Conspiracy theories are dangerous even if very few people believe them

by Keith Raymond Harris

There is an open question among pundits and researchers: Do more Americans believe in conspiracy theories now than ever before?

But as a scholar of conspiracy theories and their believers, I am concerned that focusing on how many Americans believe conspiracy theories can distract from their dangers.

Even if most people dismiss conspiracy theories or accept them only in some limited sense, leaving very small numbers of true believers, the high visibility of these false ideas can still make them dangerous.

Association Without Belief

Philosophers often suppose people can explain their actions in terms of what they want to do or get, and what they believe. However, many of people’s actions are guided not by explicit beliefs but rather by gut feelings. These feelings aren’t set in stone. They can be influenced by experience.

This principle is taken to heart by advertisers who aim to influence behavior, not by changing how people think but how they feel. Manipulating feelings in this way can be accomplished by subtly associating a product with desirable outcomes like status and sex.

This can also take a negative form, as in political attack ads that aim to associate an opponent with threatening imagery and descriptions. Forging similar mental associations is one way in which conspiracy theories, like other misinformation, might have consequences even without being believed.

One of the earliest political attack ads, placed by Lyndon Johnson in 1964, never even mentions its target’s name.

Some Examples

Consider conspiracy theories alleging that the 2020 U.S. presidential election was rigged. Some people no doubt believe that. But even if people don’t buy the whole lie, they may still believe that something about the 2020 election doesn’t “feel right,” “seem right” or “smell right.” They might, therefore, be more inclined to support efforts politicians claim will protect election integrity—even if such efforts result in targeted voter suppression.

Next, consider anti-vaccination conspiracy theories. Anti-vaccination content, whether about vaccines in general or specifically about the Covid-19 vaccines, often takes the form of pictures and videos purporting to illustrate disturbing side effects of vaccines. Material of this sort can proliferate rapidly across social media and, by relying on disturbing imagery rather than explicit false claims, can often escape moderation.

Exposure to anti-vaccination information might give readers or viewers a vague feeling of unease, and consequent hesitancy concerning vaccines, even without producing explicit anti-vaccination beliefs. In fact, previous studies have shown that people who tend to rely on their intuition and who have negative emotions toward vaccines are more likely to refuse vaccination. While that research involved other vaccines, it’s likely that similar factors help explain why many Americans have gone without full Covid-19 vaccination, and most have gone without boosters.

Pretense and Coordination

Scholars often suggest that many people merely pretend to believe in conspiracy theories and other forms of misinformation as a way of expressing their political loyalties. But even pretense can be costly. Consider an analogy.

When a child declares that “the floor is lava,” few if any believe the declaration. But that child, and others, begin to act as if the declaration were true. Those who do may clamber onto furniture, and repeat the declaration to others who enter the space. Some children play just for fun, some play to show off their climbing and jumping skills, and some play to appease the child who initiated the game.

Some kids quickly tire of the game and wish to stop playing, but like or respect the child who initiated the game, and don’t want to upset that person by stopping. As the game progresses, some take it too seriously. Furniture is damaged, and some get injured while attempting to leap from one raised surface to another. The lava is fake, but real things get broken.

More seriously, when Donald Trump claimed that the 2020 presidential election was “rigged,” some officials and ordinary citizens acted accordingly. Whether out of sincere belief, partisanship, loyalty to Trump or financial opportunism, many Americans behaved as if the 2020 election was unfairly decided.

Some people acting as if the election conspiracy theory were true assembled in Washington, D.C., some stormed the Capitol building and, behind the scenes, some developed a scheme to submit fake slates of electors supporting Trump’s reelection despite his loss at the ballot box. The people involved in these activities could count on the support of others who endorsed the rigged election claim, even if these endorsements were largely insincere.

The Price of Pretending

The costs of acting as if the 2020 election were rigged are no doubt greater than those for acting as if the floor is lava. The costs of acting as if the 2020 election were rigged led to millions of dollars worth of damage to the Capitol building, led to hundreds of arrests for Capitol rioters, led to multiple deaths and imperiled American democracy.

Given the severe risks involved, it’s worth wondering why people who did not sincerely believe the election was unfair would risk pretending. This question highlights the unique danger of conspiracy theories endorsed by those in power: There can be much to gain from pretending to believe them.

Keith Raymond Harris is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Philosophy at Ruhr University, Bochum, Germany. This article is published under a Creative Commons license.


The Foundry Place Garage is rarely full when used for its originally-intended purpose, i.e., the temporary storage of silent, unoccupied automobiles. The evening of September 10th, however, showed that the structure could serve as a lively, exciting venue unto itself. Scores, if not hundreds, of car owners showed up, having left their mufflers at home, cruising from floor to floor, revving their engines so that others might enjoy the high-decibel cacophony, as seen online at


While Fighting Workers, Railroads Made Over $10 Billion in Stock Buybacks

by Kenny Stancil

At the same time they have fought to deny sick days and other vital benefits to workers in the freight industry, rail carrier executives have been rewarding shareholders with billions of dollars in stock buybacks and dividend bumps.

According to Railroad Operators: Bad for Workers, Good for Investors, a collection of data compiled by the Groundwork Collaborative and shared with Common Dreams on Monday, a handful of major rail companies reported more than $10 billion in buybacks and dividends over the first six months of 2022. Meanwhile, workers who try to visit a doctor amid a global pandemic continue to be disciplined, leading to higher staff turnover and soaring injury rates.

“Our research shows just how far railroad executives will go to funnel record profits to their shareholders—even if that means stagnant wages, inhumane attendance policies, and throwing our supply chain into further turmoil,” Mike Mitchell, director of policy and research at Groundwork Collaborative, told Common Dreams.

