Abstract: Why do states promote conspiracy theories? Previous scholarship has largely focused on the demand for conspiracy theories in democratic settings, neglecting the role that conspiracy theories play in autocracies. We ask two questions about the supply of conspiracy theories in society. Are conspiracy theories prevalent because of local culture or is their supply influenced by political leaders and institutions? And if leaders and institutions matter, are state-promoted conspiracy theories best understood as messaging about elite fears and priorities, or as distraction to deflect criticism away from the regime? To answer these questions, we develop a model for detecting conspiracy theories in the Arabic-language text of Egyptian newspapers. We compare the supply of conspiracy theories in a state-owned Egyptian newspaper, al-Ahram, to an independent Egyptian newspaper, al-Masry al-Youm, between 2005 and 2015. We find evidence that institutions matter: the content and prevalence of conspiracy theories varies by newspaper and changes as state institutions change.
Bio: Richard Nielsen is an Associate Professor of Political Science at MIT. He completed his PhD (Government) and AM (Statistics) at Harvard University, and holds a BA from Brigham Young University. His book, Deadly Clerics (Cambridge University Press), uses statistical text analysis and fieldwork in Cairo mosques to understand the radicalization of jihadi clerics in the Arab world. Nielsen also writes on international law, the political economy of human rights, political violence, and political methodology. Some of this work is published or forthcoming in The American Journal of Political Science, International Studies Quarterly, Political Analysis, and Sociological Methods and Research. In 2017-2019 he is an Andrew Carnegie fellow, and his work has previously been supported by the National Science Foundation, the Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies, and the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.