Conspiracy theories have skyrocketed in recent years. Thanks to the internet, people can now come upon these theories more and it can lead to dangerous things.
An example of this is the conspiracy that COVID-19 was created in a lab in China. Other theories that have arisen in recent years include QAnon, which claims that former President Donald Trump is fighting a secret war against Satan-worshipping pedophiles, and Pizzagate, which claimed that some Democrats were involved in a human trafficking and child sex ring and one of the places involved was a Comet Ping Pong Pizzeria in Washington D.C. Both of these were spread on the internet, especially on social media.
Conspiracy theories share some common characteristics, per the European Commission. These include:
An alleged, secret plot
A group of conspirators
‘Evidence’ that seems to back up the theory
False suggestions that nothing happens by accident and that everything Is connected
Dividing the world into good or bad
Scapegoating people and groups
According to Louisiana State University, more than 50% of people believe in at least one conspiracy theory. This is partially because of the suspicions people have about certain topics. These suspicions can grow into conspiracy theories and then explode once shared.
Why do people believe conspiracy theories? One reason might be motivated reasoning. When people believe information consistent with their own views but discount information that contradicts their views, they are exhibiting the confirmation bias. To combat the confirmation bias, people can try to remain open-minded about alterative or opposing viewpoints.
Then there is attitude-congruence bias in which someone with a firm position on an issue believes more in the arguments supporting their views rather than the opposing arguments.
Ironically, the media has a role in this as well. According to Human Communication Research, news can fan people’s anger over a certain issue because cable networks in particular have a lot of opinionated shows that tend to share information that is biased. This can trigger an emotional response particularly when there is disagreement over some of the content.
According to the European Commission, There are a few ways to tell if what you are sharing on social media is credible:
The author has recognizable qualifications and credentials and they use verifiable facts.
The source has been used by several reputable media outlets.
The author uses different perspectives and the tone of a story is objective and factual.
There are also a few ways to tell if what you are sharing is not credible.
The author is a self-proclaimed expert and not attached to a reputable organization.
The author claims to have credentials but these credentials do not withstand scrutiny or are invalid.
The source of the information is not clear.
The author claims the information presented is the only valid truth.
Above all, if you have suspicions about an article particularly the sources used in the article then do not share it.
For his Honors College thesis, Lead News Reporter, Ben Gretchko is writing a series of columns on disinformation in the media. You can find the whole series here.