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One of the most prolific conspiracy theories is QAnon, which alleges Democrats are secretly eating children, among other allegations. There is no major counterpart alleging things for Democrats, and that is true for multiple theories like it.

Why are conspiracy theories apparently overwhelmingly right wing in the United States?

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    Please don't use comments to post what you think might be an answer (or a frame challenge), that just leads to discussion and unwanted disagreements. Instead, please try to post them as an answer if you can find some references to support your hypotheses.
    – JJJ
    Aug 7 at 2:25
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    To minimize frame challenges, can you define "conspiracy theories." You have provided an example of one. And you've named a group that you say believes a lot of them. However, to be a fair answerable question, we really need to understand the demarcation. What draws the line between a conspiracy theory and any other theory? I agree there is a line to be drawn, but it will be hard to provide an answer that is not either "opinion based" or simply a laundry list. With a definition, we might find why that particular definition has a poltiical leaning.
    – Cort Ammon
    Aug 7 at 15:50
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    Not exactly a duplicate, but closely related: politics.stackexchange.com/questions/67965/…
    – dan04
    Aug 9 at 14:56
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    The nature of this problem is such that I would be hard pressed to find a "reputable" source to back up this claim but this notion that belief in conspiracy theories being a right wing phenomenon is an deliberate illusion, crafted by a left wing media which functions effectively as a cabal alongside stackoverflow, wikipedia, etc who only allow left leaning sources, which all collude to primarily report on and "fact check" right wing conspiracies. Effectively the reporting is cherry picked to make one side of the aisle look bad. It's a conspiracy theory, if you will. Vox is part of the problem Aug 9 at 17:02
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    Can "Russian election interference" count as a Democratic counterpart?
    – user253751
    Aug 9 at 19:59
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I just don't think this is particularly true. Here are some examples of conspiracy theorists and conspiracy theories associated with the left:

  • Robert Kennedy, Jr. (a longtime US Democratic Party personality who promotes conspiracy theories related to covid and vaccines)

  • David Icke (promotes anti-semitism and the lizard people conspiracy theory, associated with UK Greens and promoted by US lefties like Alice Walker)

  • Unscientific belief that people's health is harmed by nonionizing radiation, eating GMO food, chemtrails, or levels of ionizing radiation that are negligible compared to natural background. (Beliefs about GMOs led to the blocking and delaying of efforts to grow and distribute golden rice, which could have prevented hundreds of thousands of cases of childhood blindness every year.)

  • Harassment and attempts to stop the development of sociobiology, such as the infamous incident in which a Marxist poured a pitcher of water over E. O. Wilson's head.

  • Denial of facts related to the Muslim world, such as denial of female genital mutilation. (For example, there are people on the left who have claimed that Ayaan Hirsi Ali could not have suffered FGM because it doesn't exist.)

Certain specific conspiracy theories are associated with the right, e.g., the birther conspiracy theory. That doesn't mean that all of them are.

Theories such as the birther theory and Icke's are racist, and one might imagine that this would lead to a correlation with conservatism, since there has been quite a bit of research statistically correlating conservative views with racism. However, it turns out that prejudice and intergroup bias, considered more generally, are actually not that correlated with ideology. See Crawford and Brandt, Ideological (A)symmetries in prejudice and intergroup bias, 2010.

There is a 2019 paper by Douglas et al., "Understanding Conspiracy Theories," that has some discussion of this. Factors correlated with belief in conspiracy theories include:

  • "lower levels of intelligence"
  • "alienation from the political system"
  • being a member of "low-status social groups" such as black people in the US
  • "lower levels of education and lower levels of income"
  • "most prevalent at the political extremes"

But, referring to a bunch of previous literature:

There exists a strong assumption both within and outside academia that there is evidence for conservatives being more prone to conspiracy theories than liberals. Some studies support this assumption (Galliford & Furnham, 2017; Miller et al., 2016). Furthermore, several studies (e.g., Bruder et al., 2013; Grzesiak-Feldman & Irzycka, 2009; see also Richey, 2017) reported a link between conspiracy beliefs and right-wing authoritarianism—a dimension of political attitudes characterized by preference for conventionalism, authoritarian aggression, and authoritarian submission to authorities (Altemeyer, 1996). On the other hand, Oliver and Wood (2014a) and Uscinski and Parent (2014) did not find a link between political ideology/party and conspiracy belief, and Berinsky (2012) did not find a link between authoritarianism and conspiracy belief.

