Fear and Loathing in the American Electorate: Part 5
The role of conspiracies and misinformation in the 2020 election
This is Part 5 of an eight-part exploration of the 2020 American National Election Study, focusing on the motivations and sources of information driving the American electorate, especially the Republican/conservative voters who cast their votes for Donald Trump in 2020. Here are quick links to the other seven parts.
- Part 1: The most important question facing American democracy today
- Part 2: Demographic predictors of 2020 vote
- Part 3: Media consumption — Where do voters get their information and what difference does it make?
- Part 4: Seven “deplorable” beliefs that predict 2020 Presidential vote
- Part 6: Partisan animosity
- Part 7: Combining sources of behavior — Path models of the 2020 Presidential vote
- Part 8: Republicans have crossed the Rubicon — Conclusions and implications
Conspiracy beliefs, susceptibility to conspiracy thinking, and uncritical acceptance of misinformation all played starring roles in the 2020 election campaign and its aftermath. Several questions in the 2020 ANES surveys attempt to capture the degree to which conspiracies and misinformation were absorbed and believed by members of the voting public.
Three questions in the post-election survey probed the extent to which voters echoed conspiracy claims and other misinformation actively promoted by Trump and other Republican leaders throughout the campaign. Respondents were asked how much they agreed or disagreed with three statements:
- The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) was developed intentionally in a lab.
- Russia tried to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.
- Scientific evidence that hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) is a safe and effective treatment for COVID-19.
Responses to all three questions showed major differences between the views of Biden and Trump voters.
In addition to these direct opinion questions, a follow-up question was included to determine how confident people were in their answers: not a lot, a little, moderately, very, or extremely. Combining opinion with confidence level creates a deeper measure of conspiracy beliefs. For example, answers on the Russian interference question distributed as follows.
Because these questions were asked in the post-election survey, answers represented opinions as of November/December 2020. While the correct answer to the first question is still not known with certainty, no evidence has been reported to indicate the virus was developed intentionally.¹ However, by consistently calling COVID the “China virus” and hinting that the Chinese government was to blame for the American outbreak, Trump managed to create an impression that China was certainly capable of such an act.
Regarding the second question, both the Mueller Report and Senate Intelligence Committee Report identified massive Russian interference in the campaign in 2016. Only Donald Trump and his most fervent loyalists denied this. And for the third question, scientific evidence was overwhelming and widely disseminated in the media: HCQ was not an effective treatment for COVID and there was absolutely no scientific reason to suspect it would be. But again, Trump chose to disagree. As can be seen from the above results, Trump voters chose in significant numbers to follow their leader rather than the publicly-available evidence on these questions.
73% of Trump voters claimed to believe COVID-19 was deliberately developed in a lab, 55% claimed to believe Russia did not interfere in the 2016 election, and 50% claimed to believe HCQ was an effective treatment for COVID.
To hold these false beliefs, believers had to also believe that scientists and politicians were lying to them. As we saw in the earlier discussion of “deplorable” anti-science and anti-government beliefs, Republicans have been relentless in promoting such skepticism among their followers, successfully discrediting the very expertise citizens must trust in order to distinguish fact from fiction.
Republicans have taken lying to a “meta” level: not only do they lie about facts, they lie about the legitimacy of experts and evidence that can expose their lies about facts. This clever strategy — casting doubt on the very idea that anyone can know what is true about anything — leaves Republican followers defenseless against whatever conspiracy theory or misinformation campaign their leaders wish to promote at any given time.
It is interesting to compare these results with some other conspiracy-related questions that referenced topics less actively promoted by Republican elites during the campaign. Here we find a similar bias among Trump voters toward believing misinformation over facts, but not nearly at the levels found for the more actively-promoted false beliefs. Here are three examples.
Comparing these results to how people responded to the previous three questions, we see that intensive elite messaging appears to have a significant impact on the beliefs and attitudes of followers. This effect has been noted, explored, and validated by others.²
To capture people’s general propensity to embrace conspiracies and misinformation, I combined answers to the first three questions to create a conspiracist scale that ranges from 0 (least conspiracy-oriented) to 1 (most conspiracy-oriented). The scale has acceptable consistency and reliability (Cronbach’s alpha = .66) and, as expected, correlates significantly with 2020 Presidential vote.
Similarly, there is a strong relationship between conspiracy-thinking and conservative political ideology: the more conservative, the more embracing of these conspiracy theories and misinformation.
Looking at the overall distribution of conspiracist scores for Biden vs. Trump voters, we see a very skewed picture. While there is a smattering of Trump voters with relatively low conspiracist scores, many more show up at the high end of the scale. In contrast, Biden voters are disproportionately clustered at the low end of the scale and essentially absent at the high end.
When we divide conspiracist scores into five equal-sized bins and assign respondents to bins based on their scores, we find additional evidence for the impact of conspiracist thinking on Presidential vote.
Not all Trump voters in 2020 were conspiracists, but the vast majority of conspiracists were Trump voters. Among the 20% most conspiracy-oriented Americans, 93% reported voting for Trump, while among the 20% least conspiracy-oriented Americans, 96% reported voting for Biden.
As might be expected, belief in conspiracies and misinformation becomes more common the more deeply individuals express various “deplorable” beliefs and attitudes. If we look at the four deplorable beliefs that correlate most highly with Trump vote in 2020, we see that conspiracy thinking increases significantly at each level of each belief. The more racist, anti-outgroup, anti-equality, and anti-science people declare themselves to be, the more likely they are to believe in conspiracies and accept misinformation fed to them by their leaders.
Belief in conspiracies and misinformation played a major role in the 2020 Presidential election, especially when those conspiracies and misinformation were promoted by Donald Trump and allied Republican elites. Biden voters proved to be largely immune to these conspiracies and misinformation campaigns. This raises some interesting questions about the role of partisanship as a filter through which information about politics and political campaigns get transmitted from elites and media to ordinary voters.
Continue to Part 6: Partisan animosity
- See Associated Press. “Research shows COVID-19 was not manufactured in a lab,” September 16, 2020, online here.
- Zaller, John R. The nature and origins of mass opinion. Cambridge university press, 1992; Zaller, John. “What Nature and Origins leaves out.” Critical Review 24.4 (2012): 569–642; Barber, Michael, and Jeremy C. Pope. “Does party trump ideology? Disentangling party and ideology in America.” American Political Science Review 113.1 (2019): 38–54; Broockman, David E., and Daniel M. Butler. “The causal effects of elite position‐taking on voter attitudes: Field experiments with elite communication.” American Journal of Political Science 61.1 (2017): 208–221; Pink, Sophia, et al. “Elite Party Cues Increase Vaccination Intentions among Republicans.” PNAS, August 10, 2021 (2021); Lenz, Gabriel S. Follow the leader?: how voters respond to politicians’ policies and performance. University of Chicago Press, 2013.