Do you tend to blame stupid or easily influenced people for the impressive amount of conspiracy theories there is online? From QAnon and #TrumpCovidHoax to the Flat Earth Society and anti-vaxxers, what if all of these conspiracy theories were simply part of a larger (and unavoidable) authority crisis created by the internet? What if conspiracy theories were bound to happen, dumb people or not?
Trust me, I didn’t get this idea all on my own. Not long ago, I used to think the same as you—that conspiracy theories were just a result of the constantly growing number of paranoid partisans present on this planet. In other words, I was convinced that, were we to get rid of impressionable minds, this problem would not exist, or at least, it wouldn’t be this apparent.
Until I stumbled upon an article in The New York Times titled Why Conspiracy Theories Are So Addictive Right Now. Did I really need a reminder? Not really, but specific points made in this piece led me to understand the inevitable factor of the state our society is now in. After it was announced that President Trump had tested positive for COVID-19, the first thing that writer Kevin Roose did was to go on Twitter and other social media platforms to check what people were saying.
Instead, what he found online consisted mostly of “a bunch of paranoid partisans posting grainy, zoomed-in photos, analyzing video footage frame by frame, and people straining to connect the dots on far-fetched conspiracy theories involving a cabal of nefarious elites staging an elaborate cover-up.” No, Roose didn’t end up on a QAnon website, his feed was simply flooded with die-hard Democrats who were speculating, with no evidence, that Trump was faking his illness to engender sympathy and boost his re-election chances.
As he continued scrolling through his feed, Roose discovered more conspiracy theories linked to Trump, with one that claimed that the president had actually died and been replaced by a body double, another that said he had gotten a secret vaccine from Russia and was quarantining until it took effect or even that he had deliberately contracted the disease to distract the public from a New York Times article about his taxes. “Creative, but doubtful,” wrote the journalist.
Regardless of the fact that not one of these theories mentioned above were founded on something concrete, most of them were shared like there was no tomorrow. According to The New York Times, the online misinformation tracking firm, Zignal Labs, said that the theory of Trump faking his illness had been mentioned more than 85,000 times on social media, and that the hashtag #TrumpCovidHoax, which trended on Twitter in the US, had been mentioned more than 75,000 times. That sounds like a lot of fake news if you ask me.
So why is this happening? First of all, conspiracy theories and the amount of reach they get is linked to the way social media platforms work. As you probably know by now, especially if you’ve recently watched The Social Dilemma on Netflix, social media favour bold, engaging and shocking claims over careful (meaning true) ones.
But that’s not all of it. Conspiracy theories are growing quickly and reaching more people not only because of the platform they use but also because of us in the first place, no matter their political persuasion. This means that the rejection of authority conspiracy theories represent is not a singular phenomenon or one that is limited to far-right extremists.
Take Trump when he tested positive for coronavirus, for example. Democrats theorised about what secret maladies he was covering up while Republicans speculated about what signals he was trying to send to his political opponents. No one was simply accepting the scene at face value. Real information or not, in the age of social media, authority is held by people who can effectively get their message out.
Social media, mixed with human nature, was bound to bring us conspiracy theories en masse. This wasn’t something we could have avoided. Now, the real question is: are we going to be able to return to accepting information handed to us by elites at face value one day? Speaking to The New York Times, former C.I.A. analyst and media theorist, Martin Gurri, seems pretty sceptical, “There’s simply too much information now, traveling over too many channels, for people on any side to be satisfied with a single, straightforward answer to any question—whether it’s about the president’s blood oxygen levels, an imaginary pedophile cabal or something else entirely.”
Yes, conspiracy theories were bound to happen, and it certainly looks like they’re not going anywhere as long as social media platforms exist—and let’s be honest here, they’re too important to disappear. Brace yourselves, things are about to get ugly.