Only hours after multimillionaire Jeffrey Epstein’s death, people were questioning the suicide: how did it happen? Were the guards watching him? Where is the evidence?
These unanswered questions led to a slew of conspiracy theories, from blaming the Clintons for being involved in his death to claiming he’s still alive.
“People make conspiracy theories about pretty much anything,” University of Miami Political Science Professor Joe Uscinski says. “And a bigger an event is in the news, the more conspiracy theories there’s going to be about it.”
Uscinski said the key ingredient in a conspiracy theory that gains traction is a story with widespread interest. Conspiracy theories allow people to accept what they want to believe, even if it means disregarding evidence.
“People tend to pick out information that conforms with what they believe, and they ignore all the other information,” Uscinski says. “What it means is people are tending to ignore the more simpler explanations and ignoring all the information that would sort of contradict their cherished conspiracy theories.”
Those people who thought Epstein was dead blamed famous politicians on Twitter, using hashtags like #TrumpBodyCount and #ClintonBodyCount. Those who believed he was alive started hashtags like #EpsteinBodyDouble to discuss their theories.
“People have a world view about something, and they grasp at anything that makes their world view right; it’s confirmation bias,” Metropolitan State University of Denver Associate Dean Rebecca Trammell explains.
Confirmation bias is the tendency to search for, interpret, and favor information that affirms your prior beliefs or thoughts.
“Now, there’s so much info at your fingertips that’s not being legitimated on any level, it’s not being vetted,” Trammell says. “That has probably led to the polarization where people dig into their belief systems and don’t want to give it up.”
Uscinski said history shows otherwise.
“I can give you one really good counter example. It only took a few months for a majority of the country to believe John F. Kennedy was killed by a conspiracy theory and that number was as high as 80 percent of Americans for decades,” he says. “In fact, when the internet came up, that’s about the time JFK conspiracies started coming down.”
The bottom line is, both experts said people will identify with others who think the way they do. The more a topic is discussed and the more questions that are left unanswered, the more room left for conspiracy theories.
“People believe in conspiracy theories about pretty much everything and they’ve been doing so as far as history can tell. You don’t need a social media to do it. You don’t need an internet for it to happen,” Uscinski says. “People have been doing this forever.”