Dr. Adams Enders discusses the unique challenges conspiracy theories pose and why they are so hard to dislodge once they take hold.

Producer: Matthew Werman
05/02/2021 • 11:12 PM EST

Dr. Adam Enders, assistant professor of political science at the University of Louisville discusses the unique set of societal factors that help conspiracy theories catch fire and the role populism plays in fueling them. He also explains how they can bring a sense of control to an otherwise out of control world and why they can be much harder to dislodge than other forms of disinformation.

0:00: Matthew Werman:

With us today, we have Dr. Adam Enders, assistant professor of political science at the University of Louisville. Dr. Enders studies political misinformation, and conspiratorial thought. And he has recently published work concerning conspiracy theory in the age of COVID-19. Dr. Enders, thank you so much for joining us today.

0:17: Dr. Adam Enders:

Thanks for having me.

0:19: Matthew Werman:

Let's jump right into it. What are the key societal factors that tend to create fertile ground for conspiracy theories to flourish?

0:27: Dr. Adam Enders:

So, the answer to this question is somewhat complicated, because we don't actually have decades and decades of conspiracy research to actually stand on. So what I can do is think about some of the individual level factors that tend to correlate with conspiracy beliefs and then sort of extrapolate those to societal conditions that might promote those kinds of factors. So I'll give you an example. We tend to find that socioeconomic deprivation, which is to say people who tend to occupy lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder, frequently hold more conspiracy beliefs than people who are a little bit more well to do socioeconomically. We tend to interpret that as essentially people glomming onto conspiracy theories as a mechanism for sort of explaining there lot in life. Right? So if you're doing everything that you possibly can to get ahead but it's just not working, then one might turn to conspiracy theories to explain why that's the case.

So, sort of extrapolating from that, we might say that socioeconomic inequality could be a factor, a broader societal factor that encourages conspiracy beliefs. Another sort of individual level factor that we could extrapolate on has to do with partisanship and ideology, so political predispositions. We know that partisans and ideologues tend to glom on to conspiracy theories that malign the out-group or that sort of bolster the in-group or explain in-group misfortune. So if we're in a time of heated polarization or we have particularly salient sort of political events happening around us, maybe like a major contentious presidential election, that can sort of foster the growth and spread of conspiracy theories that have some political tinge to them.

So I think those are two of, sort of the big societal factors. In addition to some of the other anxieties that were produced by the COVID pandemic.

2:53: Matthew Werman:

Is there a relation between populism and populous sentiments and conspiracy theories?

3:01: Dr. Adam Enders:

Yeah, so I don't think that they're exactly synonymous, but what they do overlap in is this struggle between a corrupt and indeed an evil establishment and a moral and virtuous and good people. Right? So one thing that sets populism and conspiracy thinking apart from partisan orientations, for example, is that we tend to find that people on the left and the right fairly equally buy into populous ideas and even, you know, general conspiratorial ideas. So maybe not specific conspiracy theories, but if you sort of zoom out and think about the whole landscape of conspiracy theories, we find that it happens on the left and the right, and that has to do with the sort of inherent sort of psychological ingredients that go into conspiracy beliefs.

But it really is this sort of struggle, you know, the way I think about it as it's not left and right, it's us versus, it's the people versus the power, right. So it's this more sort of hierarchical dimension, instead of this sort of horizontal sort of left/right dimension that conspiratorial thinking and populism is aligned on. The other thing that they have in common is these Manichaean undertones, which is to say Manichaean thinking is the sort of predisposition to think about the world in terms of an inherent good versus evil. So conspiratorial thinking and a lot of populist ideas tend to couch their ideas in these good versus evil terms.

4:54: Matthew Werman:

How does COVID-19 fit into the picture? Has it made a bad situation with conspiracy theories worse?

5:01: Dr. Adam Enders:

Yeah, so I mentioned some of those broader societal factors before. We do have relatively high levels of socioeconomic inequality right now. We do have a high level of polarization. We did have a very contentious presidential election last year. So all of those societal conditions were already present. And what COVID added to that was a whole slew of additional opportunities for anxiety. So we have additional economic anxiety, because people are losing their jobs. People are worried about losing their jobs, whether they lost them or not. They're worried about getting back to normal and when they're going to be able to hang out with their friends and embrace some family members. Right?

So, this is to say that the pandemic brought on all of these anxieties that all sort of circle around these key psychological constructs of uncertainty and helplessness and powerlessness. And what we know is that when people start to feel helpless and powerless, and when they start to feel uncertain, they sort of inherently, albeit subconsciously. try to do things to regain control, right, and regain some certainty and get themselves back into the driver's seat. And one way to do that is to turn to conspiracy theories. Now this might not be the best way to actually regain control over one's life, but it does feel a little bit better because you're taking this otherwise very messy world and you're imposing some structure on it.