Groundwork’s analysis—based on recent corporate earnings calls from Union Pacific, CSX, Canadian National Railway, and Norfolk Southern—sheds new light on the dynamics underlying rail workers’ ongoing fight for more safety and dignity in the workplace.

When it comes to shoveling more money to investors, Groundwork found that Union Pacific is leading the pack in 2022. Rather than using billions of dollars in revenue to improve pay and job conditions, Union Pacific gave $5 billion to shareholders through buybacks and dividends in the first six months of this year alone.

Other giants in the industry aren’t far behind. CSX, for instance, funneled nearly $3 billion in buybacks and dividends to investors from January through June, while Canadian National Railway reported $2.3 billion in stock buybacks during the same time period, Groundwork noted.

Although exact figures weren’t disclosed, Norfolk Southern’s chief financial officer Mark George said on a July call that “shareholder distributions are up and you’ll observe here the 19 percent higher dividend payments through six months on top of continued strong share repurchase activity.”

Railroads have been enjoying record profits after decades of deregulation, consolidation, and “just-in-time” practices known as “precision railroad scheduling” transformed the industry into what Sarah Miller, executive director of the American Economic Liberties Project, describes as “another monopolized cash cow for Wall Street.”

The safety of workers and communities, meanwhile, has been put in jeopardy by executives who have fired workers and increased hours, critics argue.

As Groundwork’s new analysis points out, Union Pacific chief executive officer Lance Fritz told investors on a July call that the company had cut staff by a third since 2018 and said, “We’ve got to do some other unique and creative things with our labor unions in order to make our crews more available and more productive.”

After admitting that Union Pacific’s workforce “hasn’t seen a raise in 2.5 or three years,” Fritz praised the Presidential Emergency Board (PEB)—a panel of three arbitrators appointed by President Joe Biden earlier this summer in a bid to resolve heated contract negotiations between rail carriers and unions—and expressed hope that it would propose a “reasonable approach to wages.”

He also said that Union Pacific is prepared to make further staffing cuts during an economic downturn, asserting that conductor-less trains would be “better for the conductors’ quality of life.”

Like Fritz at Union Pacific, CSX chief executive officer James Foote told investors on a July call that workers at his company “are not happy that they didn’t get a raise for 2.5 years” and expressed hope that the PEB “puts out a recommendation that’s a win-win for both sides.”

CSX acknowledged that its injury rate in the second quarter “increased modestly from the near-record levels in the first quarter,” only for Foote to blame the company’s staffing challenges on what he described as pandemic-induced changes to “employees’ work and lifestyle preferences.”

“It’s been somewhat of a surprise to all of us, the number of people that have dropped out after, again, going through all of the classroom training, all of the on-the-job training, and then working a few months and deciding that they don’t like railroading as a profession,” said Foote, just moments after stagnant wages and unsafe conditions were discussed.

Mark George, the CFO of Norfolk Southern, meanwhile, also attributed high attrition rates to a so-called “lifestyle challenge” occurring “in a very unique [labor] market where everybody is looking for talent.”

He did go on to acknowledge, however, that “despite the very rich and attractive pay structure that the railroads offer, sometimes, [people would] rather work in a more predictable schedule in warehousing or in home construction, where they can be nearby where they live and not stay in hotels and also just not be on call.”

Norfolk Southern’s chief operating officer Cindy Sanborn said that the company is looking into “sign-on and attendance bonuses, retirement deferral, and referral incentive[s]” to boost hiring and retention, but she didn’t say anything about workers’ fundamental demands for sick days, paid leave, and other basic benefits revolving around better “quality of life.”

Last week, labor lawyer Jenny Hunter and Terri Gerstein, director of the State and Local Enforcement Project at Harvard Law School’s Labor and Worklife Program, argued in Slate that railroad companies nearly inflicted an economic catastrophe on the U.S. because they chose profit-maximization over humane workplace policies.

As the pair wrote:

“It should not be controversial to say it, but: People should have sick leave so they do not have to come to work when they get sick. They should be able to take leave to attend doctors’ appointments or deal with family emergencies without risking their jobs. Workers should also have regular time off, not be on call almost every day of their lives. This strike or lockout was threatened because of the railroad companies’ refusal, right up until the last minute, to accept these basic human needs, and their willingness to bring an already weary country to the brink of yet another economic disaster, all in the name of ever more profits.

“The United States, unlike many countries, does not have a national law guaranteeing sick leave; if we did, the railroads’ attendance systems would be clearly illegal. The kind of point-based attendance systems that railroads employ can still be considered unlawful retaliation if workers lose points for taking leave that is legally protected, such as for absences guaranteed by the Family and Medical Leave Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, or state or local sick leave laws. Apart from questions of legality, it is grossly irresponsible to punish people for unexpected illnesses ever, and especially during a pandemic.”

A nationwide strike or lockout was at least temporarily averted last Thursday when the Biden White House announced a tentative agreement between rail carriers and unions that would enable workers to take days off for medical care without being punished, though just one of those days would be paid.

As a pair of unions representing tens of thousands of rail workers has stressed, however, the proposed deal still must be approved by rank-and-file members in an upcoming ratification vote.

Had it not been for Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-Vt.) intervention last week, Senate Republicans may have succeeded in forcing rail workers to accept the PEB’s original proposal, which many workers found intolerable because it excluded the sick leave benefits they sought, among other shortcomings.

Mitchell, for his part, said Monday that “it’s time for these railroad companies to start prioritizing the safety and well-being of their workers—or we’ll all pay the price.”

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A string of tank cars loaded with liquified petroleum gas, down at the Pan Am railyard next to the Foundry Place parking garage. Hereditary multimillionaire Timothy Mellon sold Pan Am to CSX on June 1st.

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