False beliefs about the invasion of Iraq and President Barack Obama’s citizenship still flourish among Americans, according to the most recent national survey from Fairleigh Dickinson University’s PublicMind.
According to the poll, more than four-in-ten Americans say it is likely that U.S. forces found active weapons of mass destruction program in Iraq after the 2003 invasion, and nearly a fifth say that Obama “probably” or “definitely” is not a citizen of the United States. Beliefs like these are strongly connected with partisanship and media choices, with Republicans and Fox News viewers being more likely to endorse them, but conspiracies thrive elsewhere, as well: twenty percent of non-white Americans, for instance, think that the Secret Service is intentionally leaving Obama unprotected.
“Our leaders in Washington can’t seem to agree on much,” said Dan Cassino, a professor of political science and the director of experimental research for the poll. “But when the public can’t even agree on basic facts about politics, maybe we shouldn’t be surprised.”
Overall, 42 percent of Americans believe that U.S. forces found active weapons of mass destruction program in Iraq. Republicans are more likely to hold this belief than Democrats: fifty-one percent of Republicans think it’s “probably” or “definitely” true that an active program was found after the 2003 invasion, with 14 percent saying that it was definitely true. Still, large portions of other groups think that the WMD program, a major part of the justification for the invasion, was actually found, including 32 percent of Democrats. Part of the confusion may come from reports that individual chemical weapons shells, and related items have been found in Iraq, mostly thought to be vestiges of a WMD program shut down after the U.S.-led invasion in 1991.
“People who think we did the right thing in invading Iraq seem to be revising their memories to retroactively justify the invasion,” said Cassino. “This sort of motivated reasoning is pretty common: when people want to believe something, they’ll twist the facts to fit it.”
The major split in these views seems to arise from partisanship, and the broadcast media divide on the issue bears this out. Respondents were asked about which news sources, in particular, they get their news from, as well as which television news they consider to be their primary source of information. Individuals who reported getting their news from Fox were more likely to say that the WMD program had been found, with 52 percent saying that it was “probably” or “definitely” true, and those who get their news from MSNBC were the least likely, with only 14 percent saying the same.
“It’s easier for people to maintain false beliefs when they avoid media sources that might refute them,” said Cassino. “So it’s no surprise that people who watch ideological media are better able to hold on to these sorts of beliefs.”
Another commonly held false political belief concerns the president. Despite six years in office, and the release of his long-form birth certificate, 19 percent of Americans say that it’s “definitely” or “probably” true that President Barack Obama is not legally a citizen of the United States. This belief is most prevalent among the president’s opponents: 34 percent of Republicans think it’s likely, along with 22 percent of independents, and just seven percent of Democrats.
Media choices seem to play a role in this belief, as well. Thirty percent of Fox News viewers say that Obama is “probably” or “definitely” not a citizen, and another nine percent say that they do not know. In comparison, only 13 percent of CNN viewers, and seven percent of MSNBC viewers say the same. Individuals who say that their main source of news consists of political satire programs, like The Daily Show and Last Week Tonight, are least likely to think Obama isn’t a citizen, with only 11 percent saying so, compared with 24 percent who primarily rely on cable or network broadcasts. In a prior survey, in December 2012, 36 percent of Americans, and 64 percent of Republicans, agreed with the broader statement that “President Obama is hiding important information about his background and early life.”
“Birtherism has become less of a hot topic since Obama’s reelection, but that doesn’t mean that it’s gone away,” said Cassino. “It seems that there’s literally nothing that can be done to convince skeptics that Obama really was born in Hawaii.”
Higher levels of political knowledge tend to reduce the likelihood that Americans will endorse these false beliefs. To measure how much attention respondents are paying to current events, the survey asked three questions about the government: Which party currently controls the House of Representatives? What are the three branches of government? Name the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. All told, one third of respondents were unable to answer any of the questions correctly, 26 percent got one right, 27 percent got two right, and just 13 percent correctly answered all three. On the questions of Obama’s citizenship and WMD in Iraq, higher levels of political knowledge correspond with lower levels of belief. Of those who were unable to answer any of the questions correctly, 21 percent say that Obama is “definitely” or “probably” not a citizen, and 46 percent say that a WMD program was found in Iraq. Among the smaller group that answered all of the questions correctly, these figures fall to 13 and 20 percent, respectively.
“It’s tempting to believe that people have these beliefs because they just don’t know better,” said Cassino. “But statements like these are about what people want to believe, and no amount of education is going to trump that.”
Not all conspiracy theories and false beliefs come from the right side of the political spectrum. Just 13 percent of Americans think that the recent lapses on the part of the Secret Service are part of an intentional plot to leave the president unprotected, but 20 percent of non-whites think it’s “probably” or “definitely” true. This belief doesn’t seem to be related to television media choices, but Democrats are more likely to endorse it than Republicans, largely because non-whites are disproportionately Democratic.
“African-Americans are more likely to believe that in governmental conspiracies in general,” said Cassino. “However, given the past assassinations of civil rights leaders, and medical experimentations carried out by the government on African-Americans, it’s understandable.”
Fairleigh Dickinson University conducted the poll of 964 by telephone with both landline and cell phones from December 8 through December 15, 2014. The poll has a margin of error of +/- three percentage points.