The Role of Intermediaries in Conspiracy Theories

Ilya Somin, at tVC, argues that belief in conspiracy theories are based in part on a failure of incentives and a tragedy of the commons:

“[P]eople tend to be “rationally ignorant” about politics, and to do a poor job of evaluating the information they do learn. They don’t consciously embrace beliefs they know to be false. But they also don’t make much of an effort to critically evaluate the ideas they come across. If a conspiracy theory is emotionally satisfying and reinforces their preexisting prejudices, they are more than happy to run with it. This is perfectly rational and understandable behavior for individual voters. Unfortunately, it can lead to unfortunate collective outcomes in so far as such beliefs influence election results and the content of public policy.”

This claim depends on Ilya’s assertion that “very few people actually blame personal and professional failures on shadowy conspiracies.” I think Ilya is just wrong here.  People do attribute personal and professional failures to conspiracies – constantly.  Those shadowy conspiracies are simply  less grand (and thus less likely to be generally known).  My boss is out to get me at work; my friends deliberately set me up to look bad; etc.   Moreover, I think Ilya’s claim of rational conspiracy theories makes the process seem more inevitable than it might otherwise be, and doesn’t explain which theories get traction (Grassy Knoll, Long-Form Birth Certificate) and which don’t (Moon Landing).

Ilya’s collective-action-delusion theory also absolves public figures (e.g., well-known libertarian bloggers) from any responsibility to use their moral authority to persuade the public that conspiracy theories are bunk.  There is tons of evidence that people tend to listen carefully to thought-leaders who represent and embody their values, especially when those representatives are speaking about complex topics that the listener has no easy way to investigate herself.  Conservative leaders’ relative silence, and occasional outright defense,  of birtherism has probably contributed to the theory’s spread.  Or to put it another way, the tragedy of the commons doesn’t explain every social evil!

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8 Responses

  1. Indeed, this indicates a failure of intellectual and moral responsibility as well as an insufficient exercise of moral and (broadly speaking) political authority generally. And while “transforming” leadership is less common than the conventional “transactional” sort as defined by James Burns, the former is capable of moving the masses to think and act differently, in a manner in keeping with their occasional Liberal and democratic expressions of faith in the arts of (more or less rational) persuasion if not closer to their dim moral intuitions or inchoate moral beliefs.

  2. I might have also said I think it’s quite possible to directly and indirectly cultivate a social norm to the effect that people come to view conspiracy theories as presumptively suspicious or prima facie implausible such that the burden of proof is placed in the hands of those who propagate them. This would mean that those who reflexively or spontaneously subscribe to such theories would come to be viewed by the majority as unusually gullible or inexcusably ignorant, in other words, lacking in the sort of healthy skepticism required when entertaining beliefs (of this sort) bereft, at least at first glance, of obvious, transparent, or a preponderance of evidence.

  3. The problem is that the model above shares the problem of Libertarianism itself, of being much too simplistic – passing over complexities which mean the, err, emotionally-satisfying outcome is incorrect.

    For example:

    “If a conspiracy theory is emotionally satisfying and reinforces their preexisting prejudices, they are more than happy to run with it.”

    Does this mean there is a *single* such conspiracy theory? (likely not) If there are multiple ones, which wins out? Can clever people be hired to *create* such theories, or shift the balance between existing ones? (aka “propaganda”). So then is there a *market* for conspiracies? And if it responds to market incentives, who is funding the marketing?

    That’s not hard at all. But there’s not a market for it where he’s writing.

  4. Brett Bellmore says:

    “I might have also said I think it’s quite possible to directly and indirectly cultivate a social norm to the effect that people come to view conspiracy theories as presumptively suspicious or prima facie implausible such that the burden of proof is placed in the hands of those who propagate them.”

    That would be a delightful improvement over the present circumstances, where once a theory is declared to be a conspiracy theory, all right thinking people stop listening to any evidence believers might present, rendering the provision of such evidence futile.

    Which is not to say that most conspiracy theories aren’t bunk, of course. Just that they’re not typically suppressed, once they’ve been so identified, by rational, fact based argument. This is, I suspect, one of the reasons the theories persist: If you’re a believer in a conspiracy theory, you’re going to notice that most of the attacks on the theory aren’t at all responsive and on point to what the theorists are actually asserting. You might very well mistake the fact that you’re not seeing any valid arguments against your case, for there not BEING any valid arguments against it.

    Now, I don’t think this is particularly a problem in regards to genuinely false conspiracy theories, which is most of them. But it does make it easy, when the real deal comes along, (And it does, conspiracies really do happen occasionally.) to suppress public knowledge of actual wrongdoing. And it’s wrong, in principle, to treat even fools this way.

  5. RB Glennie says:


    Came here from the Volokh Conspiracy, haven’t seen this lawblog before but couple of things were brought to mind when I read this post.

