How conspiratorial thinking is undermining democracy, and what we can do about it

By Alan C. Miller | December 12, 2022

US Capitol.The scene outside the US Capitol on January 6, 2021. (Tyler Merbler, CC-BY)

Following the midterm elections on November 8, headlines focused on the defeat of Republican candidates in the battleground states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, Arizona, and Nevada who made denial of the 2020 presidential election results a centerpiece of their campaigns—even as some of those candidates were running for offices that oversee elections.

“Election Deniers Fall Short in Key States” was the banner headline on the front page of the New York Times two days after the election.

But the overall picture was more mixed. More than 150 Republicans who supported former President Donald Trump’s false claim that he defeated Joe Biden two years ago were elected to the United States House of Representatives—a chamber that will be controlled, albeit narrowly, by the GOP starting in January 2023. They include two new members who were at the January 6, 2021 rally on the Ellipse that preceded the attack on the Capitol. Election-denying candidates were also elected to the United States Senate and to state offices, including governor, attorney general, and secretary of state. A week after the elections, CBS News projected that “at least 60% of the Republican candidates who raised unfounded doubts about the validity or integrity of the 2020 election results” would win their races. That’s 185 of 308.

Before, during, and after Election Day, politicians echoed Trump’s message, and the internet was awash in false narratives and viral rumors about specious claims of chicanery and cheating. Election fraud and related ideas were mentioned nearly 600,000 times on social media, online news sites, and elsewhere in the week after the elections, according to Zignal Labs, which tracks online messages.

Polls show that despite all evidence to the contrary, more than two-thirds of Republicans and one-third of all Americans still suspect election fraud or believe that Trump was the real winner in 2020. The former president retains considerable support among Republican voters; on November 15, he announced his candidacy for president in 2024. On December 3, Trump said on his Truth Social platform that “MASSIVE & WIDESPREAD FRAUD & DECEPTION” in the 2020 election “allows for the termination of all rules, regulations and articles, even those found in the Constitution”—and that the results should be thrown out or a new election held.

Election denialism is hardly the only conspiracy theory that has attracted a widespread following in recent years. Believers of other dangerous delusions have spilled onto the streets from the dark corners of the web and threatened to undermine the nation’s public health as well as its public life. These beliefs are often intertwined or self-reinforcing.

Millions of Americans are convinced that a shadowy network of powerful officials and Hollywood entertainers not only is secretly running the country through the “deep state” but is also engaged in sex trafficking of young children—a belief that has evolved into the conspiracy theory and movement known as QAnon. When Trump was president, its adherents believed that only he, as a Washington outsider and nonpolitician, could unmask and purge this evil cabal, with mass arrests taking place on a day known as “the Storm.” In fact, QAnon is often traced back to October 5, 2017, when Trump puzzlingly told the press, “Maybe it’s the calm before the storm.”

Some who believe this surreal vision have acted on it. Among them are numerous participants in the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol, which occurred just seven months after the FBI said in a threat assessment that QAnon members could move “towards engaging in real world violence—including harming perceived members of the ‘cabal’ such as Democrats and other political opposition—instead of continually awaiting Q’s promised actions which have not occurred.”

Those who stormed the Capitol carrying zip ties and ropes, searching for Vice President Mike Pence and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and chanting “Hang Mike Pence,” were clearly intent on carrying this out. A similarly equipped intruder broke into Pelosi’s San Francisco home 11 days before the midterms, wanting to hold her hostage and possibly break her kneecaps. She was in Washington; the intruder attacked her 82-year-old husband with a hammer, sending him to the hospital.

QAnon has even infiltrated the halls of Congress. Georgia Republican Marjorie Taylor Greene, whose embrace of several far-right conspiracy theories, including QAnon, led to a House vote removing her from her committee assignments last year, cruised to reelection on November 8. Lauren Boebert of Colorado, another Republican who has openly supported QAnon beliefs, claimed victory in a surprisingly close race; her opponent conceded on November 18, but a recount has been ordered. Should Boebert prevail, she and Greene appear poised to play a more prominent role in the House, where the razor-thin GOP majority will give them greater leverage.

Many Americans have also latched on to misinformation about all aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic, where the stakes for millions of people have literally been life and death. From the outset, people embraced falsehoods about the origin of the COVID-19 virus, spread dangerous lies about masks and vaccines, and gave credence to conspiracy theories that the entire thing was a global hoax intended to sell vaccines or depopulate the Earth or control the food supply.

