Theories in the Information Age

One of the most volatile conspiracy theories in recent times ended with a whimper last month, when Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump made the terse statement, “President Barack Obama was born in the United States. Period.”

Though birthers may be with us always, it seems that many have turned their attention to other potentially scandalous topics — and they need look no further than the place most conspiracy theories are born these days, the Internet.

Scientists recently made a discovery that might explain why Trump’s search for President Obama’s “real” birth certificate resonated with his supporters — those most drawn to his promise to “make America great again.”

Highly stressed people are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories, according to research published this spring in the journal Personality and Individual Differences.

Based on the responses of 420 U.S. adults surveyed, stress and discontent correlated with a higher likelihood of belief in conspiracy theories ranging from 9/11 being an inside job to the moon landing being produced on a Hollywood set, researchers found, regardless of the participants’ social status.

That offers some insight into why some people are more likely to believe, but it does not explain why they push away a preponderance of evidence in favor of the generally accepted answers to questions most people don’t even ask.

There always have been conspiracy theories, noted pop culture expert Paul Levinson, a communications professor at Fordham University, who pointed to all the wild ideas that emerged in the aftermath of the JFK assassination.

Social media have fanned the flames, making conspiracy theories more likely to spread, he said.

“Anyone can write anything, and it can be viewed by millions in the blink of an eye on Twitter. Millions can, in turn, easily retweet the comment or image or link,” Levinson told TechNewsWorld.