Conspiracy theorists used to be perceived by the public as a bunch of wide-eyed, messy haired, rapidly talking people on the fringes of society who congregated among themselves in a basement. The rest of society seemed to pay little to no attention to these so-called weirdos, and life went on.
The “flat-Earthers,” the “anti-vaxxers,”the believers who claimed the moon landing was fake, all these people were few and far in-between because it was a lot harder for these ideas to disseminate face to face, especially when the majority of people held the opposite view.
But times have changed, and so has technology and the role of the internet in people’s life. With a greater number of people constantly being online and having access to multiple ways to perpetuate their ideas to a larger audience, conspiracy theories are largely being normalized.Social media and the internet allow access to a wide variety of resources and can expose yourself to many different points of view.
The problem, though, is people rarely use the Internet to consult different sources. People usually look at articles that either support the point of view they already have, or they expose themselves to just one or two sources and adopt that view. This becomes dangerous because it can often lead to a situation where people are unable to draw the line between reality and fiction. Now, through the use of photoshopped images, manipulated videos and skewed facts, even otherwise perfectly educated and reasonable people may believe completely false notions.
Around a decade ago, the rapid spread of a satirical article online led people to buy into the myth that the popular singer Avril Lavigne had died a while ago and was replaced by a lookalike.
A long-discredited claim that the MMR vaccine caused autism spread so rapidly that to this day, some parents adamantly refuse to get their children vaccinated. This not only puts their children at risk, but it also puts others who come in contact with the unvaccinated child at risk as well.
Then the question becomes: What can we do to stop the spread of these dangerous conspiracy theories? The obvious answer would be to educate people. But as is seen when reasoning with a cult-like mentality, any attempt to argue against a firmly held belief, will just lead to people clinging further to their earlier opinions.
Reasoning might seem futile but combating feelings with facts and sources from actual experts is not necessarily the worst strategy. In 2018, YouTube announced a measure that would redirect people watching conspiracy theory videos to related Wikipedia articles so that they could further educate themselves on the referenced topic and arrive at an informed decision on their own.
Research has shown that “conspiracy ideation” or essentially buying into conspiracy theories can be harmful to mental health. Why then is it so appealing to buy into these beliefs? While people may scoff, there is always a little bit of curiosity when it comes to these opinions. In my opinion, conspiracy theories probably provide a way for people to perceive themselves as the special, enlightened ones: the rebels of society, fighting against the herd mentality and being aware of secret knowledge that the “sheeple” are simply blind to.
A lot of conspiracy theories can also help further solidify a belief or bias you already had about a particular politician or celebrity. In this situation, conspiracy theories have an added appeal, they provide a way to justify prejudice against individuals or groups.
At the end of the day, it all boils down to being mindful of the information you expose yourself to as you scroll through your social media. One meme, one post, or one satirical article, can all have the effect of tumbling down the rabbit hole of suspicion, lies and misunderstood facts. It can be tempting to listen to and absorb conspiracy theories, and that’s fine as long as you remember what they are at the end of the day: theories. Your beliefs should ultimately be rooted in actual evidence