Susceptibility to misinformation and disinformation is not solely the purview of those on the political right. While there is not an equivalency, the anti-vaxxer movement cuts across political ideologies. Similarly, although political violence has been far more prevalent among white supremacists and far-right extremists, according to a study by the Anti-Defamation League, conservatives have been targets and victims as well. In June 2022, for example, a man armed with a gun and a knife was arrested outside the home of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh; he told police he wanted to kill Kavanaugh because of the court’s anticipated decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. Five years earlier, House Republican Whip Steve Scalise was severely wounded when a man who espoused left-wing views opened fire on GOP lawmakers at practice for a charity baseball game.

How did we get here? What does it mean that so many Americans are now deeply invested in such corrosive lies? And what can be done to reinforce reality-based thinking before conspiratorial thinking undermines democracy and ushers in a new era of civic confusion, chaos, and coercion?

A central challenge is the long decline in trust in key institutions that provide vital information and services that Americans rely on for much of their public life. This has left many unsure of whom or what to trust—and thus prone to not trusting any sources as independent and reliable arbiters of fact-based reality.

In its 2022 survey of public trust in government, the Pew Research Center found that only two in 10 Americans trust the government in Washington to do what is right at least most of the time. When this annual survey began in 1958, that number was seven in 10.

A Gallup poll in June found that confidence in major institutions—which the company has been tracking since 1973—is near, or at, all-time lows. The poll found new lows in confidence in the Supreme Court (25 percent), the presidency (23 percent), and Congress (7 percent). Five other institutions hit their lowest points in at least three decades: the police (45 percent), the church or organized religion (31 percent), newspapers (16 percent), and the criminal justice system and big business (both at 14 percent).

In September, another Gallup survey found that 34 percent of all Americans—and a mere 14 percent of Republicans—trust that the media will “fully, accurately, and fairly” report the news. And the Edelman Trust Barometer, which has been examining topics related to trust and credibility for more than 20 years, noted in its most recent survey that more than three-quarters of respondents—an all-time high—agreed with this statement: “I worry that false information or fake news is being used as a weapon.”

This loss of trust in institutions, and in each other, has combined with rising political polarization, a deeply felt sense of grievance, and growing tribalism to make people increasingly prone to seeking only those sources of information that echo their existing beliefs back to them and dismissing news reports that contradict their convictions. Those who see news through prisms of red and blue are far more likely to see the world in terms of black and white.

Meanwhile, Google, Facebook, and Amazon have grown to control nearly two-thirds of all digital ad revenue, accelerating the collapse of the business model for news. The number of newspapers has dropped precipitously, and many that remain have sharply cut jobs. Between 2004 and 2022, 2,511 newspapers (about 28 percent of the total in the United States) ceased publication, and more than 200 counties became “news deserts,” lacking any local paper. More than 44,000 newspaper jobs, or a stunning 58 percent of the total, have been lost since 2005. This has left many surviving papers hollowed out and unable to cover untold numbers of important stories or effectively play the watchdog role at planning boards, city halls, and state capitols.

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Despite the loss of so much quality journalism, a greater amount of reliable and valuable information is still readily available than ever before, in what should be a golden age of public knowledge. But it is competing for attention with exponentially larger numbers of posts, blogs, and other items that seek not to inform in an impartial, accurate, contextual, and fair-minded way, but to sell, persuade, mislead, exploit, and misinform.

Our society lives amid the most robust and fraught information ecosystem in human history. Around the world, every minute of every day, humans send more than 231 million emails and 16 million text messages; 575,000 tweets are posted, and 500 hours of content are uploaded to YouTube. There are no barriers to entry for grifters, hoaxers, hackers, snake oil peddlers, ideologues, all manner of foreign and domestic operatives, and ordinary people who create false or misleading content for profit, ideology, partisan gain, mischief-making, or even in earnest out of a misplaced sense of altruism.

The trolls, bots, and other bad actors are out there, constantly and relentlessly appealing to human emotions—anger, fear, anxiety, excitement—to shut down rational thinking and exploit the deepest values of patriotism, religion, or partisanship to manipulate us into believing and amplifying their messages.

Facebook, YouTube, and other social media platforms are designed to optimize engagement—leading to the promotion of the most sensational, extreme, and polarizing posts that keep people on the platform as they garner ever more clicks, likes, shares, and followers. Elon Musk’s recent purchase of Twitter has raised concerns that the platform will become an ever-greater source of unmoderated extremist posts. Slurs against Black, gay and transgender, and Jewish people jumped in the initial weeks after Musk bought Twitter, according to groups that study online platforms.

