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Polls show most Americans have accepted the legitimacy of the Biden administration. Polls also show that some Americans continue embracing conspiracy theories. The QAnon scams about how Donald Trump would remain president did not come true, but new theories have followed. Paranoid thinking is as old as this republic, but stories of conspiracy are now spreading more widely and more rapidly. NPR's Joel Rose reports, as part of our series on disinformation.
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Millions of people watched the moon landing live on TV in 1969.
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NEIL ARMSTRONG: That's one small step for man.
ROSE: Or did they?
BONNIE GARLAND: I personally do not believe that man has ever been out of the atmosphere. I don't believe that man can get out of the atmosphere.
ROSE: This is Bonnie Garland from Tucson, Ariz.
GARLAND: I'm a very inquisitive person, always have been. So I question everything.
ROSE: Garland also falsely believes the coronavirus is just another strain of the flu, and she does not believe that former President Barack Obama was born in the United States, even though he was.
GARLAND: I just always had a gut feeling that there was something not right about him.
ROSE: Garland is not alone. An NPR/Ipsos poll in December found that a significant number of Americans believe disinformation about the coronavirus and about settled historical facts. Nearly 1 in 10 respondents don't believe humans landed on the moon or that the September 11 attacks were carried out by al-Qaida terrorists. Even more falsely believe that mass shootings in recent years were staged hoaxes or that Obama was not born in the U.S. Chris Jackson is a pollster at Ipsos.
CHRIS JACKSON: There is certainly a bloc of people who are willing to believe conspiracies sort of across the board, even if it doesn't have any basis in reality or fact.
ROSE: While false conspiracy theories are not new, experts say their reach is spreading - accelerated by social media, encouraged by former President Trump and weaponized in a way that is unprecedented.
KATHRYN OLMSTED: It has been getting worse. Conspiracy theories have become more dangerous and more widespread just even in the last 10 years.
ROSE: Kathryn Olmsted teaches history at the University of California, Davis. She's written a book about anti-government conspiracy theories. She says they date all the way back to the founding of the country. Until recently, though, Olmsted says, it was harder for these ideas to gain traction. Take the people who trafficked in conspiracy theories about the assassination of John F. Kennedy in the 1960s.
OLMSTED: They had to work pretty hard to identify each other. They would put up flyers at the local library, or they'd write letters to the editor. And eventually, they had groups and newsletters, and they would have conferences. I mean, they did it, but it took a while.
ROSE: Eventually, their fringe ideas did break through to the mainstream, though not until decades later.
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DONALD SUTHERLAND: (As X) And it is the best indication of a massive plot in Dallas. Now, who could have best done this?
ROSE: Director Oliver Stone was widely criticized in the 1990s for amplifying these conspiracy theories in the movie "JFK," starring Donald Sutherland as a whistleblower and Kevin Costner as the DA who believes there was a cover-up.
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KEVIN COSTNER: (As Jim Garrison) Now, we're through the looking glass here, people. White is black, and black is white.
ROSE: These days, conspiracy theories are taking hold much faster.
JOAN DONOVAN: Social media tends to drive the fringe to the mainstream.
ROSE: Joan Donovan is a researcher at Harvard Kennedy's Shorenstein Center, where she studies how disinformation spreads online. Donovan says the Internet gives conspiracy theorists a place to connect, and social media gives them a way to quickly disseminate their ideas on a mass scale.
DONOVAN: There are so many conspiracy theories on the Internet. The scale is astounding. We've come to start to think about it as an attack on the supply chain of information because lies at that scale do displace truthful narratives.
ROSE: Donovan says the truth is under attack by disinformation peddlers trying to make money or shape a political narrative. And experts say the former president has given credibility to these false conspiracies on an unprecedented scale.
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DONALD TRUMP: This election was rigged, and the Supreme Court and other courts didn't want to do anything about it.
ROSE: For months, Trump and his allies have repeated the lie that the election was stolen, including yesterday in a speech to supporters. Polls indicate a lot of people have bought into this. In another Ipsos poll from January, 1 in 3 respondents falsely believed that voter fraud helped President Biden win the November election, and about a quarter of respondents believed other unfounded conspiracies - that electronic voting machines switched votes from Trump to Biden or that Democratic cities and counties falsified their vote totals. All of that, Donovan says, led to the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on January 6.
DONOVAN: What's dangerous is when people mobilize based on misinformation. It doesn't just put communities in danger; it puts law enforcement in danger as well.
ROSE: There are concerns about the potential for more violence on March 4. That's the day some followers of the baseless QAnon conspiracy hope that Trump will be inaugurated for a second term and vanquish the cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophile elites who secretly run the country. Almost 5,000 National Guard troops remain deployed at the U.S. Capitol as a precaution. Historian Kathryn Olmsted says this is the culmination of conspiracy theories and the people who believe them growing more extreme since the era of JFK.
OLMSTED: These conspiracy theories are becoming more all-encompassing, and they are encouraging more people to think that it is logical and necessary to use violence against their government because their government is controlled by a group of satanic pedophiles.
ROSE: So what can we do about this? Experts say social media platforms need to find better ways to counter disinformation. They also say the situation might improve somewhat after the pandemic, when Americans have more real-world interactions that can help debunk what they're reading online. But Olmsted says recent history is not encouraging. Consider the lie that Barack Obama was born outside the U.S.
OLMSTED: The birther conspiracy theory is depressing for people who study conspiracy theories because of the way that it proved impossible to debunk.
ROSE: Olmsted says, of course, there's no doubt Obama was born in Hawaii on August 4, 1961.
OLMSTED: There's the birth certificate. There's the birth announcements in the newspapers. There's eyewitness accounts. It's as documented as any historical fact.
ROSE: But for some people, all the evidence in the world will never be enough, which suggests that the current crop of conspiracy theories may be around for a long time to come.
Joel Rose, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF RARE'S "VOID") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.