Conspiracy theories are present in politics everywhere, but they do not bode well for politics anywhere. Beliefs that political outcomes are controlled by hidden forces acting contrary to the public good are inconsistent with transparency and political efficacy. Such narratives might be a symptom of failing political institutions, but their pervasiveness might also contribute to democratic failure by fostering polarization and mutual distrust.
How widespread is belief in conspiracy theories that are unsupported by verified facts? Who subscribes to these beliefs, and why? The Americas Barometer Venezuela survey in 2016-2017 included three items presenting conspiracies that were circulating widely in the Venezuelan media at that time and asked respondents to indicate whether they agreed with each. Two of the narratives, on a coordinated campaign of economic warfare and on a CIA plot to assassinate Hugo Chavez using nanotechnology, were designed to appeal to Chavistas. A third narrative, on a supposed cabal within the Venezuelan military to supplant President Maduro, was targeted toward government opponents.
Conspiratorial beliefs are widespread in Venezuela. 54 percent of respondents agreed with at least one of the narratives. The factor most strongly correlated with belief in any particular conspiracy theory is a respondent’s political leanings. Chavistas embrace the economic warfare and nanotechnology stories. Opposition loyalists embrace the idea that the military might soon turn on Maduro.
Yet political loyalties are not the whole story. Most Venezuelans supported neither the government nor the opposition (at least at the time the survey was fielded), yet many of the ni-nis embraced conspiracies, and often more than one. And if partisanship pulls a person toward one narrative – say, that demonizes the opposition – it will also pull a person away from competing narratives – for example, that portray the government in a negative light. Other factors exert the same directional pull regardless of the partisan slant of the conspiracy. Education is one such factor. The greater one’s education, the less belief in unsupported conspiracy narratives. This is heartening insofar as education appears to encourage fact-based reasoning.
There are also psychological dispositions that push respondents toward conspiracism regardless of political sympathies. One is Manicheanism, the tendency to see politics as a struggle between good and evil. Another is fatalism, the sense that one has little control over important outcomes in life. A third is belief in supernatural forces like ghosts or curses. These predispositions are present among all political groups and each is associated with more affinity for unsupported conspiracies. The correlations are not as strong as those for party loyalty, but they all push in the same direction whereas partisan ties do not.
The Venezuelan case challenges conventional wisdom on conspiracism in important ways. Some scholars have posited that political conservatism is especially amenable to conspiratorial beliefs on the grounds that conservatives prize cognitive closure more than progressives. Yet in Venezuela, conspiracism is more prevalent on the left than the right. Elsewhere, conspiracy beliefs tend to be the domain of the disempowered – those outside of government. In Venezuela, by contrast, the government is the primary manufacturer and disseminator of conspiracies.
Not all conspiratorial beliefs are misguided. Some conspiracies turn out to be real. Yet the narratives discussed in this article refer to secret plots for which verifiable evidence has not been produced. The article’s skepticism toward conspiratorial politics reflects a preference for political discourse based on facts that can be confirmed.
It is often suggested that we are entering a postfactual era in politics—and not just in Venezuela. The operating premise of this research is that we should make every possible effort to resist such a transition, and that the first step toward resisting conspiratorial politics is to understand its sources.
Full LARR article can be found here.
How to Cite: Carey, J. M. (2019). Who Believes in Conspiracy Theories in Venezuela?. Latin American Research Review, 54(2), 444–457. DOI: http://doi.org/10.25222/larr.88
Cover picture found here.