Conspiracy Theories

August 24, 2018 • Volume 28, Issue 29
Do they undermine democracy?
By Sharon O'Malley


A man wears a QAnon T-shirt at a July 31 rally (Cover: Getty Images/Joe Raedle)
A man wears a QAnon T-shirt at a July 31 rally for President Trump in Tampa, Fla. The “Q” conspiracy theory, which claims that a “deep state” is working to undermine Trump's presidency, went viral after the rally. Experts say conspiracy theories spread easily these days because of social media and coverage by the mainstream media. (Cover: Getty Images/Joe Raedle)

Once found mainly on society's fringes, conspiracy theories are increasingly infiltrating public discourse: The government manipulated the weather to cause a hurricane; gun control advocates staged a mass shooting; a “deep state” is plotting to ruin President Trump. Yet researchers say conspiracy theories are no more prevalent today than 100 years ago. What is new, they say, is that the internet, social media and mainstream media coverage are helping conspiracy theories spread faster than ever, sometimes with dangerous consequences. Many political scientists worry that the trend could undermine trust in government, incite violence or, at the very least, undercut faith in accepted facts about the nation and world. Trump has contributed to the problem, some contend, by professing belief in false conspiracies, such as that President Barack Obama was not a U.S. citizen. Mass shooting victims or their families, meanwhile, have accused conspiracy theorists of harassment and begun taking them to court. The lawsuits raise questions about whether conspiracy theories are protected speech under the First Amendment.

ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
Journalism, Newspapers, and the Media
Jan. 28, 2022  Misinformation and the Media
Oct. 02, 2020  Social Media Platforms
Sep. 18, 2020  The News Media
Aug. 24, 2018  Conspiracy Theories
Jun. 09, 2017  Trust in Media
May 30, 2014  Digital Journalism
May 03, 2013  Media Bias
Apr. 26, 2013  Free Speech at Risk
Apr. 12, 2013  Combat Journalism
Nov. 2010  Press Freedom
Oct. 08, 2010  Journalism Standards in the Internet Age
Feb. 05, 2010  Press Freedom
Mar. 27, 2009  Future of Journalism Updated
Jun. 09, 2006  Blog Explosion Updated
Jan. 20, 2006  Future of Newspapers
Apr. 08, 2005  Free-Press Disputes
Oct. 15, 2004  Media Bias
Oct. 10, 2003  Media Ownership Updated
Dec. 25, 1998  Journalism Under Fire
Jun. 05, 1998  Student Journalism
Sep. 20, 1996  Civic Journalism
Sep. 23, 1994  Courts and the Media
Aug. 24, 1990  Hard Times at the Nation's Newspapers
Jan. 19, 1990  Finding Truth in the Age of ‘Infotainment’
Aug. 18, 1989  Libel Law: Finding the Right Balance
Jun. 06, 1986  Magazine Trends
Oct. 12, 1984  News Media and Presidential Campaigns
Jul. 15, 1983  State of American Newspapers
Oct. 23, 1981  High Cost of Libel
Dec. 23, 1977  Media Reforms
Mar. 11, 1977  News Media Ownership
Jun. 21, 1974  Access to the Media
Dec. 20, 1972  Newsmen's Rights
Aug. 16, 1972  Blacks in the News Media
Dec. 15, 1971  Magazine Industry Shake-Out
Jul. 18, 1969  Competing Media
Sep. 02, 1964  Politicians and the Press
Dec. 04, 1963  Libel Suits and Press Freedom
Jan. 09, 1963  Newspaper Mergers
Dec. 20, 1961  Reading Boom: Books and Magazines
Dec. 02, 1959  Privileged Communications
Apr. 25, 1956  Newsprint Deficit
May 06, 1953  Government and the Press
Sep. 21, 1948  Press and State
Sep. 05, 1947  Newsprint Supply
Mar. 26, 1947  Facsimile Newspapers
Dec. 10, 1945  World Press Freedom
May 01, 1940  New Experiments in Newspaper-Making
Nov. 04, 1933  Press Freedom Under the Recovery Program
Campaigns and Elections
Conservatism and Liberalism
Consumer Behavior
Consumer Protection and Product Liability
Crime and Law Enforcement
Criminal Law Procedure and Due Process
General Social Trends
Hate Groups
Internet and Social Media
Journalism and the News
Party Politics
Protest Movements