Anti-vaxxers and pro-Russia conspiracy theorists are both driven first of all by attitude Lorenzo Gagliardi The Skeptic

As war is raging in Ukraine, it seems that many conspiracy theorists, fuelled by disinformation campaigns plotted by the Russian government, have shifted their attention from the pandemic towards the war front. The pro-Russia disinformation campaigns are primarily focusing on whitewashing, defending and justifying Russian attacks on Ukraine – perhaps because explicitly denying war would be too much even for the most fervid conspiracy theories endorsers. Some of these false claims have gone so far as to suggest that Ukrainian victims are crisis actors and videos showing the atrocity of war are mostly staged. While Russian propaganda is nothing new and has certainly played a role in manipulating public opinion in recent history, we should focus more on the remote causes of such anomalistic beliefs, rather than the proximate causes.

Conspiracy theories are powerful weapons for politicians, as they provide convincing narratives for discrediting and accusing their opposition parties, often employing anti-elite rhetoric. In fact, psychologists Roland Imhoff and Martin Bruder (2014) consider the “conspiracy mentality” as a generalised political attitude that leads believers to blame other groups of people for negative events. However, political utility of conspiracy theories is especially relevant for those politicians who operate in pseudo-regimes where censorship is a common thing and where conspiracy theories end up being the backbone of the whole national sentiment.

In recent history, Russian politics has used conspiracy theories in a Manichean way, usually depicting the Western world as evil, in an attempt to reinforce inner nationalism and to tackle internal social divides. Nevertheless, although it’s easy to understand how Russians’ perception of the war might have been misled by disinformation campaigns, it’s not equally easy to get why such propaganda sounds so convincing to Western people who previously endorsed other types of conspiracy theories such as those related to the pandemic. These overlapping beliefs suggest that there might be an underlying phenomenon that links Russian supporters to, say, COVID-19 deniers, to the point that some of these narratives are now intertwining. For example, see the Russian conspiracy theory about the secret US laboratories in Ukraine where USA would have developed SARS-CoV-2 as a bioweapon.

Conspiracy studies have confirmed that certain political attitudes make individuals more susceptible to misinformation – in particular,  political extremisms and anti-establishment attitudes. This should raise concerns for the health of modern democracies. Specifically, in a recent study by Kenzo Nera (2021), researchers proposed a useful distinction between upward conspiracy theories (i.e., conspiracies involving powerful groups of people, such as governments, or Big Pharma) and downward conspiracy theories (i.e., conspiracies involving relatively powerless minorities, such as the LGBT+ community, or migrants). Nera and his colleagues found that upward conspiracy theories are more correlated with attitudes that are at the extremes of the political compass – conversely, downward conspiracy theories are more associated with political conservatism.

Political scientist Joseph E. Uscinski and his colleagues (2021) went even further, finding a significant variable that relates to conspiracism, encompassing both political orientation and partisanship: anti-establishment attitudes. Conspiratorial thinking is often characterised by a conflictual dynamic between “us” and “them”, the good and powerless people who strive for the truth and the evil powerful elites who plot in the dark, so by definition, it has an anti-establishment flavor.

Now, it’s safe to say that war-related conspiracy theories are upward and Manichean: they blame Western governments and NATO for the Ukrainian humanitarian disaster. Consequently, we can argue that anti-vaxxers or COVID-19 deniers are Russian supporters not necessarily because they have been misinformed by Moscow’s campaigns, but rather because they share political attitudes that make them hold contrarian viewpoints about society. Such contrarianism is not fairly motivated by rational skepticism, but rather by ideological motives. In other words, such anomalistic beliefs do not occur in a vacuum, where people are easily indoctrinated by the wrong piece of information. Instead, such beliefs occur because people hold certain political attitudes, and disinformation is a means for spreading these ideas.

But why is it important not to overestimate the importance of disinformation campaigns? There are at least two reasons. Firstly, we run the risk of overlooking the real problem, which doesn’t come from the outside, but is deeply embedded in our countries: the emergence of populist parties, that too often sit on the far-right of the political spectrum, could be a sign that modern democracies are affected by an excess of susceptibility among the electorate. Secondly, Western endorsement of Russian conspiracy theories serves Moscow’s interest, as it exacerbates social divisions in our countries. The more our societies are politically sensitive to disinformation campaigns, the harder it is to stand united in times of global crisis.

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While disinformation is a powerful tool for spreading false ideas, anomalistic beliefs would not take hold if they didn’t already fit with the recipient’s ideology and attitude
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