Conspiracy theories are usually defined as a belief that some covert, but influential organization is responsible for certain events. They influence many individuals and could even be considered quite common. Furthermore, conspiracy theories have always had some influence in politics.
Some famous conspiracies include faking the moon landing, that Lee Harvey Oswald didn’t act alone in assassinating former President John F. Kennedy, the belief in the Illuminati, and the birther conspiracy that President Barack Obama isn’t a U.S. citizen. More recently, there has been a rise in the beliefs surrounding QAnon, along with the widely circulated belief that the COVID-19 pandemic is a hoax. QAnon is an umbrella term for multiple conspiracy theories that all lead back to one principle theory: The world is run by a set of elites including celebrities, top Democrats, and prominent religious figures who are all Satan-worshipping pedophiles.
According to a description from The New York Times, QAnon follows the idea that Donald Trump was elected president to break up this pedophile ring and bring forth justice. QAnon began in 2017 and has evolved over the years. Most recently, they have claimed the 2020 presidential election was stolen, and that Donald Trump remains the true president. It is strong beliefs such as these that can generate the momentum for groups to carry out dangerous acts such as the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
How We Got Here
To understand how this abundance of misinformation has gained traction in modern society, it’s important to recognize how conspiracy theories affect us psychologically and why we are drawn to them. Research shows people are especially susceptible to conspiracy theories during times of crisis. An example of this is the assassination of President Kennedy; it was such a monumentally catastrophic event that it became difficult for the American public to believe just one man was responsible.
During 2020, the world faced a global pandemic that was met with a lack of information and an absence of a cohesive message on how to respond to the virus. What resulted was a perfect storm for ill-informed thinking. Most individuals were stuck at home with not much to do, so many turned to social media to seek entertainment and information.
The main problem with relying on social media to provide information lies in how these platforms make money. Their profits come from advertisement views, incentivizing them to keep users on their platforms for as long as possible. One way social media companies keep users engaged with ads is by tailoring what users see to match their individual interests.
Along with personalizing ads, these companies will also continue recommending other media based on users’ previous activity. This can create a rabbit hole effect. For example, a user could interact with a post about vaccine hesitancy which could quickly escalate to the platform showing them anti-vaccine content. This traps people in their own information bubbles, preventing them from being exposed to different views which will only reinforce their beliefs.
Identifying the Source of Misinformation
Many media platforms claim this is an era of conspiracy theories. For example, data collected from News Guard did show websites that have been deemed unreliable received a jump in engagement from 8% in 2019 to 17% in 2020.
Many experts, like Filippo Menczer, a professor of computer science and informatics at the University of Indiana who has researched the spread of misinformation in social networks, are reluctant to say whether there has been a rise in misinformation.
“It [misinformation] has always been around. Whenever there is communication, there is miscommunication,” Menczer said. The spread of misinformation is not a new concept, but the vulnerabilities of social networking platforms have exploited and exacerbated the problem.
Menczer commented on the influence of media in society, saying, “Social media is no different than any other medium that has also been used in the past for misinformation.”
He went on to identify points of vulnerability unique to social media platforms, for example, how they amplify viral content and how the media landscape and accompanying platforms are very polarizing.
One recent source of misinformation has been particularly unprecedented. From the beginning, the Trump administration was known to stretch the truth. According to The Washington Post, President Donald Trump made 16,241 false or misleading claims during his first year in office alone. Some of his boldest claims include contending that he won the popular vote in 2016 and the election in 2020, though both were proved to be false countless times.
Trump continued this pattern throughout his presidency and promoted misinformation about COVID-19. He downplayed the number of cases and deaths in the U.S., disagreed with experts about COVID-19, and promoted drugs like hydroxychloroquine as treatments for COVID-19. This only added to his record of constant hostility toward the media.
Stopping the Spread of Misinformation
Misinformation coming from an official source like the White House was unusual. This put journalists in a difficult position when deciding how to cover Donald Trump out of fear of being seen as biased.
However, in the summer of 2021, CNN decided not to play Trump’s presidential conference live, which was unheard of at the time. This apparent confirmation of misinformation from a presidential administration only validates the beliefs of conspiracy groups including QAnon, COVID-deniers, and anti-vaxxers. It has allowed these radical theories to enter into the mainstream. This had led to a growing level of mistrust toward the government which has manifested itself in COVID-19 downplay, vaccine hesitancy, and distrust toward election results.
According to a Journal of Personality and Social Psychology study, it is difficult to change someone’s beliefs, even if they are proven to be false and accompanied with new information. Therefore, the most effective way to combat misinformation would be to inform consumers of the false information and why it is incorrect before it can ever take root.
Social media executives have also tried to combat the misinformation that has spread on their platforms. For example, Twitter removed over 70,000 Twitter accounts after the Jan. 6 insurrection and both Twitter and Facebook have suspended Donald Trump’s account.
According to experts of misinformation like Menczer, there is a lot more that can be done as many platforms struggle with manipulation from bots and have trouble policing the misinformation produced.
“They [social media platforms] could be more aggressive in policing their platforms from abuse,” Menczer said.
There are also measures individuals themselves can take to help manage misinformation. First, when reading news articles, consider where they are from and check their sources to identify any potential biases, being sure to read full articles not just headlines. Second, it never hurts to explore multiple sources to get a better picture of a story. If users want to take an extra step to limit the spread of their own misinformation, another tactic is attempting to be on social media less. When users do choose to post, they should ensure the accuracy of what they are sharing.
Finally, when others spread misinformation, it’s important to try to connect with them and hold each other accountable for what is being shared. Misinformation in daily life can be common, but if society works together, it can be combated in hopes of a more unified, informed world.