Interview #16 with Levi Littvay: Conspiracies, Fake News and Populism

In this interview POP investigates the connection between populism and conspiracy theories. It was written during the first weeks of the conflict in Budapest between academic freedom, liberalism, and democracy on the one hand, and repression, authoritarianism, and (veiled ?) Antisemitism on the other hand. The Central European University had to start a fight for its own survival as well as for the principle of academic freedom, while the European institutions and the other member countries mainly observed, powerless. This interview is about populism and conspiracy theories, and it can be read also in the light of the shameful events that are affecting the Central European University, where Levente Littvay is Associate Professor of Political Science.

Maybe, after having read the interview it will be clearer how a populist leader can motivate his decision to close down an independent University.

1) How did you get the idea that conspiracy theories and populism might share a similar worldview? What are the contact points between the two phenomena?

I actually became interested in conspiracy theories long before I considered studying populism. It was a conversation with Kirk Hawkins (who now leads Team Populism, where I am also enlisted as an officer, organizer or shepherd – we haven’t really decided on the correct term but Team Leader is too boring for this crazy fun project, we should at least use Star Trek ranks). He suggested that since we are starting to explore populist tendencies on the individual level, we could look at the relationship with conspiratorial world view. And since we had data, we figured, why not.

The relationship is quite clear, maybe too clear. One of the key components of populism is anti-elitism and conspiracies are most often anti-elitists by definition.

2) Could you provide some examples of conspiracy theories propagated by populist actors?

I would prefer not to. I work hard on not spreading crazy ideas. It is an important ethical consideration. I have seen experimental studies where the treatment is exposing someone to a new conspiracy. Now, imagine, that you debrief the participant that the conspiracy we just fed you is not true. But is it? Were the researchers lying then or are they lying now? Who knows? Granted the example I have in mind is one where the researchers claim there is something horrible in Red Bull. Hardly a conspiracy, more a statement of well-known fact. Just read the ingredients. But still. (There are other instances and they make me very uncomfortable.)

We measure conspiratorial attitudes with very general measures. This is important for two reasons. First, what if someone would totally believe a conspiracy but it is the first time they hear of it and it is outlandish. On a questionnaire, they will respond that they don’t believe it, but if they just thought about it for 10-15 minutes, maybe they would believe it. So, unfamiliarity with a specific conspiracy biases the results as some people are more familiar with these conspiracies than others. (Of course, that is also correlated with how conspiratorial they are, but still there is a bias.) Secondly, and this goes back to the previous point, maybe you ask about a conspiracy someone hasn’t heard of. So they start to think. They search and it is entirely possible that you, as the researcher, just converted someone by asking a question about a conspiracy out there they haven’t heard about. That is simply not OK, it is not ethical behavior for researchers.

To overcome both of these issues we use questions like “a lot of important information is deliberately concealed from the public out of self-interest” and “a small, secret group of people is responsible for making all major world decisions, such as going to war”.

Not to wonder way off topic, but the measurement of populist attitudes is also an interesting story. First efforts were taken by Kirk Hawkins and his team, and a subsequent Akkerman and colleagues article received a lot of attention. These were the first efforts to move the research agenda from the party or elite level to the individual level. It was quite radical proposition at the time but now, just a few years later, it is generally accepted in the literature so broadly that the Comparative Study of Election Systems has added populism items to their new module.

Hawkins et al. and Akkerman et al. both did an excellent job compared to what we used to in political science, people writing one question and being done with it. But I was inspired by the cited conspiracy article, which approaches scale development more from the psychological point of view, with hopes to validate the populist theories on the dimensionality of populism on the attitude level and with hopes of creating cross-culturally valid scale, Bruno Castanho Silva and I built a team which allowed us develop over 150 survey items broadly taking all conceptions of populism (acquired from populism experts in Team Populism and then testing these in two phases on 18 samples from 14 countries. Take a look at our memo on the results.

But I don’t want to fully dodge your question. So, let’s just go back several decades (so it is more history than current events) to that one populist every journalist always wants to compare current populists to (a comparison I always firmly reject) and think of the claim that the financial sector filled with a certain ethnic or religious group are conspiring for world domination. Maybe we don’t even need to go back that far. This conspiracy never really went away (and it really should).

3) Accusing the global cultural and economic elites of controlling information might be an appealing move and gain consensus to the populist cause. However, how can a populist actor increase his or her own credibility by diffusing fake news and conspiracy theories?

