During tragedies, society often experiences a noticeable uptick in the number of conspiracy theorists as humanity struggles to make sense of our rapidly changing and often unexplainable world.
When events are so beyond our comprehension and current reality, what might typically seem like an outlandish conspiracy theory may, in fact, bring comfort. Surely, a sinister plot orchestrated by powerful organizations is easier to digest than the cruel and unpredictable nature of life.
From secret organizations, such as the Illuminati—composed of the global elite, encoding cryptic messages in popular cultureor sex cults involving European royal families and clergy—to disbelief in climate change, amidst cries of fake news, conspiracy theories pervade our daily lives.
In recent years, the false flag attacks theory has risen to prominence; namely “the idea that powerful forces routinely arrange massacres or terrorist atrocities, and make it appear as if some other individual or group did them, in order to achieve their sinister political goals.” The false flag narrative often works in concert with the crisis actor theory, in which these powerful organizations employ performers as bystanders, victims, and witnesses during these events. Accusations of crisis actors are most often seen in cases of mass shootings, which theorists believe are an elaborate hoax to restrict the right to bear arms.
Most recently, fears of 5G towers causing viruses to fears of mass vaccination programs supported by Bill Gates have been steadily gaining ground on social media.
From a psychological perspective, various studies have shown that people turn to conspiracy theories when feeling anxious, powerless, and lacking control. Conspiracy theorists often feel a sense of powerlessness, alienation from society, disenchantment with the government, as well as political cynicism. Although critics typically dismiss conspiracy theorists as deluded individuals, their ideas are not simply a set of individual attitudes. These ideas are a set of stories and shared assumptions that persist and evolve over the years, often through social activities, such as internet forums, chat rooms, campaigns, and organizations.
Research into conspiracy theories has revealed that they may have some basis on epistemic (understanding one’s environment), existential (feeling safe and in control of one’s environment), and social (the desire to belong, or maintain a positive image of themselves and their particular group) motives.
Epistemetically, humans often want to see the world as stable and consistent, and we want to understand our surroundings. When events threatening this logic occur, we naturally look for reasons. In this case, conspiracy theorists find fault in hidden actions by multiple secret actors, such as the Illuminati and Bill Gates.
Existentially, we need to feel safe and secure in the world, as well as feeling a sense of control over our environments. It may be comforting to point out these dangerous and untrustworthy organizations and individuals and feel that we are doing something.
Socially, conspiracy theorists may see themselves and their groups as moral and righteous in comparison to those powerful, but dangerous actors.
Unfortunately, not enough research has been done to see if conspiracy theories actually help individuals with these psychological motives. However, the empirical research that has been done concludes that, to a large extent, social, existential, and epistemic motives are influential. In addition, conspiracy theories and their theorists are a newer field of study; social psychologists only began systematic research in the 1990s.
Although conspiracy theories may appear harmless to some, critics are concerned that conspiracy theorists often dismiss the dangers of misinformation: the unintentional sharing of wrong information, and disinformation, the intentional creation of false information. Coupled with recent technological advances, such as affordable high-speed internet, misinformation and disinformation are spreading rapidly, reaching more people than ever before. On social media in particular, people are exposed to increasingly manipulated content, images, and documents containing an element of truth, but being weaponized for a specific, sensationalistic purpose and agenda.
The spread of misinformation has been particularly harmful during this recent pandemic. The overwhelming power of language is only too apparent as increases in vigilantism, hate crimes, and violence against ethnic and racial groups (especially increases in anti-Asian sentiment due to Trump’s “China-virus” speech as well as various other misinformation). According to Alfred Hermida, professor and director of the journalism program at the University of British Columbia, “When there’s a lack of information and there’s fear, rumours come in to fill that gap.”
Health wise, spreading misinformation is dangerous as well. Misinformation can lead to the virus being passed on to those most at risk. Manipulated content disguised as health advice and guidelines, such as lemons and hot water, or Trump’s unsubstantiated claims about drug treatment, which has led to death and drug shortages. According to Ramona Pringle, director of the Creative Innovation Studio at Ryerson University, “Anything that’s health-related, the challenge online is that it’s so emotional. It speaks to our primal instincts about survival that people panic; people have an emotional reaction to it.”
Finally, from an ethical standpoint, spreading misinformation disregards our civic duties and responsibilities to our keep our communities safe for all. It is also disrespectful to those risking their lives to stop this pandemic, often out of economic necessity, as well as those are dying, those who may die, and those have already lost loved ones.
According to Tom Phillips, editor at Full Fact, this situation is too pressing “for a ‘publish first, check later’ approach.” However, “[t]he good news is that we all, journalists and citizens alike, can take steps to slow the spread of misleading claims. By taking time to think before you share – about where a claim has come from, how you might check its contents, and how it makes you feel – we’re less likely to inadvertently pass on bad information that puts our friends and family at an even greater risk.”
The spread of misinformation, along with conspiracy theories, highlight the lack of and importance of critical thinking and media literacy skills, described as “the knowledge and skills necessary to understand and use the codes and conventions of a wide variety of media forms and genres appropriately, healthily, effectively and ethically.”
Media literacy supports critical thinking skills, such as evaluating purpose and target audience, and conducting research, as well as becoming smart consumers of information and products. According to the Center for Media Literacy, helpful media literacy question to ask include, “1. Who created this message? 2. What creative techniques are used to attract my attention? 3. How might different people understand this message differently than me? 4. What values, lifestyles, and points of view are represented in, or omitted from, this message? 5. Why is this message being sent?”
In Canada, media literacy has been influenced by the work of Marshall McLuhan, as well as Barry Duncan, founder of the Association for Media Literacy (AML). AML strives to show Canadians how media works, how media are organized, and how media produce meaning. In addition, in 2017, the NewsWise literacy program was created to combat the spread of fake news in Canada. Aimed at elementary and high school students, NewsWise teaches how to filter and separate fake news, including checking for reliable sources of information. Fake news has come into prominence, since Trump’s election, with his belittling of often credible and mainstream media, as “fake news,” and subsequent spread on social media. Launched in 2018, the news literacy program now serves students Canada-wide from Grades 5 to 12, aiming “to provide school-aged Canadians an understanding of the role of journalism in a healthy democracy and the tools to find and filter information online.”
Here at AU, students interested in media and communications are encouraged to consider the BPA Communication Studies Major Program, featuring courses, such as CMNS 202/POLI 291: Media and Power in Canadian Society and CMNS 402: Global Communication.