Conspiracy theories are everywhere, and they’re damaging to the country. They’re also hard to combat: Lots of research has shown that when you present a believer with debunking information, they only dig in further. Now, a new study by Michael J. Wood of the University of Winchester suggests that even the term conspiracy theory — meant, at least in its everyday usage, to convey an idea’s unlikelihood — either lacks punch, or never had much to begin with.
The second of Wood’s two experiments was bigger and more interesting. In it, he had 802 American Amazon Turk workers read “a short mock news article about a fictitious political scandal in Canada.” Sometimes the article was headlined “Conspiracy Theories Emerge in Wake of Canadian Election Result”; other times it was headlined “Corruption Allegations Emerge in Wake of Canadian Election Result.” The readers were asked how likely they thought it was that the article was true, the idea being that since most Americans don’t know much about Canadian politics, they wouldn’t have much to go on in terms of the article’s actual content to decide.
As it turned out, the labeling didn’t matter at all — there was no statistically significant difference between the two conditions. The people in this sample didn’t read “conspiracy theory” as a warning sign. It’s a small study that can’t be overgeneralized, but it does get at a key, albeit obvious-sounding, challenge in halting the spread of conspiracy theories. To journalists and other would-be debunkers, such theories are often ridiculous on their face — the label “conspiracy theory” has an inherently derogatory flavor to it. But the whole problem is that many people are — often for understandable historical reasons — open to believing in far-fetched things. Calling these beliefs out as silly or paranoid just doesn’t work.