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have found that falsehoods are more than 70 percent more likely to be tweeted than real news, and that it takes the truth about six times as long as false stories to reach 1,500 people. The platforms’ algorithms, which feed users posts and search results based on whom they follow and the websites they frequent, can intensify echo chambers and deepen polarization.

Joan Donovan, the research director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, has analyzed groups that she says pay the real cost of misinformation at scale, or what she calls the “centrifuge of chaos online.” They include journalists, who are often the target of hoaxes and viral rumors; health care workers, who deal with patients who are anxious or acting on the basis of false information; civil society, where grifters or hoaxers may impersonate groups of activists for profit or to score ideological points; and law enforcement, compelled to waste valuable time and energy chasing viral rumors.

Social media platforms do something else with enormous, if unintended, consequences: They enable people with extreme views who might otherwise be isolated—those who believe, for example, that the Earth is flat or the moon landing was faked—to connect online and create self-reinforcing communities united in their unsupported and even bizarre beliefs. This allows online groups to offer community and a sense of belonging, along with simple explanation of complex problems. These groups don’t just find each other; they collaborate to deepen and expand their harmful ideas and convictions, sharing “evidence” to add to the community’s convictions and continue to draw others into their misguided circle.

In conspiratorial groups, the realities of globalization or demographic change or a worldwide pandemic are reduced to cognitively attractive binaries of good and evil. Often “the other”—immigrants, Jews, political opponents—are seen as the enemy. This thinking feeds on itself and becomes part of an individual’s identity. Efforts to debunk such beliefs often end up merely reinforcing them: If the mainstream media says it’s false, conspiracists are fond of saying, it must be true.

Of course, actual conspiracies do exist; we know this because they leave behind well-established evidence. For instance, a conspiracy among a small group of Southern sympathizers following the Civil War culminated in John Wilkes Booth’s assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Much more recently, the Roman Catholic Church conspired for decades to cover for priests who were sexually abusing young parishioners. Interestingly, it’s now known that the January 6 assault on the Capitol was an actual conspiracy, one that was inspired by false claims of a stolen presidential election.

The 2016 presidential election was a watershed in the evolution of misinformation and disinformation. It was also a breakthrough in public awareness of the scope and impact of harmful misinformation online and of the kaleidoscope of bad actors who produce it.

The public learned how much the companies running the platforms knew (especially Facebook), and how little they had been willing to do to curb it. The public also found out about the Russians’ aggressive disinformation campaign to influence the election’s outcome, pit Americans against each other, and undermine faith in democracy.

All these forces were at play before Donald Trump became president, but he relentlessly exploited and exacerbated them with constant prevarications and attacks on the news media. When journalists sought to hold him accountable, he dismissed their reporting as “fake news.” He systematically eroded political norms and the rule of law. He spread harmful falsehoods about COVID-19 that cost an untold number of lives. And he undermined his supporters’ faith in the election process.

Having gone from “alternative facts” (a phrase that entered the lexicon just two days after Trump’s inauguration) to alternative realities upon his contentious departure from office, Americans now not only cannot agree on what the facts are; they cannot even agree on what a fact is.

This poses one of the great challenges of our time, because facts are the central nervous system of public life. They are the basis for what is taught in schools. For scientific inquiry and findings. For the legal system and jurisprudence. For societal debates and decisions about what constitutes effective public policy.

And facts most certainly are not partisan. If they are in trouble, we are on the path not only to an information dystopia, but very possibly to autocracy.

Avoiding a dire outcome. A high-profile commission at the Aspen Institute spent six months studying this problem, which it called “a crisis in truth and trust.” In its report, released in November 2021, the commission called on elected officials to create a national strategic plan to counter misinformation and disinformation and to dedicate long-term investment in local journalism. It urged newsrooms and social media platforms to become more diverse and inclusive to increase public trust. It said that social media companies should become more transparent; that the government should reform laws that shield platforms like Facebook from being held legally liable for content that their algorithms amplify and monetize; and that there should be ways to hold bad actors accountable. It also mentioned the need for more media literacy education.

None of this will be easy. The Biden administration sought to take a step to tackle the problem when, on April 27, the Department of Homeland Security announced the creation of the Disinformation Governance Board to study best practices in countering the harmful effects of disinformation and share guidance on combating it. Unfortunately, everything about this effort was ham-handed—starting with the name, which became an easy target for those who said it was intended to be an Orwellian ministry of truth. Critics even used disinformation to attack the plan. Three weeks later, Homeland Security put the initiative on hold for 75 days; in August, the department ended it permanently.