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    Bringing up Ayaan Hirsi Ali is making things complicated, as she started out as a Dutch right-wing liberal (VVD party). That's something which simply doesn't exist in US politics. But it does give us a useful insight: in the Netherlands, CT is strongly associated with the conservative-populist right, and just that specific triplet.
    – MSalters
    Aug 9 at 15:58
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    I don't think bringing up specific individuals is particularly relevant, one can cherry-pick singular crazies from any group of people
    – Gramatik
    Aug 9 at 20:25
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    Is "vaccines cause autism" really a conspiracy theory? I thought it was just bad science. And even if it is a CT, I've never heard that the believers are mostly left-wing. Don't the objectors to COVID-19 vaccines lean right?
    – Barmar
    Aug 9 at 22:06
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    @Barmar It used to be pretty even (the place where the natural-medicine left met the faith-healing and CIA-microchips right), but it's been shifting right very quickly. The more left-wing conspiracy is, I believe, that big-pharma is covering up side effects for profit. The right-wing one, is that vaccines are a form of government tracking or mind-control system,
    – divibisan
    Aug 10 at 0:04
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    I don't see how 4 and 5 are conspiracy theories. Pouring water on E.O. Wilson's head certainly seems rude, but how is that a conspiracy theory? And I have no idea what you mean by "denial" of FGM. Feminists and progressives speak out against that all the time. Even if you accept that the left is in denial about the illiberal parts of Islam, that's simply being wrong. It's not a conspiracy theory.
    – divibisan
    Aug 10 at 0:16
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This Vox.com article discusses research that explains why conspiracy theories tend to be more common among the right wing. "CT" = conspiracy theories.

The researchers found, after examining two large data sets (details in the paper), that the effect of trust is as expected, across the political spectrum. Lower-trust conservatives and liberals are both more likely to endorse ideologically congenial CTs (i.e., CTs that make the other side look bad).

But beyond that, there are interesting asymmetries. For liberals, more knowledge reduces endorsement of CTs, no matter the level of trust, and more trust reduces endorsement of CTs, no matter the level of knowledge — "knowledge and trust are both independently negatively related to liberals’ endorsement of liberal conspiracies."

For conservatives, on the other hand, more knowledge increases endorsement of CTs among those with low trust; for high-trust conservatives, knowledge seems to have no effect — it neither increases nor decreases tendency to endorse CTs.

In other words, the high-info/low-trust dynamic is in fact the conspiracy theory sweet spot, but primarily for conservatives.

What explains this asymmetry?

As the researchers say, their results are consistent with the theory "that conspiracy endorsement, and science denial more generally, is a more attractive worldview-bolstering strategy for conservatives than liberals, especially for high-knowledge and low-trust conservatives." That lines up with several other recent lines of research.

However, they are careful to acknowledge that there are alternative explanations for the asymmetry that they cannot (yet) rule out. Perhaps conservative conspiracy theories are simply easier to believe. Perhaps they are more salient at the moment (liberal CTs mostly date back to the Bush era). Perhaps the fact that there is a Democratic president in office has made conservatives more prone to CTs, and the effect would be reversed under a Republican president. Perhaps conservatives are just taking their cues from elites, who are more likely to push CTs when a Democrat is in power.

The article was written a few months before Trump was elected. So the suppositions in the last paragraph can now be examined. Right-wing conspiracy theories didn't really wane when Republicans were in power. If anything, they seemed to multiply: Qanon didn't emerge until well into the Trump administration. And we didn't get much in the way of left-wing conspiracy theories.

The original research paper that this Vox article was summarizing is Conspiracy Endorsement as Motivated Reasoning: The Moderating Roles of Political Knowledge and Trust published in the American Journal of Political Science.

