Where Do Conspiracy Theories Come From?

by Patrick Appel

Ryan Sager explains their storied history and then asks:

The real question, I think, is whether these things are getting better or worse in the modern age. Since we don’t have any public opinion polls from 1775, I’m not sure exactly how one would tackle the question. In a world of far less literacy, a partisan political press with little “fact checking” ability, and most information traveling by word-of-mouth, you’d have to think the conspiracy theories were more prevalent and harder to combat hundreds of years ago. At the same time, when any crazy theory (say, birtherism) can get massive coverage on all the major cable networks, spreading the “infection” to millions of people in a matter of minutes, maybe things are worse today. (And even if the reports are framed as “debunking” the conspiracy theory, we’ve seen that repeating bad information even to correct it can still spread the bad information.)

Judging by rumors circulating in places like Iraq, my gut says the past was worse. Paranoia and a dearth of media breed lies.