American Government and Politics

The Paranoid Style and the Rise of Fake News in American Politics

Peter Francia East Carolina University
In 1964, Richard Hofstadter authored The Paranoid Style in American Politics. Fifty-five years later in an era now littered with “fake news” websites and conspiracy theories that can spread rapidly over the Internet, Hofstadter’s work warrants revisiting. In this paper, I draw on the concept of the “paranoid style,” but with a quantitative twist. Psychologists Allan Fenigstein and Peter Vanable (1992) developed a survey instrument to assess paranoid thought. Using data from a survey that combines the Fenigstein and Vanable paranoia instrument with questions about present-day political conspiracies and fake news stories, my research asks: Is there a relationship between paranoia and one’s willingness to accept or deny established political facts? I hypothesize that in today’s sometimes confusing information environment, paranoia plays a significant role in understanding why some Americans are more susceptible than others to believing misinformation popularized through fake news websites. The results confirm my expectations.