Canadians are less likely to believe conspiracy theories than Americans
By Ian Holliday, Research Associate
November 2, 2016 – The 2016 U.S. Presidential campaign has been awash in conspiracy theories, from the abstract and arguably metaphorical (think Bernie Sanders’ insistence that the American economic and political system is “rigged” in favour of big business), to the oddly specific (think Donald Trump’s false assertion that Ted Cruz’s father was an accomplice in the Kennedy assassination).
Trump’s political career arguably began with his perpetuation of a conspiracy theory – that Barack Obama was not born in the United States – despite mountains of evidence debunking it.
With the final month of the campaign having devolved into what one Economist blogger called “a fever swamp of conspiracy theories,” we at the Angus Reid Institute have been pondering just how receptive to paranoid thinking the American public might be.
The answer, as it turns out, is “more so than Canadians, but not by all that much.” As will be seen later, there are causes for both optimism and pessimism in Americans’ willingness to say certain conspiracy allegations are “true.”
Back in August, the Angus Reid Institute released data about Canadians’ beliefs concerning the supernatural and the unexplained.
The survey found a significant amount of enthusiasm for the supernatural and the unknown, but considerably less for conspiracy scenarios planned and perpetrated by humans.
When Americans are asked about the same seven allegations on which Canadians were queried, they tend to be more likely to say each one is either “definitely true” or “probably true,” as seen in the graph that follows:
A couple of data points jump out in this comparison: First, Americans are almost three times as likely as Canadians to believe the “birther” conspiracy that President Barack Obama was not born in the United States. This data was collected before Trump changed his story on this issue, though it’s unclear what effect, if any, Trump’s disavowal of birtherism might have on the number of Americans who continue to believe Obama was born outside the U.S.
Second, Canadians and Americans are roughly equally skeptical that al-Qaeda acted alone in perpetrating 9/11 (though it’s worth noting that this doesn’t necessarily mean they think 9/11 was an “inside job.” “Not solely perpetrated by al-Qaeda” could also mean the hijackers had the support and assistance of a national government other than the U.S.)
On everything else, Americans show themselves to be several percentage points more conspiracy-minded than Canadians.
Relatively few ‘true believers’
For some, the graph above is surely terrifying. It suggests a huge amount of distrust of official narratives – whether from government or media – especially in the United States.
On a certain level, this is true. Trust in media and government in the U.S. has rarely been so low, and in this “post-fact” environment, it’s certainly easier for conspiratorial counternarratives to take hold.
At the same time, however, the graph is much less terrifying when we look at only those who express absolute certainty – saying each allegation is “definitely true.”
America has more of these “true believers” than Canada, but there are considerably fewer of them than there are people who say the allegations in question are “probably true.”
This is, potentially, reason to feel optimistic about Americans’ receptiveness to conspiracy allegations. People who leave room for some uncertainty in their belief, this line of reasoning goes, would be more open to being persuaded that the allegation in question is false.
At the same time, of course, this uncertainty cuts both ways. The relatively large numbers of Americans who say the allegations in question are “probably true” – or even “probably not true” – are a potential audience for the many conspiracies being advanced in the 2016 campaign.
A pessimistic view of the public opinion landscape says this type of paranoid thinking is likely to get worse before it gets better.