America has always been a suspicious society, famed for its persecution of imaginary subversives, from witches to commies hiding under the bed. But that terrible history almost seems quaint today when disinformation experts agree we now live in the Golden Age of Conspiracy Theories. This movement has even swept up pop idol Taylor Swift and the 2024 election, as you may have heard, into only the latest reductio ad absurdum of the era.
There’s a lot going on at the moment. UFOs are now mainstream, and it’s only a matter of time before Bigfoot gets a congressional hearing. We all know someone who sputters about climate change being a hoax, the 2020 election being stolen or microchips being in vaccines. As the Associated Press noted in January, “conspiracy theories and those who believe them seem to be playing an outsize role in politics and culture.”
Swift would no doubt concur. The global pop icon is, according to right-wing media pundits and political figures, at the center of a Pentagon plot to rig the Super Bowl and help Joe Biden get reelected. This bonkers conspiracy narrative—with election deniers now openly rooting for the San Francisco(!) 49ers against the heartland’s Kansas City Chiefs in the Super Bowl—recently broke the Internet and was mocked by Jimmy Kimmel, Saturday Night Live and a Biden administration official who told Politico, “The absurdity of it all boggles the mind.”
On supporting science journalism
If you’re enjoying this article, consider supporting our award-winning journalism by subscribing. By purchasing a subscription you are helping to ensure the future of impactful stories about the discoveries and ideas shaping our world today.
Perhaps, but scholars who track the spread of online disinformation say that the viral story springs from a familiar playbook in the MAGA media ecosystem. “It’s a play for engagement,” Joan Donovan, a Boston University journalism professor, told NPR, with Trump-supporting pundits angling to capture and monetize their audience’s attention.
As the kids today say, 100 percent. But those same incentives motivate voices across the media spectrum, such as CNN and MSNBC, to report on (with rolled eyes) the ludicrous Swift conspiracy narrative, all of which pushed it into the mainstream. Meanwhile, the whole cycle was algorithmically amplified on social media, which is where most of us got wind of the lunacy. This feedback loop is a conspiracy-propagating machine and a big reason why it feels like Americans are getting wackier by the day.
But is it true? Are more people than ever falling down rabbit holes? Scholars say no. In a 2022 Plos One study of polling results, for example, social scientists said “we do not observe supporting evidence that beliefs in conspiracy theories or generalized conspiracy thinking have increased during the Internet/social media era.” Good to know.
Still, we can blame technology for the public onslaught of conspiracism, bringing more conspiracy fans together. An analysis by Google Jigsaw, citing research including a 2019 study of conspiracy theories, stated: “Even if belief in conspiracy theories is not becoming more widespread, the [I]nternet—and social media and image boards, in particular—have fundamentally changed how these theories develop and spread.”
This is concerning in of itself, writes Jonathan Jarry, a science communicator at McGill University: “The Internet may not be converting masses of people to believing in grand conspiracies, but if it facilitates their assembly, the consequences in the real world can be considerable.”
The danger, especially when combined with political demagoguery, came to fruition with the January 6 Capitol riot, which was incited by Trump’s election denialism, an out-and-out conspiracy theory. And if that wasn’t bad enough, the subsequent falsehoods by the former president and his supporters about what actually happened on this infamous day have now bent reality for many Republican voters, the majority of whom tell polls the 2020 election was crooked. A constant stream of politically framed conspiracy theories pumped into the public discourse, it turns out, is probably not a good thing for democracy.
It’s definitely bad for people’s health and well-being. The man who set off a bomb in Nashville that damaged 41 buildings in 2020 believed that reptilian aliens were running the world. Then there are the horrific individual acts fueled by poisonous conspiracy rhetoric, such as the 2018 mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue and the recent beheading of a federal employee by his son.
This is not to pathologize conspiracy believers, who, in any case, are hard to pigeonhole. Ancient Aliens devotees and Flat Earthers, for example, seem to inhabit their own alternate realities. That said, scientists have long tried to decode the profile of a typical conspiracist. Might there be a common set of traits shared between the guy that stakes out Area 51 at 3 A.M. with night vision goggles and the digital warrior obsessed with QAnon?
Research tends to be all over the map. Some conspiracy believers have a morbid curiosity. Others have underlying anxiety issues. But according to a 2023 meta-analysis of 170 studies, those most commonly drawn to conspiracy theories have a certain mix of psycho-social characteristics: the typical conspiracist relies strongly on intuition, holds odd beliefs, perceives threats to their own environment, and has a sense of antagonism and superiority to others. That might sound like someone you know, or have seen on TV, or heard on the radio, or recently learned is once again running for high office despite indisputably losing four years ago.
What to do? The only treatment for the conspiracist outlook is education, “interventions that fostered an analytical mindset or taught critical thinking,” concluded a recent review by psychologists.
It’s a big ask, but maybe Taylor Swift, who just announced a new album, is up to teaching those lessons. “Fakers gonna fake,” she has memorably observed. “I shake it off.” The right summer banger might be the only route we have left for delivering that little bit of critical thinking to big audiences today.
This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.