One of the flames that lit the insurrection in the nation's capital is a conspiracy theory that President Trump, not Joe Biden, really won the November election. An NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist survey released in early December found only a quarter of Republicans trusting the election results.
Asheley Landrum, a media psychologist at Texas Tech University, studies conspiracy theories. She spoke with KQED’s Brian Watt about the mainstreaming of the evidence-free idea that Trump would have won the election if not for massive Democratic cheating.
Edited for length and clarity.
What makes everyday people so susceptible to this conspiracy?
Asheley Landrum: Although believing conspiracies is often talked about as a pathological behavior, anyone might believe one under the right circumstances. When people are exposed to information that seems to contradict their own beliefs or their values or their experiences — or maybe what they've been seeing consistently cultivated on their social media news feeds — they face what we call cognitive dissonance, which they need to resolve.
One way of doing that is to conspiracy theorize, which allows people to dismiss disagreeable information by questioning the credibility and the motivation of the expert communicators relaying that information. People will question the credibility of the press, politicians, doctors, for example. Because Trump supporters tend to assume the worst of Democrats, the press, and in some cases even other politicians they see as "deep state," it seems very easy for them to believe those people would undermine the electoral process, that it's a normative behavior.
So if I want to believe something or not believe something, I can find a way?
We all do this. We all come into contact with information that seems to contradict our prior experiences. I had an argument with my dad about learning styles. People have heard for decades that there are these different learnng styles: "Oh, I'm an auditory learner." And if we say, well, the evidence doesn't support that, they'll argue back.
This is just how people process information. We always compare something that we're exposed to with our prior understanding and knowledge of it, and if it seems to make sense, we incorporate it, and if it doesn't seem to make sense with our prior views, then we find ways to dismiss it.