Dilemmas of Distrust: Conspiracy Beliefs, Elite Rhetoric, and Motivated Reasoning

Published date01 December 2022
Date01 December 2022
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
© 2021 University of Utah
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/10659129211034558
Conspiracy theories have become more prominent in
world politics in recent years, as widespread distrust
among the public has been met with rhetoric from oppor-
tunistic politicians (Mounk 2018; Wodak 2015). As a
mode of political discourse, conspiracy theories appear to
provide certain rhetorical advantages, as they cast doubt
on unflattering news, defame political adversaries, and
deflect blame—all while appealing to receptive audi-
ences. When political calculation meets public cynicism,
conspiratorial rhetoric may aid in agenda setting and the
construction of political coalitions (Yablokov 2018).
Yet leaders seeking to shape opinion or win support
through conspiracy theories face at least two major hur-
dles. First is the challenge that confronts any instance of
elite communication: the intended recipients of conspira-
torial messages possess preexisting knowledge and biases
that make them susceptible to some appeals and resistant
to others. The second is more specific to the cynical logic
of conspiracy: people prone to believe conspiracy theo-
ries also tend to be skeptical of official sources, inclining
them to discount information from authority figures.
Understanding the opportunities and limits of conspira-
cism in politics is critical, as conspiracy theories, when
wielded in the service of power, can weaken democratic
accountability and potentially incite people to violence
(Jolley and Paterson 2020; Rosenblum and Muirhead
This study analyzes how people regard conspiracy
claims from official sources in relation to their preexist-
ing biases. To isolate the effects of conspiratorial political
messaging, both as an exogenous contributor to beliefs
and as a rhetorical form distinct from other types of
claims, I conduct a survey experiment that employs an
original vignette describing a suspicious scenario that
may or may not be a conspiracy. I randomly assign infor-
mation about the official interpretation of the event and
the actors involved to determine what factors cause
respondents to perceive a conspiracy. The design pro-
vides insights into how respondents weigh (dis)trust of
official sources against the perceived plausibility of the
The surveys were administered in two post-Soviet
states, Georgia and Kazakhstan, which lie within a region
1034558PRQXXX10.1177/10659129211034558Political Research QuarterlyRadnitz
1University of Washington, Seattle, USA
Corresponding Author:
Scott Radnitz, Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies,
University of Washington, Thomson Hall, Box 353650, Seattle, WA,
98115, USA.
Email: srad@uw.edu
Dilemmas of Distrust: Conspiracy Beliefs,
Elite Rhetoric, and Motivated Reasoning
Scott Radnitz1
Conspiracy theories are playing an increasingly prominent role worldwide in both political rhetoric and popular
belief. Previous research has emphasized the individual-level factors behind conspiracy belief but paid less attention
to the role of elite framing, while focusing mostly on domestic political contexts. This study assesses the relative
weight of official conspiracy claims and motivated biases in producing conspiracy beliefs, in two countries where
identities other than partisanship are salient: Georgia and Kazakhstan. I report the results of a survey experiment
that depicts a possible conspiracy and varies the content of official claims and relevant contextual details. The results
show that motivated reasoning stemming from state-level geopolitical identities is strongly associated with higher
conspiracy belief, whereas official claims have little effect on people’s perceptions of conspiracy. Respondents who
exhibit higher conspiracy ideation are more likely to perceive a conspiracy but do not weight motivated biases or
official claims differently from people with lower conspiratorial predispositions. The findings indicate the importance
of (geopolitical) identities in shaping conspiracy beliefs and highlight some of the constraints facing elites who seek to
benefit from the use of conspiracy claims.
conspiracy theories, motivated reasoning, geopolitics, post-Soviet, framing, identity
2022, Vol. 75(4) 1143–1157

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