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    While I'm not refuting any of the points made, generally speaking I would want to see a more objective source for something so politically fraught - Vox has a fairly strong liberal bias and such a piece could be denounced as a partisan hit-job
    – Gramatik
    Aug 9 at 16:19
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    The Vox article is summarizing a study published in the American Journal of Political Science. onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/ajps.12234.
    – Barmar
    Aug 9 at 16:24
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    "Right-wing conspiracy theories didn't really wane when Republicans were in power." I wonder though if the redefinition of what the Republican party stands for under Trump confuses that seemingly rational assessment. If you could transport some Regan Republicans from the 80s to 2018, would they recognize Peter Navarro as one of their own? I doubt it. In addition, Trump actively gave credence to many CTs while in office. It was definitely an inflection point in American politics.
    – JimmyJames
    Aug 9 at 21:32
  • That's true -- Trump upended many political norms, so previous theories and assumptions were no longer as valid.
    – Barmar
    Aug 9 at 21:35
  • I don't think we can really say that the supposition that republican conspiracy theories are more likely with a democrat in office can be disproven by Trump. Trump is an outlier, the only president I can think of who actively encouraged and spread conspiracy theories. Until we have a republican president who did not actively encourage CT in office to give a better controlled contrast I'm not willing to say the claim that CT are more common when the opposite party is in power has been disproven.
    – dsollen
    Aug 13 at 15:26
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Are they really? All Reps believers and Dems are happily immune? This got me to think about the ur-daddy of all recent conspiracy theories, the 9/11 Truthers. What was the Dem position on that? I used a Google search limited to before 2016 to avoid the Trump effect on the right.

Which got me to WP's Conspiracy theories aren’t just for conservatives

So are all Americans created equal when it comes to fearing collusion and conspiracies? Our recent research suggests that they are. As part of a 2012 national survey, we asked respondents about the likelihood of voter fraud as an explanation if their preferred presidential candidate did not win. Fifty percent of Republicans said it would be very or somewhat likely, compared to 44 percent of Democrats. This contradicts claims by Jonathan Chait that Republicans believe in electoral conspiracy theories far more than Democrats do.

Another 2012 national poll asked about fraud in specific presidential elections. Thirty-seven percent of Democrats believed that “President Bush’s supporters committed significant voter fraud in order to win Ohio in 2004,” compared to 36 percent of Republicans who believe that “President Obama’s supporters committed significant voter fraud in the 2012 presidential election.” Again, not much difference. This dovetails with Brendan Nyhan’s findings about “birther” and “truther” conspiracy theories. He found that Republicans were just as likely to believe that President Obama was born abroad as Democrats were likely to believe that 9/11 was an inside job.

Or Politico's More than half of Democrats believed Bush knew, about 9/11.

Before the Covid mess, I also recall that measles vaccine doubt was a fairly equal-opportunity bit of stupidity as well.

in 2008—when a widespread theory linking vaccines to autism had already been debunked—Clinton wasn’t so definitive on this point. In response to a questionnaire from an autism advocacy group, she wrote, “I am committed to make investments to find the causes of autism, including possible environmental causes like vaccines…We don’t know what, if any, kind of link there is between vaccines and autism – but we should find out.”

Yes, a lot of recent events makes it seem like Dems are a lot savvier than Reps. This may be a permanent effect, if Trump's influence lasts beyond 2024. And climate change and science denial are mostly more Rep hobbyhorses. But to assume that Dems are somehow immune is pretty gullible.

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    These are all fair arguments, but I think it’s important to point out that OP isn’t saying that Democrats are immune or all Republicans are conspiracy theorists, but that in the present, conspiracy theories are overrepresented on the right.
    – divibisan
    Aug 7 at 15:54
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    @divibisan "in the present" is something you added, it is nowhere in the OP's question. I am not entirely unsympathetic to the question, I recognize Trump's influence on Rep thinking has been huuuuge. But I doubt that picking a moment in time when one party dominates the other in conspiracy - and not being explicit about that timing - is very representative. Aug 7 at 15:55
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    Your voter fraud example is interesting. It suggests that the difference is not with the voters but with their leaders: Democrats and Republicans both believe in conspiracy theories, but (current) Republican leaders are more willing to indulge and support them
    – divibisan
    Aug 7 at 15:58
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    @BryanKrause but that's just it, nobody gives Republicans the benefit of the doubt. If you say you believe Democrats cause these wildfires, the news will assume you believe Marjory Taylor Greene's jewish space laser nonsense, they won't assume you believe Democrats mismanage forestry. If you say you believe the 2020 election was stolen, you'll be accused of being brainwashed by Mike Lindell, they won't assume you're talking about the "shadow campaign" to "save" the election Time Magazine wrote about: time.com/5936036/secret-2020-election-campaign
    – Ryan_L
    Aug 9 at 19:33
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    @Barmar Please see the word "overwhelmingly" in the title. Aug 9 at 22:22
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As it has been pointed out by other answers to this question and this related question, there are ample examples of historical left-wing conspiracies. Why this has changed recently to being conservative-dominated I would posit can be attributed to two factors: A steady decline in Republican trust of institutions, especially major media outlets and the changing demographics of the Republican party

Distrust:

enter image description here

Republicans have markedly low trust in academics and government workers, and both sides distrust elected officials and business leaders. This comprises essentially all institutions outside the state security apparatus and religion. The lowest trust is in journalists, who disseminate the information generated by the institutions that are already distrusted. If you don't trust any of the people saying that Democrats are not stealing and drinking childrens blood, the belief will continue.

