Biased, or untrue, media plays a huge role in the believability and spread of conspiracy theories
Regardless of how scarily believable they are, conspiracies can spread like wildfire. Whether it be through social media platforms—such as YouTube, Instagram and Twitter — or news domains — such as FOX, CNN and Daily Mail — conspiracy theories have always found ways to circulate the media and be believed by some. What is it that makes these theories spread so rapidly?
“There’s research that supports the fact that misinformation spreads,” journalism teacher Julia Satterthwaite said. “And it’s crazy because it’s insidious, [and] you don’t really know how it happens. For example, QAnon. How did that happen?”
QAnon is a cult-like conspiracy based on the idea that Democratic leaders are satanists. Believers of this conspiracy also believe that Donald Trump ran for president under order of the military in 2016, and that the 2020 election was stolen from him. A conspiracy like this was able to spread like wildfire through social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, which is a main reason why there still are people who believe in QAnon today, despite the fact that the conspiracy behind QAnon has been proven false.
Conspiracy theories, such as QAnon, are sometimes so absurd that they’re spread solely because of their unbelievability. Infotainment, a form of media that oftentimes is meant to be more entertaining than accurate, can spread up to 70% faster compared to honest journalism.
“Shane Dawson does conspiracy theories on celebrities, and people believe them,” El Estoque co-editor in chief Ayah Ali-Ahmad said. “Recently, it was talked about that [Helen Keller] was not deaf and not [blind] when, [in reality], she was. What perpetuated that was an antisocialist movement back in the early 1900s that painted her as [a fraud].”
In May 2020, there was a TikTok trend that started spreading the conspiracy theory that Helen Keller wasn’t real. The theory itself started off with just one video, but proceeded to spread until it got to the point where millions of people knew about this conspiracy. Despite the fact that the theory itself is blatantly false, many people on the app were genuinely questioning its accuracy and some individuals believed the theory as a whole.
Social media plays a huge role in determining how quickly conspiracies spread, due to how social media provides users with a platform that they can abuse to spread false information.
“I think that people in the media that are famous [and] have a big platform, they can influence more people,” freshman Nathan Diaz said. “Trump, for example, saying what he said about COVID, not to wear masks, influenced millions of people.”
COVID-19 conspiracy theories have been spread almost everywhere in a fairly short amount of time, due to the relevancy of these theories during the global pandemic. Social media users start reposting and sharing conspiracies, and people oftentimes only check mainstream (and often biased) media outlets to confirm or deny the accuracy of the conspiracy itself.
It comes as no surprise as they are just doing what is easy: searching it up but only looking at the first article.
“We need every student in America to learn media literacy so that they know how to evaluate a source for whether or not it’s [contributing to] bias,” Satterthwaite said. “And bias isn’t necessarily bad, it’s inescapable.”
Bias is everywhere, however, it’s important to consider a variety of sources. Using logic and reasoning, the reader can form their conclusion and stop the spread of false information. However, if readers don’t consult a variety of sources, conspiracies inevitably continue to spread and be believed by readers.
Why do these readers believe these conspiracy theories? Although it’s often complex, there are three main reasons why conspiracy theories become solidified: uncertainty, sense of control and self-image. Jade Wu, a clinical health psychologist, proposes that “There are gaps in our understanding of how injustices and disasters come about. For all of us, there are days when nothing seems to make sense. When a conspiracy theory pops up, [it often] claims to make sense of the insensible.” When an unexplainable event becomes explainable with the help of a conspiracy theory, people feel in control of their lives. When the situation is threatening, a theory that hypothesizes a plausible reason gives people a heightened sense of security.
Conspiracy theories also give individuals a sense of community by bringing together those who share the same beliefs. When conspiracy theorists are in a community of like-minded people, there is the feeling of being the “holder of privileged knowledge.” Not only does coming up with a reason behind an otherwise unexplainable situation satisfy the instinctual feeling to explain everything, but it also provides people with a sense of control over their lives and allows for them to join an exclusive community that helps boost their self-esteem.
It’s safe to say that the media adds fuel to the fire. For starters, the Illusory Truth Effect makes people more likely to believe false information, playing a crucial role in the spread of misinformation.
“If we are exposed to the same information multiple times we become more likely to believe it is true, even if those exposures do not come with any form of evidence, and even if it seems to contradict other things that we know,” said Dr. Benjamin C Storm, Associate Professor and Cognitive Area Head of University of California, Santa Cruz. “When people are constantly exposing themselves to information on social media and the internet, they may do so in a way that leads them to become susceptible to conspiracy theories because over time that information starts to look more and more likely to be true, even though it isn’t.”
The societal understanding of news also influences how much people believe in conspiracy theories. “Because commonly held standards for understanding news is declining, making it increasingly more difficult to determine the credibility of information, the internet has become particularly vulnerable to the spread of disinformation,” concludes Forbes writer Rebecca Heilweil in How Internet Conspiracy Theories Go Viral – And Get People To Believe Them, Too. She also says, “Conspiracy theories are born from growing suspicion that institutions like the government and the mainstream media cannot be trusted.”
Conspiracy theories and other wild ideologies are abundant on the internet; to say the least, they’re everywhere. It’s inevitable that in every article lies bias, but looking at multiple articles can help reduce the level of bias or inaccurate information consumed. Only by doing so can people formulate an opinion that is completely theirs, instead of believing a theory that isn’t inherently true.