising plans in secret to dupe people? Do you think the government is often hiding things from people? Do you feel that there are things happening behind the curtains that you’re not privy to, that are dangerous for society? It just gets at this, sort of, underlying suspicion that evil people are plotting something in secret. So that is one of the scales that we decided to use.

“Then, if you look at theory, there are good reasons to assume why there would be a difference between liberals and conservatives, or people on the right and the left. So one of those differences, if you look at decades of research on the psychology of liberals and conservative belief systems, you find that they express different values, different interests, different motives. So people on the political right prefer to affiliate with like-minded people, more than liberals. Liberals tend to affiliate with people who are different from them. So this is a preference in the type of social interaction that people have.

“Conservatives do not like social change very much. They like stability, traditionalism, whereas liberals prefer radical change. Conservatives don’t like uncertainty. Liberals are better with tolerating uncertainty. And the reason why these differences between liberals and conservatives are relevant, is because the function of a lot of conspiracy theories is pretty uniform, in the sense it tries to reduce uncertainty for people. It gives people a sense of control, by making the narrative very certain, in saying, ‘Oh, these are the people. These are the actors. There’s a connection here.’ It’s often a way to avoid change. ‘Oh, if global warming is a conspiracy, I don’t have to do anything about it.’

“So there are a lot of reasons why conspiracy theories, in their design, appeal more to the sets of psychological preferences that people on the right tend to espouse, more so than people on the left. And what you then get is, also if you look at the history of a lot of conspiracy theories, they tend to be very popular about demonizing out groups, minorities. Themes that resonate more with the political right than the political left. So putting all of that together... In fact, there’s a really popular book from Richard Hofstadter — he’s a historian — called The Paranoid Style in American Politics, which, kind of, dictates a long history of paranoia in the US political system by other groups of people that sort of plays into this.

“So, from a theoretical angle, there’s this good reason to assume that there might be such a difference. And then we use these sort of new scales, that are as neutral and unbiased as possible, to see what’s happening. Now, as your caveat here — very important — I am not saying that liberals do not endorse conspiracy theories. I mean, that’s clearly not the case. There are liberals who endorse conspiracy theories. That’s not what I’m saying. What I’m saying is that, if you look at the spectrum, then at the extreme ends, we would expect that extreme conservatives are more inclined towards the conspiratorial way of thinking than extreme liberals, because there’s something unique about that psychology that relates to that type of thinking.

“Again, so this is not saying that liberals do not endorse conspiracy theories, but that there’s this asymmetry that causes a preferential treatment to conspiracy theories because it’s more congenial to the conservative set of values. Again, it’s complex because I don’t want to... conservatives are a heterogeneous group of people. Now, more so than in the past, we see a more radical form of conservatives, in that there’s something called pseudo-conservatism that real conservatives, traditional conservatives wouldn’t endorse the type of values that we’re currently seeing because it goes against the sort of, mild temperament and compromising position of the conscientious traditionalist.

“But you know, just tabling that discussion for a moment, what we found is when you administer these scales, not referencing any particular theory, conservatives, extreme conservatives were more likely than extreme liberals to score higher on these scales. And we found that in nationally representative studies time and again, so not just on specific issues where you’d expect it, like global warming, because that’s polarized in the US, but we also found it on these scales that don’t mention any specifics.

“And, further, what we found was that this appears to be the case. And this is maybe the more interesting thing, that conservatives also scored higher on distrust of official sources and institutions, and higher on paranoia. So, a paranoid ideation scale are things like, ‘I feel that I’m being followed all the time.’ So what you see is that, if there’s a heightened state of paranoia and distrust, that’s a gateway to being open and susceptible to conspiracy theories. And that gateway exists, maybe, because a lot of conspiracy theories play into the types of themes that resonate more with the psychology of extremists on the right than extremists on the left. And there’s some evidence that moderate people, on both sides, are less likely to nurse conspiracy theories…

Greg Miller: “I’m wondering also about the role of emotion and the appeal of conspiracy theories, just in reading some of the news that’s come out in the last few weeks about Facebook, and how they gamed their algorithm to push, bump up posts that elicit angry emoji, and it does seem like there’s something about a lot of, at least the conspiracy theories we see now, that just invoke a sense of injustice and anger, and I’m wondering if there’s research that bears that out — the role of emotion in the appeal of conspiracy theories for people.”