While Republicans do have media sources in Fox news, and to a lesser extent opinion radio and Newsmax/OANN, Republican trust of media has been lowering for decades, with a steep drop at the start of Trump's term

enter image description here

Fox news is presumably not considered "mass media" by respondents despite being the most viewed news source in the US, unless a significant amount of Republicans watch but do not trust it.

Changing Demographics:

It was the case 30 years ago that the Republican party had higher educational attainment than the Democratic party. This has seen drastic change - Trump's strongest demographic was white men without a college degree. While educational attainment is not necessarily synonymous with intelligence, most conspiracy theories do not take a large amount of critical thinking to dispel. Clearly this has been lacking. enter image description here

Conclusion:

Republican distrust of all institutions outside of religious leadership and police/military (and implicitly Fox news) combined with low educational attainment sets the stage for conspiracy theories to flourish, and social media provides platforms where such theories can spread instantaneously and be reinforced by peers.

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    I think this is the best answer because it emphasizes that this is a real but relatively recent phenomenon. Conspiracy theories were a lot more left/right symmetric as recently as a decade or two ago. Aug 9 at 21:32
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    +1, but worth pointing out that the answers in the first poll are likely strongly impacted by the time at which it was conducted. E.g. "Officials appointed by a president to oversee government agencies:" would likely have produced significantly different results if asked in 2014 instead of 2018.
    – eclipz905
    Aug 10 at 20:08
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Here is a recent article from the American Association for the Advancement of Science that addresses this issue.

From the abstract:

Results confirm that conservatives have lower sensitivity than liberals, performing worse at distinguishing truths and falsehoods. This is partially explained by the fact that the most widely shared falsehoods tend to promote conservative positions, while corresponding truths typically favor liberals. The problem is exacerbated by liberals’ tendency to experience bigger improvements in sensitivity than conservatives as the proportion of partisan news increases. These results underscore the importance of reducing the supply of right-leaning misinformation.

Basically they're saying:

  • The biggest fake stories target conservatives so if you're conservative you are more likely to encounter a fake story.

  • If you are conservative you're also more likely to share and read more fake stories (because more of them target conservatives).

  • Since conservative news will also likely be a larger part of your total news, a larger part of your total news will be fake news and you will not be as good as telling the difference between real news and fake news.

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    The "supply" side of this issue is a very important point. If people spend more time and money spreading conspiracy theories to people on the right, they'll likely believe them more, even if there's no difference in succeptability
    – divibisan
    Aug 9 at 17:37
  • I feel like this is an incomplete answer. Why are CT targeting conservatives more? Could it be because the conservatives are more likely to believe them? I feel like you have a chicken vs egg problem, do CT target conservatives because conservatives believe CTs, or do conservatives believe CTs because they target conservatives? note, I'm not making a claim either way,, only pointing out that there is insufficient evidence to draw a conclusion from this answer and thus I considering it incomplete.
    – dsollen
    Aug 13 at 15:35
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At least part of the reason is because the majority of US news outlets are left-wing. Yes, Fox News is the largest single outlet, but 2nd and 3rd place combined are bigger, and then there's a long line of smaller outlets also broadcasting the left's perspective.

Both sides are aware of the general cultural belief that conspiracy theories are false; the phrase is too heavily associated with nonsense like moon landing denial or CIA involvement in the JFK assassination. So they use the phrase "conspiracy theory" when discussing something they want their viewers to doubt, and they use other phrases like "collusion" or "cronyism" when they want their viewers to believe a story.

These two facts combine to mean more right-wing driven stories get called conspiracy theories than left-wing driven stories. Both sides also will tend to report the most extreme version of the story, because a large percentage of news is activist now. If someone says they believe Democrats cause the wildfires ravaging the west coast, left-wing news will conflate it with Marjory Taylor Greene's "Jewish space lasers". they will either not mention the full quote where the belief is backed with examples of Democrat-led forestry mismanagement, or it will be buried deep in the article.

