Is the Media Exaggerating the Spread of Conspiracy Theories?

But there is something new and alarming about America's latest streak of paranoid ideation

Like you, I have been trying to make sense of the QAnon movement and all the recent media coverage surrounding it. As Shira Ovide put it last month at the New York Times:

Just describing QAnon—a sprawling, false theory that there is a “deep state” of child molesting Satanists in charge of powerful institutions—makes me confused.

Yes, this amorphous conspiracy blob is absurd, but we can’t ignore it, she warns:  

QAnon supporters are co-opting advocacy efforts in areas such as anti-child sex trafficking, believers are poised to get elected to office and followers are committing violence. Elements are popping up everywhere.

All true and worrisome, and for sure, the media is not ignoring it. But at the same time, two experts on conspiracy beliefs argue that the “QAnon movement may be better at capturing news coverage than the hearts and minds of the American mass public.”

In fairness to journalists, it’s a quandary. Reporters cover the news and the kind of events and developments that Ovide lists certainly qualifies as news. The large protests in Europe in recent weeks that have drawn a bizarre, Stars Wars bar-like equivalent of conspiracy believers (including QAnon adherents) is another example of a legitimate news story.

So are the deep dive investigations into social media’s role and the stories of Trump supporters drawn to Q-Anon. But journalists should also be wary of extrapolating too much from that.

Similarly, is it accurate to say that QAnon has now gone mainstream, as the Columbia Journalism Review and other outlets claim?

Some perspective is in order. The media’s recent saturation coverage of QAnon and other swirling conspiracy theories suggests that America has turned into a feverish landscape of deluded paranoids. (The editors at Buzzfeed are now referring to Q-Anon as a “collective delusion.”)

This impression is wrong, says Joseph Uscinski, a University of Miami political scientist. In a recent Daily News op-ed, he argues that conspiracy belief in America is not on the rise or more prevalent today than ever before. He writes:  

First, there is simply no evidence that Americans are more conspiracy-minded in general; I have been polling such mindsets for nearly a decade and have found no increase in the proclivity to engage with conspiracy theories. Second, while there is increased discussion of bizarre conspiracy theories—such as the QAnon theory contending that deep state pedophiles control the government and eat babies—there is no compelling polling showing that this theory is becoming more popular. There is certainly little evidence to show that it has gone mainstream as is often claimed.

So we can breathe easy, right? This nutty Q-Anon fad will pass once everyone is back to work instead of getting lost in rabbit holes on the Internet that journalists are starting to chronicle.  

Well, it’s not that simple. As Uscinski, who is the co-author and editor of several books on the formation and history of conspiracy theories in America, also notes in his op-ed:

People with conspiratorial mindsets have always been among us, but in recent years they have been the intended recipients of many appeals by politicians. President Trump, being the most prominent, weaponizes conspiracy theories to build and now maintain a coalition of citizens consumed by anti-establishment, populist, and conspiratorial views…Other politicians seeing Trump’s success have followed suit, using the language of various conspiracy theories in their communication to build support.

Uscinski concludes that “we should not confuse the use of conspiracy theories by unscrupulous politicians with the levels of support for those theories in the mass public. What Trump and other politicians have attempted to activate in the public is and always has been there.”

That, to my mind, is the big story. How it plays out warrants sustained coverage by journalists.