Sander van der Linden: “Yeah, well one of the things we found, by analyzing the language that real conspiracy theorists on Twitter — I can’t name them because of ethics applications — but we look at the top conspiracy people on Twitter and then we analyze the emotionality of the language that they use in their tweets, and also of a group of their followers. And one of the things that we found is that they’re much higher on negative emotion, particularly anger and anxiety, in spreading their message. So a lot of conspiracy theories are about fear, and often fear about other groups of people, or events.

“So that’s definitely a factor that aids in the spreading of conspiracy theories, because you don’t only see it among the influencers, but also among the followers. So there’s a likelihood that that type of language is being adopted because, when there’s a certain political climate, and you know, you see the popularity of conspiracy theories go up and down because, in times where there’s no social unrest, when there’s no political unrest, people, in general, are less likely to endorse these type of explanations. But, when there’s a lot of uncertainty, when there’s a lot of fear going on, they’re really playing in that narrative by appealing to these type of negative emotions. So, that definitely plays a role.

“The other thing is that conspiracy theories that nobody cares about are not popular. So, if OK, there’s aliens in Area 51, and I guess there was some recent news on that but, for a long time, nobody really cared about that. Whereas the satanic pedophile ring that QAnon followers are really concerned about, that’s the type of moral injustice stuff that really gets people riled up. And you were right to mention the Facebook study which the documents reveal that angry emotions were weighted five times the value of a like, for example. Or emotions in general, I should say, which includes angry emotions, which are just the most popular one. And that, kind of, jibes with other research we did on social media, where we found that any post is more likely to be shared on social media if you mention the other groups, or if you’re a liberal, and you’re talking about conservatives and vice versa, but particularly when it’s negative. So, basically, when you’re dumping the other side, that’s the type of stuff that goes viral on these platforms. That’s what we found in our study.

“And initially, Facebook came out saying that, that’s not true, with a press statement, saying that they don’t deliberately do this. But it’s interesting that these documents have now revealed that they were, in fact, upweighting negative emotional reactions.”

Greg Miller: “Let me go back to you. When we spoke last year about the impact of conspiracism on our political institutions, we, or at least I, had no idea what was yet to come with the election and the insurrection. What are you thinking now? You weren’t particularly optimistic, at the time, about the outlook for undoing some of the damage. But what’s your current thinking?”

Nancy Rosenblum: “Before I just answer that, let me just respond a bit to what Sander said, because his work is very important, but he just began to get at the questions that, for political people, really matters — which is, how did we get from an individual mindset to a collective conspiracist mindset, especially one where you’ve truly identified with this ‘we.’ And then, how do you get to one that’s politically potent? What makes it so politically powerful that it’s shaping politics today?

“So, QAnon, for example, is important, not because it’s about moral injustice, but because it is an apocalyptic vision of what you do about a political enemy. In this case, a partisan political enemy. What changed since 2020, Greg — 2020 wasn’t a repeat performance of other conspiracy claims in the United States, including the 2016 election was rigged. And everything changed in his... My addition to the point I just made. Everything changed because, as a president, Trump with a conspiracist mindset and a compromised sense of reality really could use the tools of government ... He had them in his hands. He could have his postmaster general slow down the delivery of mail-in ballots. And this became a model for what state governors and legislators could do to exploit the stolen-election lie.

“I think there’s a second change, besides that cataclysmic one, which was that we had a conspiracist as president and a submissive political party, is that the simple assertion ‘rigged’ — the conspiracy without the theory — began to be embellished. And now you do have worked out, convoluted conspiracy theories about why these elections are rigged. You have dots and patterns and evidence and argument, and they’re worked up by conspiracy entrepreneurs, and they’re financed by national organizations and wealthy conservatives. So, in the state of Arizona, which had this cyber ninja firm showing what was wrong with the Arizona election, the conspiracy theory adds to, at least for many people, the potency of the claim of rigged.

