Sometimes people say really dumb things during focus groups.
As a moderator for nearly 20 years, I’m used to it. The other night I was conducting a focus group following the Cleveland presidential debate, and a woman in Ohio claimed that Joe Biden is a socialist because “he socializes with the public better than Trump does.”
She was neither joking nor being ironic.
This was not as bad as my favorite, from years ago, when a member of a focus group declared that it was impossible that 20 million seniors relied on Social Security for most of their income, because there were only 21.5 million people—total—in the entire United States.
Comments like these don’t actually bother me. Anyone who has seen Jay Leno’s JayWalking routine knows that many of our fellow citizens are woefully uninformed about even the most basic subjects.
Now, being uninformed is bad. But being conspiratorial is worse.
And the kind of comments I’ve been hearing in focus groups for the past few weeks aren’t merely ignorant—they’re pernicious.
On Tuesday night, via Zoom, I interviewed 11 “Obama-Trump” voters across Ohio. It was the latest installment of my firm’s monthly Swing Voter Project. Over the course of three hours of conversations—90 minutes with six respondents, then another 90 with five others—I heard comments that nearly broke my poker face.
Without my inquiring about conspiracy theories or anything related, respondents offered these observations:
- “I came across a couple theories that [Biden] was wired up, and they showed some evidence [at] that debate. Also, somebody pointed out, possibly he was wearing contact lenses that were projecting things for him.”
- “I call it a ‘scam-demic’…. I know this firsthand. I have people in nursing homes. People are not dying from COVID, they’re dying with COVID. The numbers, and this is already starting to come out, have been fudged.”
- “Another factor, and I don’t know how much truth there is to this, but it’s something that plays in my head, is this whole child predator ring that’s going around in Hollywood and how [Trump’s] got information on it and he may expose it. That’s kind of important. I have a small child…. Here’s just one example: Celebrities will commit suicide, and then it turns out they’re working on documentaries about child predator rings.”
Two other respondents in that same session said they believed the child predator story, which is the root of the QAnon conspiracy theory.
I’d first heard a respondent mention Hollywood predators in passing on September 22 during another election-related focus group. A gentleman had been complaining that he could not get a fair shake, and then transitioned to what he wanted Trump to do as president: “The only thing Trump can do for me is go after these 45,000 indictments they have against some of these pedophiles.”
Prior to that moment, I’d never heard pedophiles referenced in a focus group. It was so out of context that at first I didn’t know what to make of it. Several minutes later I asked whether he was following QAnon on the internet. He replied, “You better believe it.” He then said a lot of people were making claims about this problem, and that “Hollywood is full of pedophiles.”
What I’m discovering in these focus groups is that when ordinary people espouse conspiracy theories, they are not shouting them from the rooftops, as in, “NOW I AM GOING TO SHARE SOME CONSPIRATORIAL THINKING WITH YOU!”
Instead, the conspiracy theories are woven into what sounds like an otherwise normal argument. The gentleman who thought Biden was wired for the debate and wearing special contact lenses was merely making the point he does not trust Biden. Yet rather than rely on rational argument—or even his own subjective appraisal of Biden’s character—he leaned on fiction.
That need to justify a subjective verdict of Biden by employing a fictional fact-set is interesting, and possibly new—at least in the mainstream of American politics.
In recent days, the mainstream media have been filled with stories that show how QAnon hijacked respectable organizations such as Save the Children, and how Joe Biden is being accused of hiding technology to help him secretly win the debate.
It’s not clear whether this blossoming of conspiracy theories is being caused by technology, with the disintermediation of gatekeepers, or if it’s the latest evolution of the paranoid style in American politics.
Whichever it is, it’s not good. A liberal democracy can endure a great many tensions between the people: different races, different religions, different political views. But cohesion exists only if, at the bedrock level, everyone shares the same reality.