So one way to think about conspiracy theories is that there are stories, right, that have this regular narrative form that pops up over and over again. So we've got these malicious villains that are sort of doing these bad things to us, and at least it feels familiar. So in the context of COVID-19, China did it, right? The Chinese are these bad actors, right? They develop this thing in a lab and maybe the purpose of it was to be a bio weapon. And so at least we know that it wasn't our fault. At least we know this couldn't randomly pop up again in another five or 10 years, because this other nefarious actor over there is sort of intentionally doing this to us. And the intentionality part's really important because intentionality bias sort of feeds conspiracy beliefs as well.

So it could be China is doing it. It could be Democrats are really just sort of overplaying this and this is all designed to make Donald Trump's effort to combat Coronavirus look weak, and look like he's underperforming, so that it impacts his electoral success. Right. And if I think that, then I can sort of stop worrying and get back outside and go on with my life in a normal way, because this is all sort of one big sham. So, it doesn't really change the reality of things. No, but it does change the sort of perceived reality of things. And, you know, that sort of psychological gymnastics is really important for the way that we get through our everyday lives, even though we don't sort of consciously think about it.

So it's really the anxiety and some of these other psychological effects that COVID-19 piled on to an environment that was already reasonably ripe for conspiracy theories.

Michael Gordon:

8:34: What's your outlook for the future on the influence of conspiracy theories, and what danger do you see to a democracy that they create, if they do in your opinion?

8:52: Dr. Adam Enders:

Well, I think that the real pernicious effect is one that is sort of abstract and, you know, difficult for people to sort of pay attention to in a serious way, in some ways. So, when we're talking about COVID, the implications of conspiracy theories are obvious, right? If people don't think that COVID is real, then they're not going to engage in these health practices that endanger us all, right?  And we can think about social distancing and mask wearing and anti-vax and so on and so forth. Right? So it's very obvious what the consequences are there. I think the more pernicious effect though, is that it creates this disenchantment and disillusionment with the establishment, which has sort of loosely defined. It can kind of mean anything. And it creates this sort of inherent and very sort of unproductive suspicion of all of authority.

And so if we get to a point where people don't trust anybody or anything, then you know, maybe we're not conspiracy theorists, but we're all going to be what I call denialists. Right? Which is to say, we're not skeptics, right. A skeptic is somebody whose beliefs will be updated when some even-handed burden of proof is met. But a denialist is to somebody who just doesn't believe other stuff, unless they want to, right. Unless it's intuitive to them. Unless it comports with previously held beliefs or their worldviews or their ideology.

And conspiracy theories, and I think misinformation more generally, push us toward this direction of just thinking that everything is, you know, potentially a lie, everything is suspect. You can't really trust anybody, so you should just believe whatever you want to believe. Which is to say the sort of "post-truth" era. And when we get to the point where we reach critical mass, hopefully we never do, if we ever reach critical mass in people thinking that way, I sort of shutter to think what society looks like at that point.

Michael Gordon:

11:03: Are there efforts in the education community to look at mitigation strategies for something like conspiracy theories, or are people doing work on that now? Or is that, as you said, it's still so young, has that really not happened yet?

11:20: Dr. Adam Enders:

So, in the sort of the misinformation research area, there's a little bit more of this. So there are sort of preventive strategies and then corrective strategies. The preventive strategies have to do with inoculation or so-called "pre-bunking." And the idea is expose people to, you know, some information that is out there in the world or some element of that information that's out there in the world, and then explain to them why it's wrong or demonstrate that other sort of authority figures have sort of debunked this, and this is problematic for reasons X, Y, and Z. And the idea is, if people know that they might encounter this and you sort of get ahead of it and sort of debunk it before they come into contact with it, i.e. pre-bunk, then you can sort of stave off the effects of that misinformation.

On the backend, we have corrective strategies, which is, you know, trying to determine who believes certain things and then exposing them to information that hopefully they will use to update those beliefs. So the sort of straightforward, classical way that this has done is give some information from an authoritative body that describes why the misinformation is incorrect. We do have evidence that both of those types of strategies work, when it comes to lots of different types of misinformation. When it comes to conspiracy theories, though, things are a little bit trickier. So I mentioned before that misinformation only sort of requires, you know, intuition or intuitive appeal at least, and then sort of non-expert status, right? So, if it's something that's intuitive, but you're not really an expert, then you might be amenable to updating the belief. It's not something you care too much about. You just got exposed to something that was wrong. So, you know, you update.