    First, I think you owe it to fairness, to link to Somin’s rebuttal of your points… devastating to my mind, but nevertheless, I think it’s only fair to do that.

    Second, I think your points might be taken a little more seriously, if the post itself didn’t appear to be a cudgel to bash so-called libertarianism – which you appear to conflate with conservatism…

    This is confirmed by at least one of your commenters (ie. “The problem is that the model above shares the problem of Libertarianism itself, of being much too simplistic…”), the first sentence of the last paragraph, and the example you’ve chosen that conservative leaders’ “relative silence” about the Obama birth-certificate “controversy” “has probably contributed to the theory’s spread…”

    Whatever my opinions about the idiocy of so-called “birtherism”, I really think your examples could be a lot more voluble, no?

    Compare the birth-certificate stupidity, believed in by way too many Republicans (at least, if the polls are to be believed), with an example of conspiracy-narrative (they don’t rise to the level of “theory” in any empirical or rational sense) provided by Somin: the belief of way too many Democrats in 9/11 “trutherism”.

    Let’s compare: many Republicans believe that Obama was not born in the United States, and is thereby ineligible to be president.

    Many Democrats believe either that president Bush knew about attacks on Sept 11 2001, and let them occur; or was actively involved in the planning of these attacks, in league with the military-industrial complex, the Likkud party of Israel, or lizardoid aliens.

    In your considered opinion, which do you think is the most corrosive of conspiracy-narratives?

    Perhaps I am incorrect, and that David Hoffman and others involved in this blog have done their best to denounce such idiocies… but I am not wrong to suggest that too many “liberal” U.S. politicians and thought-leaders have absolved themselves of the responsibilty of definitively refuting 9/11 “trutherism” for the insanity that it is.

    One well-known presidential candidate for the Democratic party, who shall remain Howard Dean, even went so far as to indulge and legitimize, in a completely mealy-mouthed way, 9/11 conspiracy-narratives (as another candidate, for the opponent party, is doing today with “birtherism”).

    Again, I would suggest that one set of leaders’ indulgence of a particular conspiracy-narrative, is far more corrosive and destructive of democracy than the other…

    I won’t even go near the conspiracy narratives relating to the alleged neo-con/Likudnik “cabals” efforts to get the U.S. to fight all of Israel’s wars (in the latter case, “thought” leaders have falling all over themselves to give it legitimacy…)

    And before that, Kennedy assassination conspiracy fables, which are again mainly the province of the left side of the spectrum.

    Perhaps if the author of this post stepped back from hyperpartisanship and put a bit more thought into the phenomenon of conspiracy “theory”, then there would be a real contribution to the proceedings.


  6. RB Glennie says:

    ps – I forgot to add another species of “birtherism”, that involving the birth of the developmentally challenged son of the former Alaskan governor.

    Again, correct me please, but where are the liberal “thought” leaders denouncing this stupidity?

    Indeed, the editor or something of the Wonkette site recently had to remove posts, tail firmly between legs, for making a rude post not only about Sarah Palin, but her son, too.

    Not only that, several books are coming out which seek to revive this truly idiotic conspiracy narrative…

    There are many grounds to attack Palin, why does anyone have to indulge such foolishness?

  7. dave hoffman says:

    RB Glennie,

    I don’t understand most of what you wrote (you appear to be using some kind of VC-comment thread version of english…) But the part I got was that I’m supposed to link to Ilya’s reply to my response to his original post. I have no idea why I’d do so. I’m pretty sure that my linking to his original post will prod readers who care to understand his argument (or who believe I’ve mis-characterized it) to go to Volokh and read for themselves.

    On the merits, just between the two of us, I found Ilya’s reply even less convincing than what he wrote originally.

    But as much as I’ve enjoyed Ilya’s post giving rise to a 350+ comment thread of ranting nonsense, I’ve no desire to encourage birthers (or triggers, or 9-11 truthers, or whatever flavor of conspiracy dweller you are). so I’ll probably turn my attention to more useful pursuits.

  8. @RB Glennie – It is a long-standing critique of Libertarianism that it is particularly blind to how society can be influenced by in a negative fashion by abuses of economic power. While of course that’s not utterly unique to Libertarianism, it does seem fair to note in this particular context.

    The rebuttal strikes me as quite weak – “… people have strong incentives to develop at least a reasonably accurate understanding of their bosses and friends.” Anyone who has experienced a rumor-mill should be familiar with emotional appeal outracing evidence.

    9/11 and Trig do not have the objective national prominence and support of Obama Birtherism. Trig is actually an interesting very small-scale case, and the who-benefits question comes down to basically few attention-seeking bloggers who have an interest in pageviews, rather than being an ongoing national campaign issue.