Science

From aliens to immigration, international study finds most believe a conspiracy theory

A new study has shown how widespread belief in conspiracy theories is among some areas of the population
A new study has shown how widespread belief in conspiracy theories is among some areas of the population
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A new study has shown how widespread belief in conspiracy theories is among some areas of the population
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A new study has shown how widespread belief in conspiracy theories is among some areas of the population

In the largest ever academic study into belief in conspiracy theories, a team from the University of Cambridge polled people in nine countries to reveal how mainstream certain fringe conspiratorial views have become in recent years.

The research surveyed over 11,000 adults across the US, Britain, Poland, Italy, France, Germany, Portugal, Sweden, and Hungary. Subjects were asked about their beliefs across 10 different conspiracy theories, including whether alien contact with humans is being covered up by the government or climate change is a hoax.

Strikingly, over half of all respondents believed in at least one conspiracy theory presented to them. Sweden was the most skeptical country with 48 percent of people disbelieving every conspiracy presented, while Hungary was filled with the most believers with only 15 percent of people rejecting every conspiracy. In the United States only 36 percent of respondents disbelieved every theory proposed.

In the UK some of the more fringe conspiratorial views were, unsurprisingly, not widely believed. Only 10 percent thought the harmful truth of vaccines was being suppressed, eight percent believed contact with aliens was covered up, four percent thought AIDS was intentionally created and spread by humans, and just two percent denied the holocaust actually happened.

On more modern political issues, the results were a little more confronting. A much larger volume of respondents agreed with the conspiratorial idea that, "The government is deliberately hiding the truth about how many immigrants really live in this country." A stunning 48 percent of respondents in Hungary, a country currently run by a controversial prime minister known to provoke anti-immigrant sentiments, agreed with that statement. Germany was next with 35 percent agreement, and 21 percent agreement in the United States.

Drilling further down into this belief, the research revealed that individual political allegiances dramatically influenced how people approached this specific conspiracy, with 44 percent of Trump voters and 47 percent of Brexit voters agreeing that the government is covering up immigration levels. This compares to just 12 percent of Hillary Clinton voters and 14 percent of Remain voters.

"The conspiratorial perception that governments are deliberately hiding the truth about levels of migration appears to be backed by a considerable portion of the population across much of Europe and the United States," says Hugo Leal, a researcher working on the project.

Even more extreme was the study into a conspiracy theory known as "the great replacement." This idea suggests the increasing waves of Muslim immigration across Europe, and into the United States, is part of a grand plan to slowly turn Muslims into a majority in certain countries. While only three percent of Clinton voters and six percent of Remain voters agreed with this belief, a striking 41 percent of Trump voters and 31 percent of Brexit voters believed this to be true.

"Originally formulated in French far-right circles, the widespread belief in a supposedly outlandish nativist conspiracy theory known as the 'great replacement' is an important marker and predictor of the Trump and Brexit votes," says Leal.

Overall, the most generally believed conspiracy was the claim, "even though we live in what's called a democracy, a few people will always run things in this country anyway." On average 44 percent of agreed with this statement.

The study also polled levels of trust in different sources, and unsurprisingly around three-quarters of all subjects distrusted governments and big business. The "fake news" wave also proved strong, with journalists raking in high levels of distrust across all countries – an average of 77 percent of respondents reported distrust in journalism.

On the bright side, academics still seemed to retain significant trust from the general public with over half of respondents signaling they still highly trust those scientific and university perspectives. However, in general, the only people most respondents truly trusted were friends and family. Across all countries around 90 percent of the polled subjects reported high levels of trust in friends and family.

While this final data point undeniably affirms the dangerous nature of social media echo chambers, where conspiracy theorists mutually reinforce their beliefs with each other, it does suggest an opportunity for those close friends and family to help drag loved ones away from the precipice of fringe conspiratorial beliefs.

"So if you have a friend who starts sayings things about how the CIA was behind 9/11, try talking to them," suggests one of the researchers on the project Hugo Drochon, in an editorial for The Guardian. "You never know, they might come round to thinking it was al-Qaida who hijacked the planes, after all."

Source: University of Cambridge

10 comments
guzmanchinky
I think it's simply human nature. Conspiracy theorists have an overly active part of the brain which 10,000 years ago kept us alive by trying to connect things that were heretofore unrelated. The problem now is these theories become dangerous to society as a whole.
nono
Well governments are pulling in a huge number of immigrants and refugees with 0 democratic mandate. They are partecipating in a number of remote wars for unknown reasons and again 0 democratic mandate. These are facts. Media and government are spinning and lying on a number of issues since many years and it does not take much to find out. So little wonder people do believe strange stuff when the official version (sometimes a conspiracy theory itself) does not add up
Insanity
I don't believe that there was a poll, I think the whole article is a conspiracy!
Wolf0579
Well, you show aliens in your image. Given the vast number of stars in our galaxy alone, 1. You should be ridiculed for NOT believing in alien life. 2. Given the vast number of ufo's photographed in our skies, the ufo's depicted in pre-human cave art, and the vast number of sightings by pilots, combining that data with item No. 1, one MUST reach the logical conclusion, that beings with vastly more advanced physics than ours, have no trouble whatsoever, in visiting our planet and keeping the human race under long-term observation.
Kpar
I am curious just how they (whoever "they" are) determined what is a conspiracy? Whether something is trendy and supported by the (largely ignorant) press, or based in fact? CAGW (as it is being pushed by some) has many learned detractors, and with Prof. Michael (The Dog Ate My Homework!) Mann and his crew as the high priest, seems to me to qualify as a conspiracy itself.
EZ
Having a "close encounter" of my own, plus a few other not-so-close, I guess I'm a "fringer." But, I'm also proud of it. I've seen a few things that most people have not seen. By the way, do you know who came up with the term "conspiracy theory?" The CIA.
Douglas Bennett Rogers
Climate change as a "hoax" is misleading. The lack of attention to dessert humidification is very telling. Also, the United States is a representative republic, not a pure democracy. This is VERY different. Greece was a pure democracy but with very few voters.
charles000
This is a rather silly study, in that such a broad variety of "conspiracy" theories have been lumped together as an opaque continuum, that it negates any type of actual credibility that can be associated with such a study. Just as an example, the concept of believing that alien life could exist elsewhere in the galaxy and universe is a "conspiracy" theory is laughable, if not bizarre. If anything, it points to the biases (if not absurd ignorance) inherent with this purported "study". One could say this study is its own conspiracy brought to fruition . . . but I digress.
BeinThayer
Perhaps the greatest triumph in the war on the imperative to think for one's self and question authority has to be convincing the public that terms like 'conspiracy theory' are equivalent to 'outrageously wackadoodle fantasy'. 'Consipiracy' simply means a secret plan by two or more people to do something illegal or harmful. You would have to be a true simpleton to not believe that conspiracies our reality I have been a reality and will continue to be a reality. 'Theory' simply means a contemplative rational explanation for the cause or mechanism of some observed phenomena or occurrence.
Mzungu_Mkubwa
@Douglas Bennett Rogers, my strawberry shortcake is quite moist enough, thank you very much! I certainly don't need climate-change scientists doing studies on it! (Altho, I'm sure they'd recommend using far less whipped cream!) ☺☻☺