Clinical Professor of Management & Organizations; Executive Director of Kellogg's Dispute Resolution and Research Center
By all accounts, the 2022 U.S. midterm elections will be unlike any in our recent history. With the 2020 presidential election and its fallout still fresh in voters’ minds—and hundreds of election deniers on the ballot—conspiratorial rhetoric is central to shaping many voters’ perceptions.
According to Cynthia Wang, director of the Dispute Resolution and Research Center and a clinical professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School, conspiratorial beliefs are common during times of uncertainty.
“What’s new is this conspiratorial rhetoric has become more mainstream in the conversation around the midterm elections,” Wang says. “We’re seeing candidates inviting fringe conspiratorial communities onto their platforms.”
She offers insights from her recent research to help explain the surge in conspiratorial rhetoric from politicians—and what might be done to keep voters from embracing conspiracy theories.
Many political leaders don’t necessarily believe the conspiracy theories they embrace, but they know that leaning into them can be a strategic way to reach voters who feeling like they lack control over their jobs or their personal lives.
“With COVID-19, the elections, the war in Ukraine, the economy, and inflation, the world is just rife with uncertainty, and people are just looking to understand things. There’s a certain set of leaders who know that language can be used to assuage the uncertainty that’s going on in the world,” says Wang.
Research has shown that in times of uncertainty, politicians who use conspiratorial language are viewed both as outsiders who can reform the system and as those who can assuage people’s uncertainty. But there’s a catch.
“It’s all tied together now into a big giant conspiracy theory with 28 different tentacles. It’s like an octopus of conspiratorial rhetoric.”
— Cynthia Wang
“The irony is that conspiratorial rhetoric is all about [cultivating] uncertainty,” Wang says. “Conspiratorial language doesn’t really satiate your need for certainty, as it may not accurately reflect reality. And consuming it over time is never going to help you feel better or more in control.”
Rather, conspiratorial language can kick off an endless cycle, priming audiences to be even more receptive to conspiratorial language in the future. And politicians can use this to their advantage. “The fire is going to continue to be fanned all the way up to the election. And even after the election, if your group loses, you can still use this same type of rhetoric to deal with the uncertainty of your party losing,” she says.
Wang and her colleagues have a term for this self-perpetuating cycle: “epistemic junk food.”
She sees this “junk food” as key to understanding how effectively conspiracy theories like “Stop the Steal” have spread over the past two years. (A number of polls suggest that about 35 percent of American voters, and about 70 percent of Republican voters, suspect election fraud in the 2020 presidential election.)
In some ways, the 2022 midterm elections are not unique. Past research has shown that during times of uncertainty—war, pandemic, tottering economies—conspiratorial beliefs and rhetoric spike.
“What’s unique about this year is that rhetoric like this is being mainstreamed,” Wang says. She points to House Republican Elise Stefanik, who released Facebook ads warning that Democrats were engaged in a “PERMANENT ELECTION INSURRECTION,” hoping to grant amnesty to millions of undocumented immigrants in order to “overthrow our current electorate.” This was interpreted by many as nodding to the “great replacement” theory espoused by White supremacists.
For political leaders in a sharply polarized electorate, conspiratorial rhetoric can be very appealing. Lean into the latest unfounded conspiracy theories, and you show your bona fides to your base.
“Leaders are incentivized to use this language because it’s attractive and it works,” Wang says. “And, if they don’t use this language, they may be punished for it. If you say, ‘Let’s look at the science,’ some of your supporters may say, ‘Boo! Next!’”
She also points out that “social media is being used to propagate conspiracy theories quickly and deeply to voters. Ten years ago, you wouldn’t see this rapid a spread.”
Contemporary social media can disseminate falsehoods quicker than other media in the past, and its echo-chamber effects tend to make ideas that reinforce preexisting beliefs and affiliations—no matter how outlandish—more likely to be believed. Add in the existence of bots designed to agitate users, and you have a recipe for increasing polarization and further entrenchment of conspiratorial rhetoric.
“It’s all tied together now into a big giant conspiracy theory with 28 different tentacles,” Wang says. “It’s like an octopus of conspiratorial rhetoric.”
With conspiratorial rhetoric going nowhere anytime soon, Wang and her colleagues are hoping to identify effective ways for slowing support for conspiracy theories.
“Let’s go beyond trying to rationally persuade people to change their minds if they already believe in the conspiracy theories. That is going to be less effective,” she says. Instead, she wants to reach people before they’re exposed to a conspiracy theory and teach them to recognize conspiratorial rhetoric when they see it. “We have to get people to say, ‘Hey, let’s look at this information with a critical eye. Let’s look at the facts.’”
She also thinks that, as a culture, we need to address some of the factors that make people feel like they’ve lost control—the very things that make conspiracy theories so attractive in the first place.
Some of these factors, like inflation, are tied to the economy. Other factors are tied to social or political identity. “When a group’s identity and their status are under threat,” Wang says, “We see a rise in support for conspiratorial rhetoric. When you feel like your group is losing out, this is when you try to claw back. In the process, you may see patterns that support your cause, even if these patterns are not supported by a lot of data.
“There’s so much rhetoric out there to choose from,” Wang continues. “People cherry pick the things that reinforce their political identity and how they feel about their groups and themselves.”
Finally, Wang points out that conspiracy theories need not win out—at least not forever. People generally support leaders who speak rationally more than they support those that espouse conspiracy theories. And support for conspiratorial rhetoric is not fixed—when one group wins: its support for conspiracy theories drops.
“Conspiratorial rhetoric is always going to be there because it’s so persuasive; it pulls people in,” Wang says. “if people feel control in other ways, it diminishes the attraction.”
Fred Schmalz is the art and business editor of Kellogg Insight.