Monday, November 11, 2013

Conspiracy Theories ... Still Out There

Politico ran a story today about conspiracy theories that's worth a read if you're into them (as I am). It also got me thinking, so I dipped into my own data for some quick analyses. Who believes in a particular conspiracy theory? Basically, those who want to believe in a particular conspiracy theory.

So let's look at four popular theories below, two that you might call getting oxygen from the right, two from the left. The wacky right has Obama born outside the U.S. (birther thing), and the so-called "death panels" of Obamacare. The wacky left has the notion the government knew in advance about 911, and the idea Hurricane Katrina's flood waters were purposely aimed at poor sections of New Orleans.

This is what I did (nerd warning). I constructed four quick-and-dirty regression models on each of the four conspiracies above. That means I tossed a kitchen sink full of things into a model to let them fight it out and see which ones remain statistically significant, which are posers and drop out. Let's look at the results:
  • Obama born outside U.S. -- Believers tend to be older, less educated, of lower income, female, read less newspapers, but more politically conservative and Republican. Also, even after all these statistical controls, watching Fox News made you more likely to believe this.
  • Death Panels -- Believers tended to be younger, less educated, of lower income, Republican and conservative. Also, less likely to read a newspaper but, yes, Fox News watchers. Even after all these controls.
  • Government Knew of 911 -- Believers were younger, less educated, of lower income (seeing a trend here?), non-white, less likely to read newspapers, less likely to watch Fox News, more liberal and more likely Democrat.
  • Government Directed Katrina at Poor -- Believers were younger, less educated, lower income (sigh, yes), were more likely women, black, liberal, used less Internet news but read newspapers more, and less likely to watch Fox News.
What gives fuel to a conspiracy theory? Looking at the results above, it's a combination of two factors. Consistently, theories from the wacky left and the wingnut right are believed by those of lower socio-economic status. The second factor is quite simple -- people believe what they want to believe. In this case, liberals tend to believe theories that made George W. Bush look bad, conservatives tend to believe theories that make Barack Obama look bad.

Fox News deserves special mention. Even after a host of statistical controls, some of which were not significant in the models after all this other stuff is considered, watching Fox News is consistently related toward believing the anti-Obama stuff and not believing the anti-Bush stuff. Other media factors come and go, but Fox News is a special case.

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