The Secret Behind Those Big Conspiracy Poll Numbers

by John Hawkins | August 30, 2010 1:35 pm

As someone who has been fighting conspiracy theories on the net for years, there’s a particular trend that has caught my eye. After a conspiracy theory reaches maturity and becomes widely known, it’s not unusual to see polls show that 30-40% of the population buys into it.

That has been true of the birther argument (although Obama was certainly born in Hawaii[1], I don’t think that qualifies as a conspiracy theory any more than the “We invaded Iraq for oil” claim by the lefties, but it’s close enough) and the big liberal conspiracy of the Bush years, trutherism.

So, here’s the thing: If even 30% of the population truly believes George Bush let 9/11 happen on purpose, shouldn’t there have been a lot more of Rosie O’Donnell making some snarky comments on The View? Where were the members of Congress demanding Bush be impeached for the WTC bombings? Where were the violent riots in the streets?

Know why we didn’t see that? Because conspiracy theories usually have a small number of hard core adherents, but most “true believers” don’t have a high degree of confidence in the theory. In general, most believers seem to merely dislike the targets of a conspiracy and take the position that they wouldn’t put anything past them. So, yes, they may say that they think Bush is behind 9/11 or that Obama wasn’t born in Hawaii, but it’s not something they’d put a 10 spot on because they understand there’s a good chance that they’re wrong.

Pollster Gary Langer has a slightly different take on the thinking that’s involved[2], but as you can see, he’s noticing the same effect on the “Obama is a Muslim” poll response,

It’s quickly mushroomed into the summer’s hottest data point: A boatload of Americans believe Barack Obama’s a Muslim.

Except that, maybe, they don’t. Consider this instead: They’re just willing to say it.

This not-so-subtle difference is useful in understanding public opinion and its measurement. Yet the punditry and pronouncements that have followed the Obama/Muslim numbers mainly have missed the point, falling instead into the trap of literalism. They say, so they believe.

Not necessarily so. People in fact may voice an attitude not as an affirmed belief — a statement of perceived factual reality — but rather as what my colleagues and I have taken to calling “expressed belief” — a statement intended to send a message, not claim a known fact.

There are many celebrated examples. Saying the moon landing was staged is an easy way to express skepticism of the federal government. Opining that Iraq was behind 9/11 is a way to voice generalized views of Saddam Hussein’s villainy. Expressing doubt about global warming telegraphs opposition to the policy changes proposed to address it. And calling Barack Obama a Muslim is — for people who see this as a negative attribute — a handy way to say you don’t like the guy.

This concept not only explains the expressed “belief” that Obama’s a Muslim, but its recent rise. Disapproval of the president has grown, including strong disapproval. The growing roll of strong disapprovers provides a larger pool of individuals looking for opportunities to voice that sentiment. Socialist? Yep. Born in Kenya? Sure. Muslim? You betcha.

Along come the measurements. A Pew poll completed Aug. 5 found 18 percent of Americans saying Obama’s a Muslim, up from 11 percent in March 2009. It’s not much of a surprise, given the notion of expressed belief, that this view rose chiefly among Republicans and conservatives — groups most opposed to Obama, increasingly strongly so, and also most apt to express negative views of Islam.

Whether it’s people sending a message or just assuming something negative about someone they don’t like, the most salient point is that most people who buy into conspiracy theories don’t take their beliefs all that seriously. That’s good for society and it makes these conspiracy theories a bit less worrisome.

  1. certainly born in Hawaii:
  2. thinking that’s involved:

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