Who's most likely to be open to conspiracy theories? UNH research points to millennials and Trump supporters
Who are the groups most likely to believe in conspiracy theories? That’s the question a University of New Hampshire researcher recently set out to solve.
Sociology professor Lawrence Hamilton looked into national survey data gauging public beliefs in several conspiracy theories, including: "NASA astronauts did not really land on the Moon" and "The Earth is flat, not round."
After digging into that data, Hamilton found "acceptance or openness to conspiracy beliefs was significantly higher among certain subgroups, including Millennials and supporters of ex-president Trump."
NHPR’s Rick Ganley talked with Hamilton about his findings — and the role social media plays in spreading conspiracy theories. Below is a transcript of their conversation, lightly edited for clarity.
Rick Ganley: It's worth noting that some of these conspiracy theories are old. Some are more recent. But all of them seemingly were given a boost by social media. And it's not hard to find false information, obviously, about topics online. Did you find it used to be much harder to hear about or be convinced of something like this?
Lawrence Hamilton: Well, I've never asked these questions before, so I don't have my own data. There are Gallup polls going back to the late 1990s that seem to find much smaller fractions of people thinking that the moon landings were faked, for example. So there's some kind of indirect evidence. I don't know if anybody tracked it very well. The number of people who've heard about these theories [that's] rising are the people who are drawn into them. And I'm sure that YouTube and social media — people describe it as a rabbit hole, where if you start watching one video [alleging the Earth is flat], they'll recommend another one for you. And pretty soon it seems like the whole world is all about flat Earth.
Rick Ganley: Your research looked into the political leanings of people who responded. What did you find there?
Lawrence Hamilton: We did find a political correlation, and that wasn't a foregone conclusion, because I had specifically chosen conspiracy theories that are not known to have a clear political [connection]. I mean, there's been a lot of research going back really to the 1960s on the paranoid style in American politics that has found conspiracy theories are more popular among conservatives across a range of issues. In the 1950s, it was conspiracies by Communist infiltration in the U.S. government. Now, it may be conspiracies directed at politicians — [alleging without evidence that former President Barack] Obama is a Muslim, or [President Joe] Biden stole the 2020 election — and others that are targeted at scientists, like climate change is a hoax, COVID-19 is a hoax or COVID precautions or vaccines are a hoax. And I chose none of those. I chose things like: ‘The moon landings were fake,’ or ‘Earth is flat,’ ‘Vaccines implant microchips.’ So it was interesting to find that even there, there's a conservative preference.
Rick Ganley: A lot of this does come down to faith in science and academics and what so-called experts have to say. Do you see this as evidence of a decline in faith in institutions?
Lawrence Hamilton: Well, I would say there's a decline — and this is something we do have data on — there's a wide decline in trust in scientists, and it's largely partisan. It's not so much happening among people who self-identify as liberal or moderate. But among people who identify as conservative or very conservative, there's definitely a decline in trust in scientists. The COVID pandemic was an interesting case in point, because we were actually tracking this on surveys, and trust in the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] took an enormous nosedive over space about four months, specifically among conservatives. Other groups didn't change. But the conservative trust in the CDC took this huge dive when [former President] Donald Trump's tweeting turned from praising the CDC to attacking it. And with that flip, conservative trust in the CDC flipped as well, and nobody else has changed much.
Rick Ganley: Your research also highlighted a pattern having to do with age. Respondents who classify themselves as millennials, that is those born between 1981 and 1996, were the most likely to agree with some of the conspiracies that you posed. And Gen Zs, I guess, were also more inclined than older respondents. What did you find there?
Lawrence Hamilton: Well, some of that corresponded to previous surveys. There's a section at the end of our report where we say, well, how does this compare with what other people have found? Just as a reality check. And that's been reported by a number of other studies as well. So millennials in particular, and Gen Z to a slightly lesser extent, were much less skeptical about the conspiracies compared with boomers or older generations. And one explanation that's been offered for that, well, two explanations: Regarding the moon landings, of course, older generations lived through those and remember the national pride and excitement and so forth, whereas [for] younger generations, it's something in the history books. So maybe they don't have that sense of having been there when it happened. But the other thing is that you could expect younger generations to be more engaged with social media, which for some people could take them down these rabbit holes again.
Rick Ganley: Does your research have any suggestions on how to stop people from believing in conspiracy theories?
Lawrence Hamilton: That's a real hard one because there's this tendency to get into information silos where all you hear are the voices that reinforce your prejudices. And a thing about conspiracies is that they will give you a reason to reject anything that contradicts them. People have been seeing [the science behind] climate change for a long time, [and] you can't go in with fact sheets. That doesn't persuade anybody. They'll just become convinced that you're part of the hoax, too. There aren't any simple answers. The strongest recommendation is that scientists stay engaged in public communication through every channel they have, and that they try to make their conclusions understandable or accessible to people from a lot of different walks of life who obviously are not reading the peer review journals.