We haven’t looked into what makes these actors credible. Populist groups usually emerge as outsiders of the political elite and they portrait themselves as people ready to overthrow the conspiring elites. There is quite a bit of work on how these new political elites remain in power after they become the elite. One possibility is a continued search for the enemy. We see this in Hungary. The Fidesz government is hardly a political outsider close to 30 years after communism ended. They were in the first parliament and already running the country by 1998. Today they won all their battles, they destroyed their opposition, no trace of communists left anywhere (any more than within their own ranks), they even annihilated their own political allies. Then came foreign multinationals, refugees, the EU elites, now it is civil society, Central European University and George Soros along with whatever global elite he belongs to running the world.

4) Is it more correct to claim that believing in conspiracy theories is a consequence of a populist worldview or rather the other way around?

The short answer is that I don’t know, but a colleague, Bruno Castanho Silva and I are thinking hard about figuring this out. I can let your readers in a bit more. When we observe correlation, it is instinctual for anyone in our field to ask this (or, at least, a closely related) question about the mechanism underlying the correlation. But you only cite two possible explanations for correlations. There are several more. The causality can be bi-directional (or to use a structural equation modeling term, non-recursive). The relationship can also be spurious where no real relationship exists, rather a simultaneous cause of both constructs (populism and conspiracy attitudes) drive the co-variation. Finally, and we have some evidence for this, it is possible that when measuring these constructs, we actually tap the same underlying phenomenon. The problem with these theories that they are extremely hard to support and I would never believe a claim unless it was supported from multiple independent and preferably methodologically diverse sources of evidence.

grillo vaccini

The Guardian reported in March 2017 about the responsibilities of the populist party Five Star Movement in spreading anti-vaccinations conspiracy theories.

5) In Italy, the populist party Movimento Cinque Stelle constantly promotes conspiracy theories such as chemtrails or under-skin microchips to control the population, while at the same time accusing the mainstream media to be the first fabricators of fake news and proposing a popular tribunal to establish what is true and what is not. What is the role of the web in diffusing hoaxes and wrong information, and why populist parties seem more prone to spread fake information than mainstream parties?

Federico Vegetti and I had a few discussions about this. The internet is a great tool for people to find communities where they feel welcome, no matter what crazy shit they sell. Before, you had zero chance of finding like minded people who will treat you as anything but nuts. Today, this is no issue. And once people receive positive reinforcement, it is easier to keep believing their objectively crazy ideas. Federico also thinks that all of this comes down to trust. People will believe the source who they trust, so if they trust the Five Star Movement, they will believe the conspiracies and will not believe the media. We have seen similar phenomenon with Trump’s election. At least in these places there is still an independent media. Looking at some populist countries, it could be worse.

6) In the post-truth era information is available online without any filter and it seems less and less relevant to check whether the facts reported are true or not. In other words, objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief. Do you think this might constitute an advantage for populist parties, and is this process somehow reversible?

Again, if Federico is correct, it comes down to trust. My problem with this explanation is quite personal. If I have to read one more mediocre paper on trust (especially using these cross-country surveys using multilevel modeling on 17-23 countries) I will likely give up on political science once and for all. I have developed a serious aversion to studies on trust. This said, if someone, finally would do it right, maybe I would come around. I am just not the best conversation partner about it in the meantime.

This said, the most exciting part of the populist research agenda is the study of mitigating consequences. Initial conversations about this took us in the direction of reconciliation of divided societies. Unfortunately, populism also polarizes. But now we are exploring other avenues of how to mitigate the negative consequences of populism. I believe experimental approaches hold quite a bit of promise and Team Populism’s conference this year will mostly revolve around experimental studies of populism. Needless to say, anyone interested in populism, especially experimental studies of populism should join us in Dubrovnik closely after ECPR (so overseas colleagues would not have to hop the pond twice).



Prof. Littvay

Levente (Levi) Littvay is Associate Professor of Political Science at Central European University, Budapest Hungary. He has taught numerous research methods workshops and is one of the Academic Conveners of the European Consortium for Political Research Methods Schools. He has publications in numerous journals, including The Journal of Politics, Political Psychology, Politics and Gender, Social Science Quarterly, Journal of Theoretical Politics, Behavior Genetics and along with several other medical research journals in Twin Research and Human Genetics where he is Associate Editor for Social Sciences.

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