Thousands of supporters of President Trump storm the U.S. Capitol building following a "Stop the Steal" rally on Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington, D.C. Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Thousands of supporters of President Trump storm the U.S. Capitol building following a "Stop the Steal" rally on Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington, D.C. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Why So Many People Believe Trump Really Won the Election

Why So Many People Believe Trump Really Won the Election

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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.

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We're now seeing a conspiracy theory within a conspiracy theory: the belief that it was the radical left and not Trump supporters who fomented the attack on the Capitol. What do you make of this? 

This is another example of trying to resolve cognitive dissonance. Many Trump supporters who stayed home know they weren't part of the rallies. They weren't in that environment where they got riled up and excited. These people at home couldn't imagine their own in-group members desecrating federal property or yelling at law enforcement. They see themselves as the group that values these types of institutions, statues and property. To make sense of what they saw on television, they'll come up with a variety of different reasons, such as it wasn’t Trump supporters who were orchestrating this raid. I anticipate we'll see different explanations that try to make sense of this for Trump supporters at home. Whichever one goes viral could become the official story among those individuals.

What does your research say about how to connect Americans across this kind of profound divide?

Number one, university professors, doctors, local politicians have to build relationships with their local community members in order to build trust. In a church group or a mom group or part of the PTA or any sort of organization where you might be a non-expert, you have the opportunity to engage with other people from different backgrounds and show them that you are trustworthy. Talk to them about your views and values and you can become more of a whole person than what we see.

Decades of research in psychology shows that people evaluate facts through the lens of their own beliefs, values and experiences.If you drop a pen, you can draw a quick line from cause to effect. But information that we get is for the most part not firsthand, it's often through testimony from other people like the press or doctors or politicians. Whether or not we trust that information or how we evaluate or interpret that information is going to depend on how much we trust the people who communicated that to us. It is very easy to dismiss information when it's coming from sources that we don't deem as credible.

What role does the media play in feeding false narratives?

Trump really is a symptom more than a cause of the conservative media movement, where you have Sean Hannity and others stoking anger and fear, and that's constantly your media diet. When you're living in that environment, you really do start to see things as a war to protect your country.

I think Trump is the first politician that really fed into that. I'd say Sarah Palin did a little bit; she was sort of the canary in the coal mine. And since then, you have more and more politicians who are playing to this. So we have to do something about the conservative media problem, not the presenting of different viewpoints, but the tone, the anger-stoking, the riling up, the hyperbole — all of that is very dangerous. But it's a tricky issue with the First Amendment.