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!