Can sharing conspiracy theories cost politicians votes?

New research from led by PhD candidate Ricky Green has revealed that while sharing conspiracy theories in the context of politics can harm a person’s reputation it can sometimes be beneficial too.

The study, which has been published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, asked participants from the UK and USA to evaluate fictitious politicians who either shared or refuted conspiracy theories in a political speech.

Participants judged the conspiracy politicians as less trustworthy, predictable and competent, when compared to politicians who refuted them. Participants were also less likely to support pro-conspiracy candidates.

The impressions that participants formed of the fictitious politicians were also dependent on their own political beliefs. In the US context, people with stronger right-wing attitudes were more favourable towards the politicians who shared conspiracy theories, while less right-wing participants were more favourable to the politicians who refuted the conspiracy theories. Findings also showed that participants rated the conspiracy politicians as “rogue” political outsiders.

As lead researcher Ricky Green explains: ‘Research suggests that sharing conspiracy theories can be damaging. Our results support this conclusion, because people viewed the conspiracy politicians more negatively in general. But the results also showed that in some circumstances, sharing conspiracy theories could be beneficial. People might share conspiracy theories to stand out from the crowd and make themselves appear that they have unique and important knowledge.

‘This is important in the context of politics where making an impression on voters is crucial. Sharing conspiracy theories might have some pitfalls but also seems to create the impression of being a political outsider – someone who might be able to change the system. This tactic seems be particularly persuasive to more right-wing voters. ‘There are therefore, social and political costs – but perhaps also benefits – of sharing conspiracy theories.’

This research is part of the European Research Council-funded project “CONSPIRACY_FX” led by Kent’s Professor Karen Douglas, investigating the consequences of conspiracy theories for individuals, groups, and societies.