How to End the Conspiracy Pandemic
Imagine mass shooting victims being told the shooting didn’t happen or that is was carried out the government, or a shooter walking into a church following inspiration by a radical website.
Sadly, these things have happened. Sandy Hook victims have been repeatedly harassed by conspiracy theorists online and the shooter in the New Zealand mosque last year became radicalized by conspiracies on 4chan.
Conspiracy theories run far and wide, but why?
People love conspiracy theories, not because they believe them all, but because it gives a narrative to the unknown when a shadow of doubt looms. Roughly half of all Americans believe in some sort of conspiracy theory.
We exist in a time in which conspiracy theories are spread much further and wider than before, and political figures seem to use them as political ploys. When someone like the President of the United States pushes conspiracy theories including Birtherism, the Hunter Biden conspiracy, Coronavirus conspiracies and more, they have shifted far away from the harmless brainstorming of far-fetched ideas. That the world is run by a secret organization where the rich and the politicians call the shots are no longer the most believable conspiracy; recent ones have since become the basis of actual policy in the United States and other parts of the world.
When people think about conspiracy theories, some popular ones include The Illuminati, Area 51 housing aliens, that 9/11 was an inside job by the government and others. These are generally harmless. Most Americans, even those who believe conspiracies, generally view them with a base of skepticism, if not outright deny them. It’s when conspiracy theories risk human lives that they become no laughing matter.
“Misinformation combined with a willingness to accept the idea that shadowy elements are colluding against the public good lead individuals to accept conspiracy narratives; together in groups, the people that accept these ideas can not only sway policy, but become irrational, radicalized, and violent,” writes Joseph E. Uscinski, Associate Professor of political science at the University of Miami, College of Arts & Sciences.
Texas political leaders had to condemn GOP leaders yesterday when they shared conspiracies surrounding George Floyd’s death. “The posts, from chairs of some of the largest counties in Texas, suggested George Floyd’s death was staged to erode black support for President Donald Trump,” writes The Texas Tribune. “Meanwhile, a fifth chairperson posted a racist image of a Martin Luther King Jr. quote next to a banana.”
Conspiracies like the one suggesting that Floyd’s death was intended for political results prey on intrinsic fears that some Americans hold, either consciously or not. In this case, it might be the fear that Black Americans might threaten Caucasians’ opportunities to succeed.
The Atlantic has an article-series out now called “Shadowland,” where they go into detail about conspiracy theories, why they are so prevalent in today’s society, and what we can do to prevent them from spreading further.
It does seem, however, that some of the more prominent conspiracy theories seem to be championed by the far-right, with figures such as Alex Jones and Rush Limbaugh leading the conversations. They have spoken on topics ranging from Robert Mueller being a demon and a pedophile, PizzaGate (where former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was running a child sex ring out of a pizza restaurant), and the multiple Coronavirus conspiracies (about how the virus was created in a lab in China), or that Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, engineered the virus and released it at the beginning of the year.
These conspiracies first came to light in the forums of QAnon, a right-wing conspiracy website where individuals can post whatever they feel, without consequences. In “Shadowland” by The Atlantic, they have a piece entitled, “The Prophecies of Q,” writing:
QAnon is emblematic of modern America’s susceptibility to conspiracy theories, and its enthusiasm for them. But it is also already much more than a loose collection of conspiracy-minded chat-room inhabitants. It is a movement united in mass rejection of reason, objectivity, and other Enlightenment values. And we are likely closer to the beginning of its story than the end. The group harnesses paranoia to fervent hope and a deep sense of belonging. The way it breathes life into an ancient preoccupation with end-times is also radically new. To look at QAnon is to see not just a conspiracy theory but the birth of a new religion.
This is why conspiracy thinking is no longer considered harmless. It has infiltrated our politics, our society and our way of life. Before 2016, QAnon and other conspiracy websites were simply on the outskirts of the internet, away from the mainstream. According to The New York Times, President Donald Trump has retweeted conspiracy and fringe tweets at least 145 times. (The President has over 80 million followers who view his tweets.)
