I first encountered the Weekly World News (WWN) in the mid 90s. A black and white supermarket tabloid that specialized in fictional stories about aliens and cryptid sightings, the WWN seemed humorous and probably satirical. A friend used to joke that each issue contained one real news item and we just had to figure out which one it was. It was good wholesome fun. But in the decades since, it has grown increasingly difficult to separate satire from true belief in the realm of conspiracy theories and misinformation.
What is the conspiratorial allure?
Depending on whom you ask, conspiracy theories are either having a heyday or it’s just business as usual. But whether or not there is a long-term increase happening, certain factors likely influence the ebb and flow of conspiratorial beliefs.
“Circulation of conspiracy theories usually correlates with big social, economic and political shifts,” says Kiril Avramov, assistant professor of Slavic and Eurasian studies and director of the Global (Dis)Information Lab (GDIL) at The University of Texas at Austin.
People living with high levels of stress and uncertainty or feeling left behind as society transforms around them want answers as to why their lives are going awry, he explains. An effective conspiracy narrative not only offers compelling causal explanations for often random phenomena, it also assures individuals that they aren’t insignificant pebbles swept along by indifferent tides of change. Instead, they see themselves as deliberate targets of elite actors bent on their destruction. Whereas before there was just meaningless misfortune, now there is a plot, an enemy to fight, a side to choose.
“Conspiracy theories are in essence a populist theory of power,” says Avramov, citing the work of Mark Fenster. “You have the pure ‘us’ versus the corrupted ‘them’ and ‘them’ always conspire against our wellbeing.”
The identity of “them” is flexible and can be adjusted to appeal to specific audiences. Jewish populations have been frequent targets in conspiracies both past and present, but depending on what a particular population is fretting over, the culprit can be anything from feminism to “the deep state” to all of Western medicine.
In addition to the psychological comfort they provide for individuals, conspiracy theories can be useful to governments and other stakeholders looking to maintain the status quo, shift attention away from their own failings, or affect the outcome of political initiatives. This is where misinformation, which may be spread with the best of intentions by those who don’t realize it is inaccurate, crosses into disinformation – the deliberate propagation of falsehoods with the intention to deceive. In the previous century, the Soviet Union wrote the template for identifying real world threats, such as the AIDS epidemic, and exploiting fears surrounding them to influence popular opinion and behavior. These days a state need not even craft its own disinformation campaign, as social media allows interested parties to find and amplify existing conspiracy theories that suit their cause.
Avramov talks about conspiracy theories like a microbiologist discussing viruses – some are especially contagious and some are especially harmful. One goal of GDIL, an interdisciplinary project where faculty and students gather and analyze disinformation data from various regions, is to identify the most dangerous ones and explore ways to mitigate their harm.
Are humans hopelessly irrational?
Political psychologist Bethany Albertson’s short answer to the question of whether our political opinions are rational is, “Sometimes?”
“Our political opinions or attitudes are partially rational and partially emotional and heavily dependent on our social context and the elites we’re listening to,” she explains.
An associate professor of government at UT Austin and co-author of the book Anxious Politics: Democratic Citizenship in a Threatening World, Albertson studies how emotions influence our political attitudes and susceptibility to persuasion. Her research has shown that both Republicans and Democrats are vulnerable to accepting conspiratorial political narratives when the purported threat targets their preferred candidate.
“Conspiratorial news is likely to be highly evocative and produce emotions,” Albertson says. “And these are the headlines that are clickbait, are more likely to engage the reader, particularly if they conform to a worldview.”
For example, a study Albertson conducted with one of her graduate students in the days leading up to the 2016 election found that Democrats were more likely to believe news stories about Russian election interference whereas Republicans favored stories about election rigging by the Democratic Party. But they also found that such stories produced elevated negative emotions like anxiety in participants regardless of whether they perceived the stories helped or hurt their candidate.