“And I think this matters because political officials — national, state, and local — are really, most of them, more comfortable with this explanation for why the election was rigged than sheer assertion that ‘I wanted a landslide.’ It is unclear to me, though, if convoluted conspiracy theory about the elections, for example, makes a difference to the 61 percent of Republicans who think the election was stolen, or whether they’re perfectly happy to continue on, with just the exclamation ‘rigged.’

“If I can, I want to speculate about something else, I think, seriously important, that may have been changing over the last few years, and has come out now, Greg. And that is, I think there’s an emergent radical change in the fact that many citizens really no longer care about governing, or about government outcomes. The interests that are driving these conspiracists, who are often now violent and armed, are not rooted in policy preferences, which is what political scientists used to typically think about, in a democracy.

“I think that they’re mobilized, instead, by a kind of populist fantasy of rule by someone who’s very powerful, who promises to destroy the people and institutions that frustrate and humiliate them. And I think that maybe the decisive element behind what I see as a growing indifference to government, and to the policies the government produces, is the realization that, really no law, and no policy, and no administrative action can deliver what seems to be desperately wanted on the right today, and that is a reinstatement of white supremacy by law or ensuring the permanency of one-party rule and their cultish leader. And that’s why I think that an attempted coup, and for that matter, world violence is not safely in the past, but coming.

“I say one other thing here, about conspiracism today. And that is, some conspiracy theories have been utopian, like the revolutionary republic that we talked about in the declaration. And some are murderously apocalyptic. I think that’s true of QAnon’s Storm, where, from the apocalypse, a phoenix is going to rise from the ashes. But I think that the conspiracism that’s active in politics and party politics in the United States today is without a program. It’s without ideology. I think it’s sterile. I think it can’t create, or build, or reform. All it can do is destroy, and it’s destroying conservatism along with everything else. And that’s why I say that these conspiracist charges, today, are — all the way down — they’re destabilizing and degrading and delegitimating and ultimately violent.”

Greg Miller: “This is discouraging to hear. It also is discouraging, to me, just how difficult it seems to be to, once people go down that rabbit hole of conspiracy thinking, to turn them around. And I know, Sander, you’ve done some research on interventions, and I’m hoping you can tell us something and maybe have some good news.”

Sander van der Linden: “Well, I mean, yes, I mean, I think there’s good and bad news. I mean, there’s, as you say, once people go down the rabbit hole, it’s very difficult to address the issue. And that’s why I think the current tools that we have, like fact-checking and debunking, aren’t enough, because once people become enthralled in it, they don’t want to let go. So, one approach that we focused on is something called pre-bunking, which is the opposite of debunking. And it’s based on a psychological theory called inoculation theory. And the idea behind psychological inoculation is that you preventively prevent that, you know, essentially you try to prevent these ideas from taking hold in people, in the first place. And the way to do that, paradoxically actually, is to expose people to a weakened dose of misinformation or conspiracy theory, so that people can build up cognitive or mental antibodies against them.

“So, the idea of a vaccine is that it trains your cells to recognize foreign invaders by injecting a weakened dose, an attenuated dose, of the virus. And you can do the same with information. So, in our studies, and we’ve done lots of these, when we expose people to a weakened dose of a conspiracy theory, and then subsequently refute that theory in advance, people will become more resistant to these types of explanations in the future, when they’re being confronted with them. And one of the ways, I think, that we found this to be useful for the wider public, is through interactive intervention. So, for example, we’ve produced games that simulate a social media environment and not only warn people about the dangers of conspiracy theories, in advance, but also allow people to experiment with the ingredients of a conspiracy theory. So the idea is similar to, once you know how the sausage is made, you don’t really want to eat it anymore.

