Democracy under threat? Can conspiracy theories give rise to autocratic attitudes?

By Kostas Papaioannou (Aristotle University of Thessaloniki)and Myrto Pantazi (University of Oxford)

In an ever-changing incomprehensible world, the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and nothing was true

— Hannah Arendt (1951)

On January 6, 2021, a mob of rioters stormed the US Capitol in an attempt to delay the Electoral College vote count, overturn the recent US election results and disrupt the democratic transition of power, giving a strong blow to American democracy. The US Capitol seize was instigated by false claims of stolen elections and mass voter fraud (Frenkel, 2021). At the root of these claims a handful conspiracy theories advocated by the so-called QAnon movement (Barry et al., 2021), purporting a global “Deep State” ran by “satanic” pedophile elites.

The attack to the Capitol was designed and coordinated online through various social networks and forums such as Parler and, the same networks that facilitate the spread of the aforementioned conspiracy theories (Timberg & Harwell, 2021). This was probably the most vivid example of the fact that conspiracy theories may have violent, real-life consequences for public safety and democracy.

The US Capitol attack underscores that Western liberal democracies may also be vulnerable to autocratic threats, especially as the circulation of conspiracy theories and misinformation appear to be increasingly visible on social media and the Internet (Lewandowsky & van der Linden, 2021). Several lines of evidence suggest that modern societies have entered a ‘post-truth’ era, abounding with misinformation and conspiracy theories (Lewandowsky, et al., 2017). Others even argue that modern societies gradually slide towards a post-democratic condition with limited democratic institutions, fewer voters using their right to vote, and xenophobic right-wing populist parties capitalising on prevailing discontent (Rosenberg, 2020; Crouch, 2020). Many people today appear to display a preference for “strong leaders”, who have unlimited authority to overcome their society’s difficulties (Sprong et al., 2019). These global developments, just like the US Capitol attack, underscore the need to understand what role conspiracy theories may play in citizens’ autocratic attitudes.

In recent research, together with dr. Jan-Willem van Prooijen, we set out to understand whether conspiracy thinking is associated with autocratic attitudes, while also assessing possible factors explaining this relationship. Formally, a conspiracy theory is a “proposed explanation of some historical event (or events) in terms of the significant causal agency of a relatively small group of persons, the conspirators acting in secret” (Keeley, 1999). People of course differ in the extent to which they believe in specific conspiracy theories: despite the dire and obvious consequences of the belief that the 2020 US elections were rigged, only a minority of US citizens found it plausible. More generally, people also differ in their general tendency to attribute events in the world to hidden conspiracies. This individual-level tendency is commonly referred to as “conspiracy mentality” (Bruder et al., 2013).

Conspiracy beliefs and conspiracy mentality often reflect a deep suspicion and mistrust towards legitimate democratic institutions (Pummerer et al., 2021), political cynicism (Abalakina-Paap, et al., 1999) and political powerlessness (Douglas et al., 2019). Through this lens, powerless and cynical citizens blame their predicament on the deliberate actions of powerful groups and well-established elites (van Prooijen, 2020). With our research, we also sought to understand whether powerless and cynical citizens also tend to reject the liberal democratic system as whole and show a preference for different forms of governance.

One possible alternative form of governance is autocracy. This form of governance can be particularly appealing to conspiracy believers, as it supposedly disempowers the political system, which they perceive as corrupt.

We designed three studies to empirically test the idea that conspiracy beliefs are associated with increased support for autocratic governance. In a first study, ran in a nationally representative sample in Greece, we tested whether conspiracy mentality may be associated with a generalized rejection of the democratic political system. As we expected, we observed that the more participants believed in conspiracy theories the more likely they were to reject democratic governance. In a follow up study, not only we replicated the relationship between conspiracy mentality and a preference for autocratic regimes, but also showed that this is because conspiracy believers are more cynical and feel more powerless.

Based on these results, we ran an experiment on a US sample. Participants read a paragraph about a fictional country called “Willemia”, containing information about the country’s history, nature and social characteristics. Willemia was an otherwise ordinary country, much like a Western democracy, albeit half of the participants read that Willemia was riddled with conspiracies. These participants not only perceived more conspiracies (naturally as they read so), but this perception also made them feel more powerless, as hypothetical citizens of Willemia, more cynical towards Willemia’s political system, and ultimately more supportive of an autocracy, as an alternative system of governance for that country.

Taken together, our findings advance our understanding of the relationship between conspiracy beliefs and autocratic attitudes. Although we know from previous literature that exposure to conspiracy theories may have potentially detrimental effects (Douglas et al., 2019), our findings demonstrate that conspiracy theories are an important indicator of political disappointment and can pose a threat to democratic governance.

Although Study 3 was what social scientists call a “vignette experiment” –which means that we are not certain to what extent these results generalize to people’s attitudes towards the system of governance of their own country– it is noteworthy that these results were obtained in an otherwise Western democracy. Incidentally, these U.S. data was collected only a few weeks before the attack to the US Capitol. As social scientists, observing what happened in the US in the first week of January 2021, was like observing a “natural experiment”, largely corroborating the research that we had just ran.

Although our results may not be as alarming as the “natural experiment” in the US, they do invite some serious considerations and reflections on the future of (liberal) democracy, especially considering how widespread online conspiracy theories are nowadays, and their power to disrupt democratic support.

As a disclaimer, we believe that a certain level of skepticism towards politicians may be essential for a democracy to function as it holds politicians accountable. As long as critical and skeptical views are directed at specific politicians or policies deserving citizens’ criticism, and not at the democratic system as a whole, we can anticipate a healthy functioning democracy. Yet, we would also like to flag the risk of passing a tipping point where citizens entirely lose faith in the political system, questioning the legitimacy of democracy as a whole and turning to a world in the lines of what Hannah Arendt had in mind in her “Origins of Totalitarianism”.

About the Authors

Kostas Papaioannou is a PhD candidate at the Department of Political Science of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki (Greece) and a Senior Researcher at the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen) in the UK. His research focuses on conspiracy beliefs, political trust and populism.

Myrto Pantazi is a social psychologist. She holds a PhD from the Université libre de Bruxelles and has worked as a postdoc at the Department of Psychology, University of Cambridge and the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford. Her research focuses on (mis)information processing, consumption and validation, and conspiracy beliefs.

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