Anxiety is an emotion of particular interest to Albertson and others in her field because it has been shown to motivate people to seek out information and could, at least in theory, result in an electorate that is better educated on issues and less prone to voting based on partisan habits. However, Albertson and her co-author demonstrated that anxiety also directs our attention toward threat, thus making us more likely to uncritically accept scary social media posts.
So, while emotion is not the enemy of rational thought, it can potentially be exploited by those seeking our clicks or our votes.
What’s with all the unusual behavior?
A recent poll that found 15% of Americans agreed with the statement, “Because things have gotten so far off track, true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country.” Why do some people turn to violence while others seem content with posting angry memes? Given the partisan nature of recent conspiracy theories, part of the answer may be how strongly individuals identify with their particular political tribe.
UT Austin psychology professor Bill Swann studies the effects of identity fusion on behavior and has found that strongly “fused” individuals are more likely to engage in extreme behaviors that they feel will benefit their group.
Identity fusion, explains Swann, is “a visceral, emotional sense of oneness with a group or cause.” Unlike the more common experience of group identity, in which individuals’ alignment with a group is largely intellectual and impersonal, identity fusion occurs when individuals come to view their personal identity and their group identity as one and the same.
While Swann hasn’t studied the connection between identity fusion and conspiratorial beliefs directly, he says “it is clear that fusion is associated with political beliefs” and is thus possibly linked with various partisan conspiracy theories. Fused individuals are also more likely to dismiss information from sources outside their group.
It’s not all bad news, though. Swann also notes that fused individuals are more likely to engage in altruistic behavior (albeit toward their own group members) and those who are strongly fused with their colleges have been shown to have higher retention rates than students with less intense levels of school spirit.
Is this all Mark Zuckerberg’s fault?
“We can’t expect average citizens to be highly critical or to pull apart every text they encounter,” says Albertson.
Instead, most people, at least to some extent, rely on trusted sources to provide them with truthful and accurate information. Of course, what those sources are varies widely. How, for example, do those who “question everything” when it comes to mainstream media then place their trust in uncredentialled strangers on YouTube or Facebook? Albertson suggests people aren’t necessary trusting social media personas but rather the friend or family member who shared the post. She also notes that it’s not just ordinary citizens spreading conspiratorial misinformation lately but also some members of our own government.
“As somebody who thinks there is respect inherent in our elected officials and a certain amount of respect one ought to hold for the office of the presidency and for Congress it’s hard for me to flip around and say, ‘how could you believe them?’” she says.
To Avramov, the flourishing of disinformation is also about a loss of public trust in traditional sources and institutions.
“If you are able to amplify the erosion of trust in procedures, in process, in structure,” he explains, this can provide a window for conspiracy theories to influence public opinion.
Is there anything we can do?
“This is the million-dollar question,” says Avramov.
At the individual level, he suggests we strive to practice better “information hygiene.” With information coming at us from all directions and without the gatekeeping of previous eras, it’s up to consumers to filter news media. Just as we wash our hands to avoid spreading viruses, we can help stem the spread of misinformation by fact-checking claims and examining their sources before sharing them.
We can also educate people early on about media literacy and the history of disinformation campaigns so they are less vulnerable when they encounter conspiracy theories in the wild.
However, Avramov adds, to make any real progress we also have to address issues at the societal level. These include repairing trust in institutions through greater transparency and reducing the underlying causes of anxiety such as social and economic inequalities. Anyone, even those who might think themselves immune due to their education level, can get sucked into believing misinformation if its narrative taps into their underlying fears.
Albertson echoes the idea of becoming more savvy consumers of information. She recommends seeking out multiple news sources that don’t just reinforce each other’s viewpoints. She also stresses the importance of “having some modesty about what we know, in particular what we know in this very quick media environment.” It’s easy to get things wrong in the moment, she says, and we should strive to be receptive rather than defensive when others point out our factual errors.
Albertson sees universities as playing a crucial role in facilitating discourse across political divides and her government classes are host to students with a wide range of beliefs.
“If you can’t engage across political differences in a respectful way in the classroom, where can you?” she says.