Interestingly, this claim is similar in its narrative structure to Trump’s recent allegations that the upcoming election may be rigged — a claim he made as Hillary Clinton increased her lead in the polls.
What lies behind such claims? Why do so many people think they ring true?
The common factor is the idea of cui bono, a Latin phrase asking, “Who benefits”? The logic works this way: An unexpected and shocking event occurs (a bomb goes off, a politician is killed in a traffic accident, damning emails are leaked). Someone prominent appears to gain from the event (a boost in popularity, a cash windfall) or uses it as a pretext to take an action they were probably intending to take anyway (arresting opponents, invading a country). Therefore, the logic goes, the beneficiary must have caused or had a hand in instigating the event that enabled their action. The why is evident for all who care to see. All we need to do is fill in the blanks for how.
Skill at imagining links may have been an evolutionary advantage
It turns out this is easy. Sociobiological theory has it that humans are predisposed to make these kinds of connections. The argument is that in the early days of humankind, potential threats were all around. That meant there was a genetic advantage to assuming a rustle in the bushes was a threat — a tiger or a rival hunter, say. Quickly taking action meant you were more likely to survive and pass on your genes.
With that evolutionary history, we are designed to quickly infer a connection between a threat (a tiger, Putin) and the outcome (a rustle in the bushes, helping Trump) — simply because they could be related.
We are more inclined to believe conspiracy theories that fit our ideas about the world
But that’s not sufficient to account for why some people jump to specific conclusions. What helps is if you already distrust the purported mastermind. In research I did with Patrick Underwood, testing people’s reactions to a fictional vignette about a tragic accident, we found that liberals were more likely to believe the scenario was a conspiracy if a corporation was the perpetrator than if the government was. Interestingly, conservatives were not more likely react the opposite way.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that people are prone to think the worst of people they dislike — in ways that sometimes jump far beyond what the facts show.
It is no coincidence that Republicans were more likely to believe in the Benghazi conspiracy theory, while Democrats were more likely to think President Bush instigated the 9/11 attacks as a pretext to invade Iraq.
More recently, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey has been accused of manufacturing a failed coup plot — because he so quickly exploited it to purge political enemies. Meanwhile, Erdogan accused his rival Fethullah Gulen of masterminding the coup — with American backing — also without producing evidence. Anecdotal evidence suggests most Turks agree with this claim.
Conspiracy theories help unite potential allies against an enemy
In post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan, my research shows, a group of unpopular political leaders tried to build public support by blaming instability and ethnic violence on a disliked minority group and the disgraced ousted president — even though there was no evidence and the alliance was implausible. Yet this version of events was widely believed.
Putin himself has often claimed that his opposition works with the United States to destabilize Russia. Those accusations have helped him consolidate support among ordinary Russians.
For Trump’s detractors, the claim that he’s a “Siberian candidate” fits this psychologically satisfying template. Of course, evidence may turn up proving that Trump is a Kremlin stooge — or, for that matter, that any of the claims above are true.
But it’s important to recognize that such beliefs and the arguments to support them come from our “inner lawyer,” a mechanism designed to reach the desired conclusion. It’s not an objective search for the truth.
Scott Radnitz is associate professor in the Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington. He is writing a book about post-Soviet conspiracy theories.