Liberal politicians and others believe in conspiracy theories, as well. Popular pages such as Occupy Democrats and NowThis have been caught with cutting videos to fit a narrative and are considered “far-left propaganda.”
These theories aren’t new; they’ve been around for centuries, but they seem all-the-more present in today’s society and are becoming more mainstream by the day.
This is the first time we have had a conspiracy theorist sitting in the White House. Mr. Trump’s political rise began with Birtherism, the debunked conspiracy theory that former President Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States, but rather in somewhere like Kenya or another African country.
Since then, Mr. Trump has pushed numerous theories and has praised numerous conspiracy websites and “news organizations” such as Breitbart and OANN, which have headlines such as: “There’s No Hiring Bias Against Women In Tech, They Just Suck At Interviews,” “Gabby Giffords: The Gun Control Movement’s Human Shield,” “Climate Change: The Hoax That Costs Us $4 Billion A Day,” and actively push Russian Propaganda.
This is dangerous.
Not only is it dangerous, but it’s also plain inhumane (consider the Giffords headline above).
America and the rest of the world are fighting a continuing war- one of facts versus fiction. It’s one thing to read a conspiracy theory, it’s another to actively peddle them on websites like 4chan and Breitbart.
Many people view these websites and take them as fact while discrediting credible news organizations such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, USA Today and Associated Press.
Mr. Trump’s advisor Kellyanne Conway chose the phrase “alternative facts” after then-Press Secretary Sean Spicer told two provable lies. Lies cannot be alternative facts.
So how do we fight the war against facts?
First, Twitter, Facebook and other websites must fact-check everything released on their websites.
Mr. Trump’s tweets were flagged for the first time ever recently due to misinformation in the tweet. Since then, he has gone on a rampage explaining - uncorroborated - how social media is biased against conservative views and signed an executive order meant to regulate and punish social media companies for how they review and control content.
Twitter decided to censor misinformation, but Facebook and CEO Mark Zuckerberg have decided to not do so.
But this is where regulations most need to be implemented. According to The Guardian, Russian-bot accounts reached roughly 126 million Americans on Facebook in 2016. That means almost half of all Americans saw some form of Russian political propaganda leading up to the election.
Mr. Zuckerberg clearly didn’t learn anything from this massive disinformation campaign from 2016, as he says "I just believe strongly that Facebook shouldn't be the arbiter of truth of everything that people say online," on CBS News.
To combat the rise of conspiracy theories, we must be united on the social media front. Twitter, Facebook, Reddit and other social media platforms must stand united in saying “We will not stand for the spread of dangerous conspiracy theories that are not based in truth.”
The next necessary step is calling out conspiracies when they arise. We shouldn’t run a headline, “Trump claims Alternative Facts,” when we could run a headline, “Trump pushes conspiracy theory.”
There’s no such idea as “alternative facts.” Things are either true or not.
The next thing we do is lift up independent and local journalism. The skepticism of the mainstream media has taken control of the conversation, but journalism is still an important piece of our society. Journalism is a vehicle by which factual information and events reach citizens.
Supporting local media and journalists - your local NPR station, the local newspaper - is a great way to combat the rise of conspiracy theories.
Local journalism is being stifled by national media, such as CNN and Fox News, but is still incredibly important to millions of people. We must protect local newspapers and news organizations from extinction.
The final question is: Why are conspiracy theories so dangerous?
This is the first time we’ve seen policy shaped by conspiracies. Public officials are pushing conspiracy theories that damage our democracy. The theory that Ukraine, not Russia, meddled in our 2016 election leaves us vulnerable to another attack from Russia in this upcoming election.
Conspiracy theories also shape people’s opinions on the world. They shape how they vote, how they act and everything else they do. This is bigger than one theory.
That’s why they are so dangerous.
That’s why we must combat any conspiracy that arises. They are false and detract from the true problems we face and the facts. It is okay to wonder about alternative possibilities, but it is not okay to exploit this brainstorming as real truths.