Academic journal article IUP Journal of International Relations

National Security, Personal Insecurity, and Political Conspiracies: The Persistence of Americans' Beliefs in 9/11 Conspiracy Theories

Academic journal article IUP Journal of International Relations

National Security, Personal Insecurity, and Political Conspiracies: The Persistence of Americans' Beliefs in 9/11 Conspiracy Theories

Article excerpt


The election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States has rekindled a discussion of conspiracy theories as they relate to governance and national security.1 As a candidate in the 2016 American presidential elections, Trump engaged in accusations against his presidential opponents that some observers alleged were conspiracy theories.2 But, among other things, the election of Donald Trump partly reflects the idea that a section of the American public is either indifferent to these dubious theories and those who peddle them or they earnestly believe in them to the point of thoughtless acceptance and wholehearted consumption of these theories. Existing research by political scientists, and by social scientists in general, on beliefs in conspiracy theories is conspicuously scant. We fill this gap in the literature by reexamining these beliefs and the reasons thereof through a survey focused on the continuing acceptance of 9/11 conspiracy theories by a non-trivial share of the American population. In an age of fake news and alternative facts, a focus by political scientists and international relations scholars on a society's enduring fascination for conspiracy theories is extremely timely and warranted.

It should be noted that the purpose of this study is not to evaluate the legitimacy of the 9/11 conspiracy theories, as these theories have already been thoroughly debunked.3 Rather, in light of the enduring nature of 9/11 conspiracy theories, the question that we examine is why do a substantial number of Americans, even in the absence of supporting scientific evidence and in the presence of strong contradictory evidence, readily believe that their government, namely the Bush administration, murdered approximately 3,000 of its own citizens and residents? What explains the persistent nature of this belief? Are the factors associated with this belief political or psychological, or both? To answer these questions, we undertook survey research a decade after the attacks of 9/11 and subjected these survey results to rigorous statistical analyses to empirically evaluate explanations for belief in 9/11 conspiracy theories. Our findings indicate that a combination of political, psychological, and socioeconomic factors help to explain Americans' belief in 9/11 conspiracy theories.

9/11 Conspiracy Theories: LIHOP and MIHOP

In general, conspiracy theories satisfy a human need to associate major events-the 9/11 attacks, for example-with major causes.4 The thought that major events can be caused by minor entities is a dissonance that is wildly disorienting to the human brain.5 Conspiracy theorists seek comfort in the search for the "hidden hand" because "if horrible events can be traced to a cabal of evildoers who control the world from behind a vast curtain, that is, in one sense, less scary than the idea that some horrible things happen at random or as a result of a lone nebbish, a nobody. The existence of a secret cabal means that there is some sort of order in the world; a catastrophic fluke suggests there is a vast crevice of chaos, the essence of dread."6 In other words, the need for order propels the human mind to entertain explanations that equate big events with big causes.

According to Sapountzis and Condor, the term 'conspiracy theory' was first coined by philosopher Karl Popper in 1949, who described it as "the view that whatever happens in society-including things which people as a rule dislike, such as war, poverty, shortages-are the results of direct design by some powerful individuals or groups."7 This meaning has hardly changed in modern times with conspiracy theory being commonly defined as "an attempt to explain the ultimate cause of a significant political or social event as a secret plot by covert alliance of powerful individuals and organizations."8 What is interesting, although hardly surprising, is that belief in conspiracy theories has increased significantly with the growth of the Internet as the seamless web provides easy dissemination of information of all kinds. …

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