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"People who think we did the right thing in invading Iraq seem to be revising their memories to retroactively justify the invasion," said Dan Cassino, director of experimental research for the poll. (Photo: David Wolf/cc/flickr)

Quarter of Americans and More Than Half of Republicans Still Believe Iraq WMD Myth

New survey exploring belief in political conspiracy theories makes strong connection between one's ideas and their media choices

Lauren McCauley

A majority of Republicans and over forty percent of Americans still hold the belief that American forces uncovered Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, according to a new poll released Wednesday.

Conducted by Fairleigh Dickinson University’s research center, PublicMind, the survey also questioned people on a number of popular conspiracy theories and found that the American public's beliefs regarding factual events is "strongly connected" to partisanship and media choices.

Overall, of the 964 adults who were sampled in the national phone survey, 42 percent said that it was "definitely" or "probably" true that American forces found an active weapons of mass destruction program in Iraq. This belief—which has been repeatedly refuted and was one of the primary justifications for the Iraq invasion—is still held by the majority of Republicans (51 percent) and roughly a third of Democrats (32 percent).

The survey was conducted at the end of 2014.

"People who think we did the right thing in invading Iraq seem to be revising their memories to retroactively justify the invasion," said Dan Cassino, a professor of political science and the director of experimental research for the poll. "This sort of motivated reasoning is pretty common: when people want to believe something, they’ll twist the facts to fit it."

When matched with respondents' primary news sources, the survey found that 52 percent of Fox News viewers believed the U.S. found WMDs in Iraq, compared with 41 percent of CNN viewers, 31 percent Daily Show viewers, and 14 percent who get most of their news from MSNBC.

The survey also questioned whether respondents believe, "President Obama is not legally a citizen of the United States." To this statement, 34 percent of Republicans answered that it he is "probably" or "definitely" not a citizen, compared with just 7 percent of Democrats. Further, 30 percent of Fox News viewers hold this belief and another 9 say they "do not know."

"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."

The one conspiracy that holds more ground with people on the left, according to the research, is: "The Secret Service is intentionally leaving President Obama unprotected." Sixteen percent of those who agreed with this statement identified as Democrats, compared with just 8 percent Republicans. More notably, 20 percent of non-white respondents agree with this statement. As Cassino notes, "given the past assassinations of civil rights leaders, and medical experimentations carried out by the government on African-Americans, it’s understandable."

Seeking to identify if believing in conspiracies correlates with overall political knowledge, researchers asked respondents 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."

According to the results:

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.

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