An Informational Theory of Political Conspiracies

Under what conditions do self-serving political elites  choose to promote conspiracy theories?  We build on existing insights, which maintain that conspiracies promote withdrawal and skepticism among voters, to argue that conspiracy-pandering is one strategy for altering the information environment of the public.  We build a formal model in which elites push conspiracy theories when evidence on a policy issue goes against them such as during a political scandal.  We characterize the `conspiracy trade-off' faced by conspiracy-panderers: immobilizing voters through conspiracies locks in the status quo and thereby prevents the public from enacting policy change the elite dislikes but it also undermines future policy changes the elite may like.  We draw on a number of illustrations from conspiratorial discourse pushed by the Kremlin on Western media markets and from the informational environment in ``diminished’’ democracies to demonstrate how our argument explains variation in the occurrence and intensity of conspiracy-pandering.

- with Thomas Braeuninger

Under review: available from SSRN at http://ssrn.com/abstract=3555458