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How Conspiracy Theories Thrive in the Age of Misinformation

Mariah is a business student and freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon.

Believers of the chemtrail conspiracy theory believe that water condensation trails left by airplanes are actually chemical agents sprayed by the government for nefarious purposes.

Believers of the chemtrail conspiracy theory believe that water condensation trails left by airplanes are actually chemical agents sprayed by the government for nefarious purposes.

A Predisposition for Believing in Conspiracies

Thanks to social media, false information is more widespread than ever. Conspiracy theorists can draw unfounded conclusions easily shared with the masses with the simple press of a button. Conspiracy theories are a type of widespread misinformation that involve alternative explanations for events – it is often assumed that a covert and powerful organization is behind the conspiracy. Some conspiracy theories that have gained popularity in recent years are that climate change is a hoax, the existence of chemtrails, and an array of theories involving the Illuminati (a short-lived 18th century enlightenment-era secret society)(Aaronovitch). Interestingly, psychologists have found that people drawn to conspiracy theories share a few similar psychological features.

There are many factors that contribute to a person’s susceptibility to believing in conspiratorial thinking. Anxious people are especially drawn to conspiratorial thinking, and the mindset is also triggered by a loss of control. In general, feelings of disenfranchisement (suffered by thousands of Americans, especially in recent years) cause people to seek comfort in conspiracies by identifying a scapegoat and using it to regain some feeling of control their lives (Moyer).

According to psychologist Stephen Lewandowsky, “people can assume that if these bad guys weren’t there, then everything would be fine. Whereas if you don’t believe in a conspiracy theory, then you just have to admit terrible things happen randomly.” This is a scary thought for most people, and presents a problem that is impossible to solve. Believing in a conspiracy can provide people with a sense of comfort in the seemingly random events that happen in the world around them (Lewandowsky). With the advent of social media, people can also find comfort in connecting with a group of people who share similar beliefs. But social media is also the most powerful and dangerous tool in spreading conspiratorial misinformation in the modern age.

Why Are Conspiracy Theories Gaining Popularity?

The conspiracy mindset is surprisingly common; a study by the University of Oxford revealed in 2017 that more than a quarter of the American population believes there are conspiracies “behind many things in the world” (Moyer). Though conspiracies are nothing new, the theories are becoming much more visible thanks to the ease of sharing misinformation via social media and other unreliable internet news sites.

Another theory for the current uptick in conspiratorial thinking is the fact that the president is a vocal conspiracy theorist himself. Perhaps most notably, Trump launched his “political self-invention as the highest profile birther” of the racist claim that Barack Obama was not born on American soil (Zakaria). Despite no evidence, Trump has also claimed that votes from dead people and some non-citizen voters explains why Hillary Clinton won the popular vote in 2016 (Moyer). Another outlandish claim by Trump is that Ted Cruz’s father helped assassinate President John F. Kennedy (McCaskill). Trump’s habit of spouting of controversial opinions on Twitter with little regard for facts or truth has set an example for thousands of Americans to do exactly the same.

As Italian diplomat Niccolo Machiavelli once said, "It is double pleasure to deceive the deceiver." In psychology terms, Machiavellianism is characterized by manipulation and deception for personal gain.

As Italian diplomat Niccolo Machiavelli once said, "It is double pleasure to deceive the deceiver." In psychology terms, Machiavellianism is characterized by manipulation and deception for personal gain.

What Makes These Conspiracies So Dangerous?

Belief in conspiracy theories can endanger American’s safety and democracy when those theories are rooted in hatred, anger, or xenophobia. There are very real and dangerous consequences of the “conspiratorial perspective” – the idea that groups are colluding in secret to produce a desired outcome. Believing and perpetuating these conspiratorial ideas can be potentially dangerous and can even drive some people to violence.

For example, the shooter who killed 11 people and injured six in a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018, justified the attack by citing a conspiracy theory involving the Jewish people supporting illegal immigrants in secret. A conspiracy theory involving members of the Democratic Party and a child sex ring caused one believer to open fire inside of a pizzeria in Washington D.C. in 2016 (Moyer).

A study published by PLOS One found that the personality traits psychopathy and Machiavellianism were linked to the belief in conspiracy theories. Researchers explored the psychopathy trait as a predictor for the belief in conspiracies due to the fact that “characteristics of trait psychopathy such as the tendency to be exploitative, manipulative, have a grandiose sense of self-importance, and social dominance orientation, have all previously been associated with belief in conspiracy theories: (Ellwood). Researchers also explored Machiavellianism, a personality trait characterized by the tendency to manipulate others for personal gain, that has also been linked to heightened susceptibility to conspiratorial beliefs.

Results indicated that psychopathy and Machiavellianism were positive predictors for belief in conspiracy theories. Researchers explained how the trait of Machiavellianism might lead to increased belief in conspiracies: Individuals with [the trait] are strategic, exploitative, considered ‘master manipulators’, and tend to have a cynical view of human nature. It is believed that individuals with the Machiavellian trait believe others to be foolish and easily manipulated. By contrast, they themselves are smart enough to know the truth (Ellwood).

President Nixon was accused of covering up his involvement in a break-in at the Watergate complex (pictured). The Watergate scandal is an example of a real conspiracy, eventually leading to Nixon's resignation in 1974.

President Nixon was accused of covering up his involvement in a break-in at the Watergate complex (pictured). The Watergate scandal is an example of a real conspiracy, eventually leading to Nixon's resignation in 1974.