“We’re basically at this point unable to have a calm discussion about this problem,” Paul Barrett, the deputy director of the Stern Center for Business and Human Rights at New York University, told the New York Times. “And there’s a weird, circular, looping-around effect. The problem itself is helping make us unable to talk about the problem.”

This challenge is further underscored at the state level, where lawmakers in 34 states have introduced more than 100 bills to regulate social media companies. Democratic legislators are focusing on compelling these companies to do more to remove false, hateful, or extremist content; Republican lawmakers want to prohibit the platforms from taking down posts because of their political viewpoint.

Texas and Florida enacted such laws last year, and tech companies quickly sued to block them on free speech grounds. One federal appellate court upheld the Texas law, which prohibits companies from “censoring” content based on its “viewpoint”; a different federal appellate court struck down the Florida law, which imposes substantial fines on platforms if they remove certain types of content or politicians’ accounts. Florida’s attorney general has already asked the Supreme Court to consider the case. New York’s law, which was enacted in June and took effect on December 3, makes it easier to report “hateful conduct”; it also requires companies to respond directly to users who do so and imposes fines if they don’t comply.

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Governing bodies outside the United States are also taking steps to regulate the platforms. In April, the European Union approved legislation to make Facebook, YouTube, and other companies liable for misinformation and disinformation that circulates on their platforms and to disclose how they amplify divisive content. Canada and the United Kingdom are considering regulations that would require social media companies to pay news outlets for the use of their content, an approach adopted by Australia in 2021.

For their part, social media companies should provide clear community standards and ensure consistent enforcement of them. This includes removing the accounts of those who promote extremism, hatred, and disinformation. They can also adjust algorithms to promote credible information and discourage political polarization. In addition, it’s time for Congress to sensibly reform Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act—a foundational internet law, enacted in 1996, stating that these companies are not publishers and therefore are not legally liable for third-party content that appears on their platforms (Facebook users’ posts, for example, or videos uploaded to YouTube).

More than 20 bills were introduced in the current session of Congress, ranging from restricting the types of activities protected by Section 230 (selling firearms online, for example, or promoting medical misinformation) to imposing new obligations on companies that use Section 230 as a defense (such as improving responsiveness to users who report obscene content) to repealing Section 230 outright. None have become law. These bills will die on January 2, the end of the current session, so lawmakers will need to introduce new legislation in the 118th Congress.

There is an important role for the press to play as well. Journalists must double down on verification and accuracy. They should promptly correct factual errors and explain why they occurred. They should clearly distinguish between news reports and opinion, analysis, and branded content—particularly online, where so much content is disaggregated. They also need to push back against misinformation and disinformation by calling it out and debunking it, including the destructive falsehoods and conspiratorial thinking spread by political leaders.

Interestingly, even the Founding Fathers had concerns about the kinds of challenges we face today. In an 1816 letter to Thomas Jefferson, John Adams expressed that “human reason, and human conscience … are not a match for human passions, human imaginations, and human enthusiasm.”

James Madison was worried about factionalism—the potential for the public to break down into small, single-minded groups that act at the expense of the whole. Writing in America, a Jesuit magazine, Matt Malone said Madison believed that only a large society, occupying a vast expanse of space, could be effectively governed as a republic. If the place was too small, then like-minded people could too easily find one another and form a faction. Today’s splintered information infrastructure and fragmented media environment has made this factionalism not only possible, but almost unavoidable.

Jefferson, for his part, said the answer was to put faith in the power of education. “I think by far the most important bill in our whole code is that for the diffusion of knowledge among the people,” he wrote in 1786. “No other sure foundation can be devised for the preservation of freedom, and happiness.” (Of course, it must be noted that his idea of the diffusion of knowledge did not extend to women or to enslaved Black people.)

I, too, believe that education is the key to addressing these problems. I’ve devoted nearly 15 years applying what I learned in my first career to help with establishing a new field of study and now to building a national movement.

As a newspaper reporter for 29 years, I always found journalism to be a calling, and an honorable one at that. It is a way to hold the powerful accountable and make a difference in the world for the better, through a devotion to finding the facts, reporting deeply and fairly, and sharing those facts in a manner that is accurate, impartial, and contextual.

