5 ways the internet has driven the growth of conspiracy theories

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In recent years, we’ve seen more conspiracy theories getting traction and they’ve also started to become more mainstream. Maybe they’re not entirely off the fringes yet, but I doubt if there is a person reading this that hasn’t heard of Alex Jones, Pizzagate and the idea that you shouldn’t give your children vaccines because they cause autism.

Specific groups tend to embrace specific conspiracy theories as well. A lot of conservatives think George Soros is behind every nefarious thing the Left does while liberals tend to attribute conservative projects that scare them to the Koch brothers or Steve Bannon. A surprisingly large number of Muslims and members of the Alt-Right buy into Holocaust denial and of the idea that Jews are secretly controlling/manipulating events for nefarious purposes. Liberal black Americans have disturbingly taken to embracing conspiracy theories about police shootings in recent years (e.g.: Hands up, don’t shoot). The reason that these conspiracy theories are getting more lift-off than they used to has to do with the way that the Internet has changed the world, in this case, for the worse. How has the Internet encouraged the growth of conspiracy theories?

1) The Death of Gatekeepers: There was a time when CBS, ABC, and NBC controlled television news and papers and a relatively small number of magazines dominated the written word. I don’t think many of us would want to go back to the days when left-wing “Walter Cronkite” was the most trusted man in America and we were consistently fed whatever center-left pablum a few media elites decided we could be trusted to know, but at least they cared enough about their reputations in those days not to expose their viewers to wild conspiracy theories. The gatekeepers simply made sure conspiracy theories and died from lack of exposure. In a world with no authoritative voice or gatekeepers, there’s nothing to stop any conspiracy theory from spreading like wildfire.

2) The Economy of Scale in Media: As someone who has been making a living in online media since 2005, once thing I can tell you about people that love conspiracy theories is that they read more, share more, and comment more than other people. What this means is that a relatively small number of people in the “real world” can have an oversized impact online on the bottom line of a website. In a supply driven online world where media outlets are willing to sell whatever people want to buy, pushing conspiracy theories can keep the lights on.

3) The Weakening of Coherent Thought: As our country has become more tribal, a lot of people have begun accepting or waving off ideas based on nothing more than the supposed motivations of the people proposing the ideas. Couple this with thin, partisan articles topped by sensationalistic headlines, which is as far as most people get (59% of people will share an article without reading it), and it gets worse. On top of all that, although we’re drowning in information, social media rarely delivers that information to people in a coherent and detailed fashion. Memes, partisan 500-word articles and tweets simply don’t stack up to the sort of information you’d get in a book or by taking a class taught by a competent professor. This has negatively impacted many people’s ability to think critically. So, when a conspiracy theory comes along, many people today have difficulty logically assessing it. If you are unable to say, “Well, for this conspiracy theory to work, X, Y and Z would have to be true,” then the most outlandish conspiracy theories can seem totally plausible to you.

4) Social Media Algorithms: As I noted in #2, people who are into conspiracies are extremely enthusiastic users. So, what happens when those people run into a website like YouTube, which is automatically designed to steer them towards content that keeps them watching as long as possible? How much of an impact does YouTube have? Well…

Researchers believe they have identified the prime driver for a startling rise in the number of people who think the Earth is flat: Google’s video-sharing site, YouTube. Their suspicion was raised when they attended the world’s largest gatherings of Flat Earthers at the movement’s annual conference in Raleigh, North Carolina, in 2017, and then in Denver, Colorado, last year.

Interviews with 30 attendees revealed a pattern in the stories people told about how they came to be convinced that the Earth was not a large round rock spinning through space but a large flat disc doing much the same thing.

Of the 30, all but one said they had not considered the Earth to be flat two years ago but changed their minds after watching videos promoting conspiracy theories on YouTube. “The only person who didn’t say this was there with his daughter and his son-in-law and they had seen it on YouTube and told him about it,” said Asheley Landrum, who led the research at Texas Tech University.

Many of the brightest, most talented people in our society are working overtime for social media companies trying to make their content as addictive as possible so you will spend as much of your life as possible on their websites, making them money. Unfortunately, that often leads to the creation of algorithms that drive people into the waiting arms of Crazy Kook Town, because they will stay there 8.4% longer than on the sane content.

5) The Growth of Sub-Communities: As the Internet has grown, it has become increasingly segmented. Just about every strange little group on the planet from furries to incels to Bronies gather in corners of the Internet where they reinforce their weird behavior and condemn all the “normies” that frown on them becoming social outcasts. The same thing goes on with conspiracy theories. So, if you think Russia tampered with the voting machines in 2016 or George Bush was behind 9/11, there are corners of the Internet where you will find legions of people who agree with you. These little sub-communities are like greenhouses that incubate these crazy ideas until they’re ready to burst into full flower in the real world.

Op-ed views and opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of BizPac Review.


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John Hawkins


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