Conspiracy Theories and How to Spot Them

It is true that there are very real reasons to distrust certain large organizations, like governments and corporations. There are many people in power acting in their own self-interest and at the expense of those less fortunate. There are even real-life conspiracies and cover-ups: Tuskegee, MK-ULTRA and Watergate, to name a few.

But these real conspiracies are very different than conspiracy theories, that can take on a life of their own as misinformation spreads, and have little basis in real, factual information. The trick to discerning between the two is not to look for wrongdoing, but rather to look for signs of contradiction and ambiguity. Central to each these conspiracy theories is a “vague but ironclad insistence” that there is wrongdoing. Any new information presented can be creatively inserted into this “cloud of suspicion,” leading its believers to insist that the theory has been strengthened (Skwarecki)

The Conspiracy Theory Handbook helps people understand the difference between real-life conspiracies and dangerously false conspiracy theories. The handy list of red flags summarized below can help you discern fact from fiction (it’s helpful to remember the mnemonic device “CONSPIR”) when you are scanning your timeline for the latest news*:

  1. Contradictory ideas: These are ideas or evidence that conflict with each other but become a part of the theory despite the fact that if one were true, the other would be necessarily false.
  2. Overriding suspicion: People who fully believe the conspiracy theory will always discount official sources, regardless of the content or the source’s trustworthiness.
  3. Nefarious intent: The powerful forces believed to be behind these conspiracies always have a malignant motivation behind their actions.
  4. “Something must be wrong”: The conspiracy mentality allows believers to still believe the theory because they believe “something must be wrong,” even when a piece of evidence is disproven or new information is presented.
  5. Persecuted victim: When a supposed whistleblower turns out to be a fraud, the conspiracist believes it’s because the conspiracy is trying to discredit their message.
  6. Immune to evidence: Similar to the persecuted victim, any evidence that contradicts the conspiracy theory is interpreted as the organization in power trying to stifle their message by discrediting the theory.
  7. Reinterpreting randomness: Unrelated events that have nothing to do with the conspiracy theory will be interpreted as if they are interconnected and related to the conspiracy.

*This list was adapted from the Conspiracy Theory Handbook by Stephen Lewandowsky

References

Aaronovitch, D. (n.d.). Debunking Conspiracy Theories In 'Voodoo Histories' : NPR. Retrieved August 4, 2020, from https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=123127032

Ellwood, B. (2020, June 20). Machiavellian and psychopathic personality traits linked to belief in conspiracy theories. Retrieved August 04, 2020, from https://www.psypost.org/2020/06/machiavellian-and-psychopathic-personality-traits-linked-to-belief-in-conspiracy-theories-57103

Lewandowsky, S. (2020, July 22). The Conspiracy Theory Handbook. Retrieved August 04, 2020, from https://www.climatechangecommunication.org/conspiracy-theory-handbook/

McCaskill, N. (2016, May 03). Trump accuses Cruz's father of helping JFK's assassin. Retrieved August 04, 2020, https://www.politico.com/blogs/2016-gop-primary-live-updates-and-results/2016/05/trump-ted-cruz-father-222730

Moyer, M. (2019, March 01). People Drawn to Conspiracy Theories Share a Cluster of Psychological Features. Retrieved August 04, 2020, from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/people-drawn-to-conspiracy-theories-share-a-cluster-of-psychological-features/

Skwarecki, B. (2020, May 14). How to Spot a Conspiracy Theory. Retrieved August 04, 2020, from https://vitals.lifehacker.com/how-to-spot-a-conspiracy-theory-1843463080

Zakaria, F. (2020, July 17). CNN's Fareed Zakaria Examines Donald Trump's Conspiracy Theories. Retrieved August 04, 2020, from https://cnnpressroom.blogs.cnn.com/2020/07/17/cnns-fareed-zakaria-examines-donald-trumps-conspiracy-theories/


This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

Comments

Ken Burgess from Florida on August 10, 2020:

A difficult topic to try and tackle, one that has many layers.

I think you start with a great point we are in the "age of misinformation".

We are living in a time that was detailed decades ago by CIA director William Casey (Director 1981-1987).

“We’ll know our disinformation program is complete when everything the American public believes is false.”

Lets not forget Bush Sr. was a former CIA directer, was VP during that time, and then became President. He was part and parcel of this New World as well.

I am a former Army Ranger, held a Top Secret (+) Security Clearance, and was privy to more information than I ever wanted to be as NCOIC of the 101ST ABN Div EOC after 9/11. Nothing came through NIPR or SIPR net that didn't go through me first, whether it came from the 18TH ABC or the Pentagon itself.

I can tell you with confidence the American people were not informed of the truth of matters back then, and the disinformation and misinformation is only 10 times as bad now.

This is the state of our MSM, it is all biased, it reports very little of what is going on in the world or why, and it reports to you what it wants to report, in the political bias it prefers.

I am not excusing the delusional or the extremist, your example "the shooter who killed 11 people and injured six in a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018, justified the attack by citing a conspiracy theory involving the Jewish people supporting illegal immigrants in secret." is a deranged individual, who created his own "reality".

Conspiracy Theory is too general a term, if it is encompassing the delusional and mentally unstable, along with those devoted to finding the facts and "truth" of a matter.

If someone doesn't believe in the official story of what happened in the 9/11 attacks... does that make him as dangerous and deluded as the person who attacked and killed those people in Pittsburg?

Does this mean than anyone that questions the official story on any given topic is a Conspiracy Theorist? Does this make them a threat?

Does this justify the silencing of voices, like Trump, who often states things that are unfactual or unsubstantiated, like your example of Ted Cruz's father?

I don't have the answers, and I really wouldn't want to..