With conspiracy theories though, again, these are these mostly sort of emanate from this deeper-seated worldview. So if I am sort of naturally prone to seeing these shadowy conspiracies and cabals all around me, then imagine how somebody like that would interact or react to a pre-bunking or a corrective effort. Right? So first of all, if you don't trust anybody and everybody's part of the conspiracy, then who is an authoritative body that could possibly override my opinions? Right? There isn't one. I inherently distrust all scientists. So if you tell me that the CDC said, this is good information, I won't believe you. Conspiracy theories are so unique and important in this way, right? They're sort of inherently nebulous and we can stretch them and shrink them and remold them to accommodate any incoming evidence, any countervailing evidence. And everything is part of the conspiracy.

So, you know, the people in some sense, the people that we're most worried about in society that we would most like to bring back to reality are going to be the people that are going to react most aggressively, I think, to the pre-bunking efforts, flagging on social media, notifications that fact-checkers disagree, and so on and so forth. They're going to see all of that as part of a conspiracy.

15:09: Matthew Werman:

Is there anything that can be done to combat powerful political actors, whether that be politicians themselves, unelected officials, or people like news anchors, who benefit from perpetuating these theories? Would you say that trying to educate people, in the way that you mentioned, is enough? Or is there something else that can be done at the top?

15:33: Dr. Adam Enders:

This is so tricky because, again, thinking about the incentives of political actors, I don't think there's, you know, it's this random occurrence that all of a sudden, we see elected lawmakers trafficking in conspiracy theories and misinformation. And it's not because those people randomly sort of became conspiracy theorists or something like that. It's because they think that it gives them some electoral leg up.

So the reason why the Republican Party, for example, is hesitant to come out and formally rebuke somebody like Marjorie Taylor Greene is because they see that the sort of anti-establishment views and the disenchantment and the disillusionment with politics that are at the center of some of the conspiracy theories that she's promoted in the past, those sentiments are very widespread in the electorate, and they're very important to their base. And they're very important to some previously politically disengaged people that Donald Trump brought into the coalition. So, they're not going to give that up. And I suspect that if that sort of scenario played out on the left, it would be the same, right? It's just, there is an incentive to hold on to as many voters as you possibly can. When polarization keeps proceeding the way it has, and elections keep getting won on slimmer and slimmer margins, you need every single vote. And you know, every single vote counts.

In a sense, the solution is sort of easy in a sense, right? If politicians stop talking about conspiracy theories, they would basically go away in terms of their influence on politics. Political elites, media, lawmakers, presidents, so on and so forth, they set the parameters for political discourse. We like to think, it's a nice idea that public opinion sort of constrains political elites, but the reality is that it's sort of a reaction to what political elites are saying and doing. So, if you see lawmakers on television talking about issue X, Y, and Z, you know, you're going to see polling about issues X, Y, and Z. And then people will be talking in their homes about issues X, Y, and Z, even though there are a million other issues, right?

So if lawmakers are talking about these things, it means that they're sort of implicitly putting them on the table, for regular political discourse. And if they stopped doing that, they wouldn't be on the table for discourse anymore, and they wouldn't play a serious role in our politics. So the answer is it's sort of simple in the sense that if elites stopped, it would stop, but elites don't really have the incentive to stop. I don't think.

18:28: Matthew Werman:

This might be outside your area of expertise or your research at least, but how do you feel about social media companies like Twitter, YouTube, Reddit, censoring conspiratorial theory on their platforms?

18:45: Dr. Adam Enders:

Yeah, so I think this gets really nicely at the point I was just starting to work toward, I think that it helps with incidental exposure. So incidental exposure is when people are online, minding their own business, they're not looking for conspiratorial information and then they come into contact with conspiratorial information and, you know, maybe they sort of adopt that. Maybe they don't. And the idea is, if we can flag that information and call into question its veracity, then maybe we can sort of nudge these people who are incidentally exposed in a different direction. I don't however, think that that type of censorship is going to impact the most conspiratorially-minded people. Right? They are going to see that as an attempt by the government, or whatever conspiratorial body they have in their mind, to manipulate our information and manipulate us and keep us docile, and whatever else, you know, they have they have in their mind as being part of the conspiracy.

So, I think that it can help with incidental exposure. It's not going to really help with selective exposure, where people are going out and intentionally trying to look for information that is conspiratorial because it comports with their worldview. And we shouldn't underestimate the extent to which that happens. It happens a lot. Again, that's why all of these YouTube channels of QAnon content, for example, are able to monetize, is because they have regular followers and a regular community that shows up every single day to follow them. And we can scrub them from YouTube, but they'll show up somewhere else. All of the accounts that I followed as a researcher that were trafficking in QAnon information, they just started their own websites and they found other platforms that would host their videos, like BitChute and whatever else. So it set them back a week, not much longer than that.

21:00: Matthew Werman:

Okay. It looks like we're out of time for today. We've been talking with Dr. Adam Enders from the University of Louisville. Dr. Enders is an expert on conspiracy theories and the consequences of misinformation. Dr. Enders, thanks so much for spending time with us today.

21:14: Dr. Adam Enders:

Thanks for having me.