“So the idea is the same. That we put people in a sandbox and we allowed them to experiment with weakened doses of the people who produce conspiracy theories and what goes into it. And then we test people. We bombard them, right after but also weeks later, with all kinds of crazy conspiracy theories. And we found that people have built up quote-unquote ‘antibodies’ against these sort of theories, that they now find them less reliable, less accurate, and are less willing to share them because they’re able to recognize the manipulation tactics that are used in the production of conspiracy theories. So that idea of inoculation has been quite powerful, because there’s a lot to say about prevention is better than cure in this context.”

Greg Miller: “And to what extent does this work? How effective do you think this can be?”

Sander van der Linden: “Well, I mean, I think the idea of inoculation, the idea of a vaccine at the individual level, I think, is useful. But I think ultimately, for me, the real power of the metaphor needs to drive home the biological analogy to its logical conclusion, which is herd immunity. And so I think for it to only be effective at a societal scale, I think we need to be able to scale this idea of the vaccine. So the games are fun, and millions of people go through our interventions. But there’s billions of people in the world, and we can’t vaccinate everyone. And, again, it’s not … the approach we’ve taken here is, you can vaccinate people against a specific conspiracy theory by preemptively refuting the basis of that theory, rather than after the fact. That’s possible. That’s what we call issue-based inoculation.

“But, the approach we’ve taken, which we call a technique-based inoculation, is to expose the manipulation techniques that are part of conspiratorial reasoning in a larger sense, because that avoids having to discuss specific facts with people. So, instead of saying, ‘You’re wrong. You need to believe this or that,’ we’re not saying anything about what people need to believe. We’re just exposing the tactics of deception for people. And then people can make up their own mind. And that’s been helpful in scaling this, and not having this intervention become politicized. But we’ve produced various versions of these games, and we’ve teamed up with the government in the UK, government in the US, during the election. We’ve trialed it with the World Health Organization. It was part of the Stop the Spread campaign. We worked with the United Nations. We worked with social media companies like WhatsApp and Google, on building this out through videos and animated videos and YouTube, you know. All kinds of new ways of trying to implement this idea.

“For example, this is not currently happening because we have to deal with the executives of social media companies who aren’t always immediately pushing these interventions through. But imagine that you’re on YouTube, and before you’re exposed to a conspiratorial video, you’re watching an ad — you know, one of those annoying, non-skippable ads — but now the ad is the pre-bunk. So the YouTube algorithm can identify, with some probability, if the video is going to be harmful. And then it could automatically inject the antidote before people see it, for example. So then you can scale this idea across millions of people. So that’s the kind of the line of reasoning that we’re currently pursuing.

“I should say it’s not like 95 percent efficacy, like the Pfizer vaccine. It’s relatively a modest boost in people’s attitudes and wears off over time. So you might need to boost people, just as with the Covid vaccine. But it’s a useful step, I think, in the right direction, and part of the toolbox because fact-checking and debunking are clearly not enough. So we need to take some of these preemptive steps. And I think that’s the value of the metaphor.”

Greg Miller: “OK, great. I want to leave a little bit of time for questions. We’re getting some questions, and I want to thank everyone, again, for tuning in. If you’re enjoying this event and want to join future ones, please be sure to sign up for Knowable’s newsletter. We’ll drop the link in the chat box. And, also, you can follow Knowable on Facebook and Twitter for updates. Those links will be in the chat, as well. And we’re able to offer this event for free, thanks to philanthropic support. And if you would like to become a supporter of Knowable, you can head to So thanks again, everybody. And let’s look at some questions.

“So we’re getting a lot of questions, I guess not surprisingly, about the role of social media in fostering and amplifying conspiracy theories, and people are curious about, I guess, your views on what the government could and should be doing to regulate Big Tech, and also, at a sort of mechanistic level, what actually could be done? What would that look like in practice? Maybe, Sander, do you want to start, since you’ve worked with social media companies? You have thoughts on that?”