Likewise if someone says they believe Donald Trump coordinated with Russia to win in 2016, right-wing news will assume you believe the Russians had video of Trump with prostitutes and were blackmailing him. They won't assume you're talking about Russian propaganda on Facebook that Trump could've had a roundabout hand in.

So in summation, I think it seems like the craziest conspiracy theorists are Republican because the left's media sphere is larger, and thus more able to shine a light on the right's most unhinged members. They're also more able to hide the fact that many of their stories are literally conspiracy theories as well; Trump-Russia collusion being the biggest, but far from only example. This is all textbook Manufacturing Consent, and the fact that this question even had to be asked is evidence as to how effective it can be.

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    In short, the people and institutions that define which beliefs are conspiracy theories tend to be left wing - of course they will claim that their ideological adversaries are conspiracy nuts. Aug 10 at 18:08
  • Conspiracy theories, as I define them are theories believed to be true despite the overwhelming majority of evidence indicating they are not. It doesn't become a conspiracy theory when it's oppose to one political spectrum or another. It's a conspiracy theory when it's a rational examination of the evidence leads to a conclusion the theory must be false. While echo chambering is a real issue dividing our nation I don't think it should be at all relevant to the measure of "does this demographic prove more likely to believe scientifically refuted beliefs*
    – dsollen
    Aug 13 at 15:41
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    @dsollen How does this contradict anything I said? My point is that you hear more about debunking unhinged Republicans than unhinged Democrats, so it seems like Republicans are crazier. The point is that it's not clear to me that Republicans do in fact prove more likely to believe nonsense. The news amplifies the craziest people opposite them politically, and more news supports Democrats.
    – Ryan_L
    Aug 13 at 16:10
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    Great point about who labels stories as conspiracy theories. +1
    – carrizal
    Aug 16 at 3:25
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Conspiracy theories are 'sour grapes' rationalizations: ways of justifying and excusing the failures of a belief system. At the heart of every conspiracy theory is an ideology or set of beliefs that did not work out as planned: what should have happened (according to the belief system) didn't; what did happen (according to the belief system) should have been impossible. But instead of questioning, examining, revising, or discarding this belief system, the conspiracy theorist asserts that the belief system failed to have its expected outcome because vast networks of people joined in conspiracy to undermine and subvert the 'natural' and 'correct' order of things.

Conspiracy theories are always present within the more self-righteous, dogmatic elements of any belief system (Left, Right, or Center), because individuals who are prone to self-righteous, dogmatic thinking often have difficulty accepting the failure of their efforts. Anyone who truly believes they have found the 'correct' way of understanding the world will have difficulty accepting that this ostensibly 'correct' understanding does not yield immediate and tangible results, and it is often easier for such people to embrace improbable explanations for that failure than to do the mental work of revising their beliefs. Belief systems create existential security. For those who are deeply egoically attached to their belief systems, any perceived weakness in that system can produce levels of existential angst that are incapable of facing directly.

Over the last three or four decades, the conservative movement in the US has seen repeated losses and failures. Social policy has become increasingly liberal and secular; fiscal policy and regulations have become progressively federal and 'Big Government'; corporations have displaced the political and social power of individuals; minorities and women in US have made notable advances into the traditional white male hegemony. Every time a Democratic administration comes to power the wealth and status of the nation rise, while every time a GOP administration comes to power the economy and US reputation collapse. The further reaches of the Right in the US can't ignore these failures that seems directly connected to GOP/conservative belief systems, but they cannot emotionally accept that there are flaws within the belief system itself. So they turn to ever more extreme and wild theories to explain why they have failed to achieve their ideological goals, imagining that cabals of people are secretly and nefariously subverting the system, and thus subverting the natural order in which their ideology would unquestionably be successful.

Sometimes there are conspiracies, no question. As the old saying goes, being paranoid doesn't mean people aren't out to get you. But by the same token, having people out to get you doesn't mean you're not paranoid. Society and politics are competitive institutions, and sometimes when you lose it's right and proper that you lose.

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    I think your starting with an overgeneralization. While no doubt there are CT which rationalize & justify one's internal belief system when it fails to be predictive, I'd argue QANON is one of those, they are not the only kind of CT. CT often come about from a desire to believe that spectacular events must have spectacular origins, because humans don't like to believe the world is as random as it can be. So for instance the JFK assassination's CT is less about wanting to justify a belief system, and more about wanting a more satisfying 'cause' for JFK death then a random lunatic did it.
    – dsollen
    Aug 13 at 15:47

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