As much as it might seem like ancient history, it wasn’t so long ago when crackpot rants about the alien spacecraft tests were relegated to fringe magazines and self-published books written by “experts” with no knowledge of the subject.
Conspiracy theories were treated as bizarre speculations with no connection to reality and were able to be suppressed because the way most people received their information about the world was so monopolized.
There was no Internet to propagate your ideas and find people who agreed with you. Even if you did believe that the CIA had orchestrated the assassination of John F. Kennedy, it wasn’t at all easy to convince others around you that this was the case, never mind reaching out to others who felt the same way.
That isn’t to say that conspiracy theories didn’t exist until the advent of the Internet and various social media websites. Clearly there have been attempts to blame various figures and groups as the true force behind events since at least the Middle Ages.
But the Internet, which was intended to democratize communication, ultimately ended up serving as an incredibly powerful tool for spreading misinformation. In a way this contradicts the usual assumptions behind free speech. One would expect that with open dialogue the most truthful and accurate ideas will rise to the top, while untrustworthy and incorrect information will be rejected.
Unfortunately, this optimistic view of human nature failed to anticipate the success of attention-grabbing headlines and titillating conjectures. Most people don’t want to read the well-researched if not quite stimulating investigative report.
What pulls people in is the provocative: sex, murder, drugs, schemes at the highest levels of society. It doesn’t matter if these narratives lack accuracy or are even entirely fabricated. What matters is they get people interested, and interested people are far more likely to read the article. Many digital media outlets have fallen prey to a softer version of this, where they purposefully use suspense and outrage to generate page views.
Some might argue that this isn’t necessarily a problem. So long as people are able to distinguish between reality and obvious fabrication, there shouldn’t be an issue. However, it’s becoming increasingly clear that to some, what they read on niche image boards and far-flung forums really is what’s happening in the real world.
The ideas that inspired unhinged individuals like Elliot Rodger, Dylann Roof, and more recently Edgar Welch of the so-called Pizzagate fame are like air on sites such as 4chan and its spin-offs and the entire array of white supremacist networks, including Stormfront, The Daily Stormer, and Breitbart.
The truly concerning state of modern-day conspiracy theories, however, is that they’re not limited to websites with a known reputation for racist content. Anyone can sign up for Twitter or make a group on Facebook and spread photos and “news” with no basis in actual occurrences whatsoever. All it takes is one person with an already tenuous grasp on reality with access to deadly weapons to cause a disaster.
Unfortunately there’s no silver bullet to this situation. Lacking some form of censorship on the part of social media networks or the government, it’s very difficult to limit the spread of conspiracy theories and fake news.
What can be done to combat this serious issue is an emphasis on distinguishing truth from falsity, which can be taught in schools as well as in the home. We need people who can tell when something just doesn’t seem accurate, but forming those sorts of people takes time and dedication.
Conspiracy theories won’t be going anywhere so long as most people are able to access the Internet, so we have to be ready to recognize them for what they are and reject them when we see them.