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Combatting Conspiratorial Thinking

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Michael R. Ford
April 13, 2019

Early this month Wisconsin held a statewide Supreme Court race. As is our state’s recent tradition, the result is likely heading for a recount. I made the mistake of reading Twitter reactions to the election result and was struck by how many posters immediately concluded that wide-scale election fraud had occurred. Former Governor Scott Walker even weighed in with a warning that Eric Holder was coming to Wisconsin to, “Steal the election.” The reflexive belief in conspiracy when election results do not go our way occurs on both sides of the political aisle, but why? And what can we in the Public Administration (PA) community do to combat the harmful effects of conspiratorial thinking?   

There are, I argue, multiple reasons for the increased visibility of conspiratorial thinking in our society. An obvious culprit is social media. Individuals can quickly, and often anonymously, spread any wild theory they want without fear of accountability. Standing on a street corner screaming about the faked moon landing will surely invite public ridicule, whereas tweeting about it will connect you to a broader community of conspiracy theorists. The decline of traditional media and rise in hybrid news/entertainment programs further enables this visibility. 

The self-selection of friends, neighborhoods and news sources similarly risks a state of groupthink in which opposing viewpoints are viewed as not just wrong, but illegitimate. If a person supports a specific policy position, and all his or her friends and neighbors support the same position, the rejection of that specific policy by the electorate would seem unfathomable. At the extreme, it can be easier to accept that a grand conspiracy is responsible for a personally undesirable policy or electoral outcome than  it is to question one’s own grasp of the facts and opinions surrounding an issue. It is even possible that the embrace of conspiracy theories is a function of laziness. Engaging with difficult issues with complex causes and solutions takes hard work, patience and a willingness to challenge one’s own assumptions. Why engage if I can simply dismiss a problem as being caused by nefarious actors outside of my control? 

The problem we face in the PA community is that the administrative state cannot function as intended if facts become mere personal opinions without broad acceptance. The basic tenet of social equity, and the specifics of due process, demand a factual foundation from which to operate. Return, for example, to the issue of elections. This basic mechanism of democracy is undermined when citizens lose trust in the ability of governments to run free and fair elections. Yes, the evidence shows voter fraud rarely occurs. However, the lack of real fraud is irrelevant if citizens are willing to embrace conspiracy theories suggesting that everyone’s vote is not of equal worth.   

So what can be done to combat conspiratorial thinking? First, those of us in the classroom have a duty to engage with diverse viewpoints, and to debunk conspiracy theories when they enter the popular discourse. However, we must be careful to debunk these theories without dismissing the legitimacy of those who perpetuate them. For example, it is possible to debunk President Trump’s claim that millions voted illegally in the 2016 presidential election without criticizing his presidency in general. Facts do not have an ideological preference.

Second, those of us working in government must pursue proactive transparency. Following the letter of open records and meetings laws is one thing. Taking the steps necessary to ensure that citizens know both the what and why behind government decision-making is another thing. Part of this is providing key information free of jargon in multiple formats so that it is understandable to as many people as possible. Part of this is meeting people where they are at, i.e. holding meetings in a variety of formats at different times in the community. Part of this is using technology to find new and innovative ways to communicate and visualize information. Overall, a proactive transparency is one that minimizes the chance of a citizen not being exposed to key information.

Third, the administrative state must embrace an inclusive accountability that involves diverse constituencies in setting government expectations and addressing failures to meet expectations. At the local level this can include representative advisory boards and commissions, as well as formal associations with neighborhood groups. On a process level, the use of inclusive accountability statements tied to government actions can force managers and policymakers to formalize how citizens can hold their government accountable for a specific action or policy.

There have always been, and always will be, individuals that embrace conspiracy theories. Though it is beyond the power of us in PA to stop conspiratorial thinking, we can take active measures to keep such thinking on the margins. Doing so is essential for an equitable and effective administrative state.     

Author: Michael R. Ford is an assistant professor of public administration at the University of Wisconsin – Oshkosh, where he teaches graduate courses in budgeting and research methods. He frequently publishes on the topics of public and nonprofit board governance, accountability and school choice. He currently serves as the president of the Midwest Public Affairs Conference.

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