How Corruption Leads to Conspiracy Theories

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Last month I stumbled upon a particularly interesting study in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, which as you all know I read each morning as I sip my single origin Honduran coffee. It caught my eye because it touches upon several things I find interesting: conspiracy theories and political corruption. It’s called “Suspecting Foul Play When It Is Objectively There: The Association of Political Orientation With General and Partisan Conspiracy Beliefs as a Function of Corruption Levels” and I will begin by summarizing it in a way that will make you think it’s stupid: people who live in corrupt societies are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories. But wait! Don’t switchover to watching Destiny react to H3H3 reacting to TikToks! It’s NOT stupid and here is why.

The researchers are actually building upon a fuck ton of previous research that has established pretty solidly that conservatives are more likely than liberals, on average, to believe in stupid, obviously untrue conspiracy theories. Like, libs definitely have their conspiracy theories and I know because I lived through the golden age of 9/11 truthers, but rightwing conspiracy theories tend to be more common and more widely believed by their intended targets.

So these social psychologists were interested in knowing whether or not they could find outside factors that would make that difference between left and rightwing conspiracy theorists start to disappear. And because we also have some existing research that suggests people are more prone to conspiratorial thinking in corrupt, chaotic, and authoritarian societies, they decided to compare conspiracy beliefs in different countries with very different levels of corruption.

At this point I do have to point out a little red flag: they used an existing dataset and did not appear to pre-register their hypothesis, and you KNOW pre-registration is my jam. It’s really important in studies like this, where you could easily have researchers panning through a vast amount of data looking for any kind of statistically significant blip and when they find it, they make THAT their hypothesis. I’m not saying that that’s what happened here but it could have, and so we should bear that in mind and understand that it needs to be taken into context with other research (which does appear to support this conclusion).

The dataset consists of surveys of 20,000 people spread across 23 different countries, which were used in a study published back in January of this year in Nature Human Behavior. That study used local researchers in each of those countries to list their unique conspiracy theories, which they then pitched to subjects to see if they believed in them. They checked those subjects’ political orientations and found “that conspiracy mentality is associated with extreme left- and especially extreme right-wing beliefs, and that this non-linear relation may be strengthened by, but is not reducible to, deprivation of political control.”

So that was, like this one, a study to find out more about what leads people to believe conspiracy theories, and the mitigating factor they pinpointed was that people without political power may be more likely to believe.

For this new study, these researchers viewed those surveys through the lens of how corrupt those countries are. To do that, they used the Corruption Perceptions Index, which measures how corrupt each country in the world is perceived (because it’s kind of hard to directly measure how corrupt a country is).

“HOLD ON,” I hear you cry, “isn’t that recursive? If locals PERCEIVE corruption, maybe they’re just believing in false conspiracies, which makes them more likely to believe in conspiracy theories.” I mean, that’s what I thought. But it turns out that the Corruption Perceptions Index isn’t just a survey of people in each country asking “is your country corrupt?” Well, it kind of was like that in its early incarnations, but these days they use multiple different surveys of multiple different institutions that are then evaluated by expert analysts, and independent research has confirmed that the Corruption Perceptions Index matches up pretty well with other known metrics of corruption, like black market activity.

And yes, I know that many of you now have another concern: OBVIOUSLY people living in places where the government is corrupt are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories that the government is corrupt because the government is, in fact, corrupt! Like, people who live in blue houses are more likely to believe they live in blue houses. BRILLIANT!

But, no, I must insist that this study IS, in fact, more interesting than that. Because yes, some conspiracy theories really are more likely to be true in those countries but the conspiracy theories the subjects were asked about were NOT ALL about corrupt governments: the researchers broke them down by who the agitator was in each conspiracy theory, and they were the government, yes, but also corporations/rich people, intelligence agencies, ethnic minorities, scientists/intellectuals, foreign countries, and NGOs/activists. And while yes, intelligence agencies and corporations and foreign countries can all engage in real conspiracies in more corrupt countries, I guarantee you that none of these countries have serious corruption due to, say, “the Jews” or “scientists.” And in line with the words I, an English-speaking left-leaning person just said, English speaking left-leaning people exclusively agreed with conspiracies about corporations and politicians. Meanwhile, English-speaking right-leaning people agreed with conspiracies about politicians and…scientists. See where I’m going with this?

Sure enough, the researchers DID find that the more corrupt the country, the more likely it was for there to be less of a difference between right- and left-leaning people, presumably because while right-leaning people continued to believe in absolute bullshit, a greater number of left-leaning people were more likely to agree that yeah, there really IS something fishy happening here with politicians and corporations, and sometimes their political opponents and foreign countries. They’re not necessarily RIGHT about the specific conspiracy theories they endorse, but they have more evidence to suggest they’re true compared to the right-wing conspiracies. The researchers point out that these corrupt societies encourage everyone to adopt more of a conspiratorial mentality as it’s more socially acceptable.

Interestingly, the only country where left-leaning people believed in terribly bullshit conspiracy theories was Italy, where they believed conspiracies about scientists. I’m not shocked, considering that that is where a judge actually convicted six seismologists of manslaughter because they failed to predict an earthquake in 2009 (their sentence was later overturned by an appeals court, which was loudly booed by a crowd of people).

Anyway I found all this kind of interesting, especially in light of a recent FBI briefing – note that I do hold believe some conspiracies about intelligence agencies because we have ample evidence for them, just throwing out my conflict of interest here – warning that the Chinese and Russian governments are actively engaging in a campaign of misinformation to seed distrust in American politics ahead of the midterms in November. Specifically, they’re amplifying conspiracy theories that question the integrity of our elections, which Trump and his minions have been pushing for two years now. 

For 2021, the United States got a 67 from the Corruption Perception Index, which is a scale of 0-100 and so basically a “C,” like we passed the ethics test but we won’t be on the ethical honor roll. That suggests that while we are “perceived as less corrupt,” conspiracy theories about political corruption might be very likely to take hold here – not just among the extreme right-wing dopes who already believe it, but also among more moderate and even left-wing people.

So maybe keep that in mind as you see these conspiracy theories fly around Facebook in the next few months: do your research before you hit that “share” button, even (and especially) if the news matches up with what you already think about our government.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor.

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