Sander van der Linden: “Sure. I think... My experience, it has been that the... As Frances [Haugen] was saying during her testimonies, here in the UK, actually, this week, a lot of the employees are well-intentioned and they want to address the problems and they make note of these things. But they’re not being heard by management. They’re not being heard by the executives. And I think the problem is that the solutions that exist, or that are offered, often come at the cost of decreasing engagement on the platform. And that means less ads, lower profits. So that’s not being implemented. I think, ultimately, we’re going to have to accept the harsh reality — or these companies are going to have to accept the harsh reality — that some of the interventions that they’re going to need to implement mean they’re going to make potentially less money and see lower engagement on the platform. And maybe that’s not a bad thing.

“I mean, they’re always in the mindset that there’s going to be a solution that doesn’t hurt engagement and solves the problem at the same time. But I think you know, it might be... I’m not sure if that’s really attainable. I think, at some point, we’re going to have to just fundamentally restructure how social media works.

“I mean, if you want my personal opinion, I think we should restructure the incentives on social media. I think one of the problem incentives on social media is that negative conversations are being prioritized. There’s a lot of outgroup derogation. There’s a lot of hatred. Social media was potentially designed to keep people connected, for positive social conversations, and so on. And it’s turned into a cesspool of very negative things at the moment. So what I think we need to do is incentivize essentially things that bring out the best in people, constructive conversations, evidence-based conversations, accuracy-oriented incentives.

“So what are the things that want to make people be accurate, maybe even moderate, not political? And those things don’t get a lot of engagement. It’s more boring. Science is not as exciting as a big argument on social media. So, they’ll see less engagement. And frankly, social media companies have said, straight up, that the goal of social media is not to promote evidence-based conversations. The goal is to promote any type of conversation people want to have. They’re free to do what they want on the platform, so long as they don’t violate the user policies. And I think, as long as they have that philosophy, we’re not going to see any useful changes.”

Greg Miller: “Nancy, do you have thoughts on this — the role of social media and the potential for regulation as a solution?”

Nancy Rosenblum: “I don’t want to talk about regulation as a solution. I really am quite ambivalent about government regulation of these things. But I do want to say that, while it’s very clear that social media is enabling and a serious factor in the spread of conspiracism, I don’t think it’s the cause of it, and I think that what we should be worried about, as well, is, as I say, conspiracism when it enters the realm of politics and society, that is conspiracism once it’s in action. Once these people are mobilized, and often armed, and out there loading and taking some sorts of quite destructive actions. And there, I think that the answers are not just controlling what goes on in social media, but other kinds of actions that democracies require. It requires speaking truth to conspiracism, especially for political leadership. Whether that changes people’s minds, or not, it does — that is, conspiracist minds or not — it does give a kind of, more buttress to those people who want to oppose it.

“I think that the second thing that I would recommend here is enacting democracy, and that is what’s going on right now, under this new administration, where the assumption is that people will be reconciled to democracy and politics, and winning and losing, if they think that government is providing for them, in certain ways, and I think that the Biden administration has taken this on, very seriously. But if we’re not going to have a further degradation of political life in the United States, they have to produce things for people, goods and benefits and so on.

“I think that, today, one of the most important obstacles or answers to conspiracism is going on in that beating heart of democracy, which is in civil society, where we see all kinds of organized groups and associations immobilize people and legal actions, and so on and so forth, that are challenging the politics of this and the effects of the politics of this. But I think that, in the end, so long as you have political leadership, in one of the two major political parties, devoted to using conspiracism to exercise and keep power, it’s going to be very hard to stop.”

Greg Miller: “Here’s another question that seems interesting. Someone’s asking, are conspiracy theories more abundant in democratic societies or authoritarian societies? I guess I would even broaden that a little bit to ask whether there are certain cultural or societal conditions that allow conspiracy theories to flourish? Anyone?”

Nancy Rosenblum: “I don’t know the answer to where they’re more prevalent. From what I read and know, they can be used politically anywhere, by everyone, and are. And one thing I think I’ve observed, although I haven’t done a study of it, I’ve observed, is that, in the past, American conspiracists often imported conspiracy theories from Europe and from abroad. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, for example, or certain kinds of anticommunist conspiracies. But, today, it seems to be reversing, and we’re exporting them. And we have a lot of evidence in regimes in Eastern Europe and other places where they’re using the sort of conspiracism without the theory that we have described the Trump administration using abroad.”

