I love a good conspiracy theory. Not necessarily because I believe it, but because it challenges our traditional ways of thinking. It pushes the boundaries of what we accept to be true and turns it on its head a bit. Sure, you might think that conspiracy theorists are out of their mind, but there might be some validity in what they have to say. I mean, how would you know one way or another? That said, people are concerned that the internet takes a conspiracy theory and blows it out of proportion. All the while, gaining momentum. Is that true though?
Conspiracy theories aren’t new. In fact, they have an extremely long history. Anti-Semitic conspiracy theories date back hundreds of years and still exist today. There is even evidence that conspiracy theories were common in ancient Rome. Which makes you wonder if they actually flourish with the internet, or if that is a myth? It might surprise you to learn that there is no evidence that people are more prone to believing in conspiracy theories now than they were before the internet. In an analysis of published letters to the editor of the New York Times, showed that between 1897 and 2010, conspiracy theories had not increased. This is aside from a couple of peaks during interesting times.
That’s not to say that some people don’t adopt conspiracy theories more than others. But who is feeding into these the most? It’s thought that people with unsatisfied psychological needs. Is that completely true though? All people need to feel that they know the truth. I know I do. But they also need to feel safe and secure. They also need to feel good about themselves and the society they belong to. If these needs aren’t met, conspiracy theories can become appealing. It’s suggested that these people are the ones who might become more interested in believing a conspiracy theory in the first place. And that’s where we see the greatest impact on the internet.
A study was conducted in 2015, which showed that people who believe in conspiracy theories are also more likely to share new, unrelated, and made-up conspiracy theories. Users who believed more traditional conspiracy theories were likely to share new, clearly false and easily verifiable conspiracy theories, such as the idea that infinite energy had been discovered. The study demonstrated that conspiracy internet users are uncritically distributing and endorsing even deliberately false, extremely implausible material.
But this is dangerous because the information being presented isn’t always accurate. Consider the anti-vaccine conspiracy that suggests that vaccines are harmful and that it’s a cover-up from the pharmaceutical companies and governments. While this one is a bit controversial, I think that studies have shown that this kind of thinking isn’t accurate, and therefore people don’t vaccinate their children. This could lead to a child getting sick and spreading it to other children. In some cases, it could lead to death. That said, conspiracy theories can also have powerful consequences, but we are still learning about when and how people really communicate these theories and why they are adopted in mainstream society. Understanding more about them will help us to understand how they’re spread. Is it a matter of fake news? Perhaps. But it could also be something more.