By 2006, it was already evident that the collapse of the business model for newspapers—precipitated by Big Tech’s near monopoly on advertising—could lead to their demise and extinguish society’s collective appreciation for those standards that distinguish high-quality journalism from everything else. I was also concerned about how my own daughter, who was then 12, was accessing and evaluating the tsunami of online sources of such varying credibility, accountability, and transparency.

Those concerns — and an invitation to discuss what I did as a journalist and why it mattered with 175 of my daughter’s middle school classmates — eventually led me to leave the Los Angeles Times, where I had worked for 21 years, and establish the News Literacy Project. NLP is a nonpartisan national education nonprofit that creates free programs and resources for educators and for the broader public, enabling them both to teach and to learn how to decide what news and other information to trust, share and act on. Its goal is to give people the ability to become equal, engaged, and informed participants in a democracy.

NLP does not aim to teach people what to think; it teaches them how to think. News literacy is a survival skill in our Information Age.

Other leading programs in this space include the Center for News Literacy at Stony Brook University’s School of Journalism and MediaWise, a partnership between the Stanford History Education Group and Poynter that provides “digital media literacy” for people of all ages. News literacy is one way of teaching media literacy—a more established field that focuses on analyzing media messages from a wide variety of sources, including popular culture, and on creating media messages. The National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) is an advocate and resource for 6,500 practitioners.

Today NLP is the largest provider of news literacy education in the United States. The 18 lessons in our Checkology®virtual classroom are being used by middle school and high school English, social studies, history, government, and journalism teachers and librarians in every state. Their students are learning to identify bias and conspiratorial thinking; recently created lessons focus on science-based claims, data evaluation, and health misinformation.

NLP is working to change the culture in ways like the evolution in attitudes about smoking, drunk driving, and littering. The difference is that it took a long time to achieve those societal shifts, and there isn’t much time. Democracy barely survived the stress test it underwent after the 2020 presidential election. America may not be so fortunate next time.

The adoption of media literacy and news literacy curricula in a growing number of school districts across the country has been encouraging; the hope is to see such programs embedded in the American educational experience as a requirement for high school graduation. State and local governments can further advance this cause by requiring media literacy education and professional development and devoting resources to meeting media literacy mandates. Philanthropists and the private sector can do their part by funding nonprofit initiatives that bolster quality civics and media literacy education and by supporting efforts to rebuild sustainable for-profit and nonprofit local news outlets.

Another reason for hope is that, in reality, the American people are not as polarized as social media, especially Twitter, and the news media often make them appear. As political commentator David French wrote in July, polling has shown that two-thirds of Americans from across the political spectrum are “fed up with polarization, forgotten in public discourse, flexible in their views, and still believe we can find common ground.”

“The exhausted American is hungry for simple decency and will seek out friendships on the left and the right,” so long as respect outweighs differences, he continued. “Even the most extreme disagreements are manageable so long as a friend is willing to listen and learn, and you’re willing to listen and learn in return. The exhausted majority is also the hope for America.”

The hope is that some of these exhausted Americans will find the energy to rally to fight back against the rising toxic tide of false and harmful content.

Some years ago, when NLP was far smaller and the challenge nowhere near as great, I had a conversation with Ted Koppel, the longtime host of the ABC News show “Nightline.” I was trying mightily to persuade him to join our ranks.

“What you are doing seems quite worthwhile,” Koppel finally said. “But it seems to me that you are trying to empty the ocean one teaspoon at a time.”

“You may be right, Ted,” I responded. “But what choice do we have but to try?”

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Steven Ross
1 year ago

All true. But one key fact is missing: Traditional mainstream media outlets do not have to publish all the fake and 90% fake attack ads politicians pay them to publish. They could refuse them all. These ads are the chief cause of erosion in public trust in government, and in the media. Ads for toothpaste face more scrutiny. Oh. Where else will the media get the money to stagger on? Try being truly useful. In 2008 as the economy fell apart, a small business magazine I had helped start in 2004 faced a mortal blow. Two-thirds of our advertisers disappeared.… Read more »

Steve Taylor
Steve Taylor
1 year ago

The entire spectrum of the media is rife with profit-based decisions on the news they report. Stories must be exciting, ghastly, unexpected, video-friendly etc in order to attack viewers and make advertisers happy. Money and egos are all in play.

John McGrigor
John McGrigor
1 year ago

Truth in journalism and teaching youth to find the truth is important but unless we acknowledge and openly debate the extreme views of those with aposing opinions we will never reach a stable consensus to build on..