Greg Miller: “Sander, did you want to add anything?”

Sander van der Linden: “Yeah, maybe just, I mean, I agree with that. I think certainly every country has seen their share of conspiracy theories, Nazi Germany was full of antisemitic conspiracy theories, obviously 50, 60 years ago. So it’s not unique, but I think Nancy’s right. What you do see now is that the United States scores higher than almost any other country on conspiracy endorsement, across a variety of issues. So I think the United States is currently relatively unique in not only the quantity, but also the intensity with which conspiracy theories are being endorsed, if you look from climate change to QAnon. I think it has to do with the unique political climate of the United States.

“The other thing is that conspiracy theories are psychologically linked to magical and superstitious thinking. And so, in other countries, there’s certainly a lot of magical and superstitious thinking about cause and effect, things that, spirits that cure things, and so on. So even though it seems very different from a conspiracy theory, the underlying psychology of misunderstanding cause and effect is actually quite similar in how it operates. So I would say that maybe you don’t see conspiracy theories in the same way in other countries; the thinking patterns that underlie it are not entirely different.”

Greg Miller: “This seems like a potentially related question. Someone asked, are people more susceptible to conspiracy thinking when they feel powerless? Sander?”

Nancy Rosenblum: “That used to…”

Greg Miller: “Oh, sorry Nancy. Go ahead.”

Nancy Rosenblum: “That used to be a truism. In fact, Hofstadter’s book that Sander quoted, assumes that conspiracists are extremists, they’re on the fringe, and they’re out of power. It’s why he saw conspiracism as, sort of, culturally malignant but didn’t anticipate the political potency that we see today. Well, I’ll leave it there.”

Sander van der Linden: “Yeah, I agree. A lot of empirical studies show that humans with feelings of powerlessness correlate with the belief in conspiracy theory, because, it typically is the case that people who endorse conspiracy theory tend to feel marginalized and out of power. And conspiracy theories are a way to regain agency and control over what’s happening in the world. So that is a very common explanation for why people endorse them.”

Nancy Rosenblum: “But it is ironic that Trump is president, or was president, and his party had power, and conspiracism flourished under those conditions. So it may be that what holds for the followers is not the explanation of what holds for political leadership.”

Sander van der Linden: “Yeah, that’s an interesting point. But even though Trump was in power, he seemed to continuously feel as if he was being marginalized by the media and other actors …

Greg Miller: “Yeah, the deep state.”

Sander van der Linden: “The deep state conspiracy against him. So it’s interesting.”

Nancy Rosenblum: “Yeah.”

Greg Miller: “Right. Yeah, that was … One of the other people I spoke to for that article was Joe Uscinski, and his research suggests that during Republican administrations in the US, Democrats are more prone to believe in conspiracy theories and vice versa. So the party that’s out of power is more prone to believe that there’s a conspiracy — which, I guess, is a way of reassuring yourself.”

Nancy Rosenblum: “Does it? And I think that, that’s true that we had, in the president, someone who had a compromised sense of reality and did think that he was always being embattled. But that doesn’t explain... And maybe it’s true that many of his most cultish followers are people who have felt that they were humiliated, that they were losing status in society. But that doesn’t explain the fact that you have an entire political party supine to this, and going along, passing laws, and continuing, and staking its future on this kind of conspiracy about the opposition being a public enemy and the elections being rigged. It can’t be that Mitch McConnell feels that way. So it’s more complicated, I think.”

Greg Miller: OK. All right. Well, I think we’re going to have to leave it there. Thanks, again, to Nancy and Sander for a really fascinating discussion, and thank you everyone for joining us. I’m going to turn this back over to Rachel.”

Sander van der Linden: “Pleasure.”

Nancy Rosenblum: “Thank you.”