Has Social Media Facilitated Widespread Belief In Conspiracy?
Picture this: it is late 2024 (close to a polarising election, of course) when a new conspiracy theory designed by white supremacists begins to circulate on the Internet. The theory certainly makes for a stirring read; a tale of corrupt establishment politicians conspiring with their aides and powerful figures to abuse young children. Of course, you don’t have to imagine this; this already happened, and the widely-circulated conspiracy theories ‘Pizzagate’ and ‘QAnon’ already profess exactly these ideas.
The World Economic Forum classed ‘massive digital misinformation’, which is directly linked to conspiracy theories, as a main risk for modern society in 2013. A conspiracy theory is an idea that an event, normally a controversial one, was engineered by a group of certain powerful or influential individuals. Of course, this event needn’t have ever actually happened; facts are relative in the realms of the World Wide Web where these ideas circulate, and it need only exist in the collective imagination of the online hordes.
Popular conspiracy theories which I will touch upon throughout this essay include QAnon and related conspiracies, coronavirus as an overstated threat and conspiracies pertaining to powerful figures and vaccines. Considering that the Internet is home to many of these ideas, could it be argued that social media has facilitated widespread belief in conspiracy theory?
To determine whether the Internet has facilitated widespread belief in strange and wild conspiracy theories, it is useful to understand what makes a ‘good’ conspiracy, and the conditions or traits that perpetuate belief in them. Researchers found that, similar to folklore, the theories that circulate on social media do not come from ‘whole cloth’ but rely on effective and ‘existing’ story frameworks, which are made by groups of people with similar world views and are rooted in existing, well-known stories. These traits can be expressed in many modern conspiracy theories – take QAnon, for example. Ultimately, QAnon is a story that takes detached, well-known world leaders and celebrities and strings them together into an eerily coherent narrative of elite vs. everyman politics. It even features an archetypal ‘knight in shining armour’ character – President Donald Trump, who is here to fight the Satanists and devil worshippers found in the Fake News Media! This theory began on 4chan message boards, each one having cultivated interests and therefore frequented by people with similar world views. While QAnon is a chosen example, many conspiracy theories share alarmingly similar trends.
Conspiracy theories appeal to specific groups of people. People with personality traits of ‘distrust’ and ‘low agreeability’ are associated with belief in conspiracy. They are also more likely to ‘overestimate the likelihood of co-occurring events.’ Conspiracy theories often make a person feel special, and therefore people ‘high in need for uniqueness’ are more likely to endorse conspiratorial belief and feel ‘special’ in doing so, which often correlates with the fact that they are likely to be ‘higher in powerlessness, social isolation and anomia’. What this means to say is that conspiratorial believers are people who are not satisfied with truths, facts and normalities presented in daily general and news media, and are likely to draw connections where they are not present to satisfy a thirst for an alternate reality. These individuals are also likely to feel disenfranchised from typical societal structures.
Considering these explanations, it is essential to understand that an entirely widespread belief in conspiracy is impossible. Only so many of these described individuals exist, and no matter the number of narratives available on murky message boards or WhatsApp groups, there will always be a group of ‘unenlightened’ people immune to the appeal of such conspiracies. Moreover, we can also conclude that conspiratorial thinking has always been around: individuals who feel disconnected from society are no social phenomenon. However, what can be understood is that certain conspiracies do have the power to influence a great number of people, especially with the power of the Internet. Depending on the effectiveness of the conspiracy and the people it is presented to, a conspiracy could latch onto a great number of individuals. However, can these beliefs be spread even further through the same deadly vector through which they may have first been encountered: social media?
Considering that short-sighted conspiratorial thinking has always existed, it is now important to analyse the extent to which social media contributes to the spread of conspiracy. Numerous studies have attempted to chart the spread and formation of conspiracy theories. For example, UCLA researchers painstakingly trawled through social media sites and news reports and using machine-learning categorisation techniques, were able to chart the spread and formation of internet-designed conspiracy theories. Through their research, they identified fifty-two ‘communities’ of tagged words which formulated COVID-related conspiracy theories. Some of the conspiracies which these researchers examined were the ‘coronavirus vaccines are surveillance devices’ and the ‘film your hospital’ movements. Crucially, what the team found was that, from a single conspiracy theory, there were multiple pathways through which a user could be exposed to many more conspiracy theories. Graphs shown throughout illustrate how a user could ‘fall down the rabbit hole’ and, through exposure to one conspiracy, could soon be exposed to other conspiracy theories related to coronavirus. This illustrates the potential of social media to facilitate widespread beliefs; one user, upon being exposed to ‘bioweapon’ conspiracies, could be linked to such ideas that the coronavirus is not worse than a flu and thus radicalise the user to the ‘film your hospital’ movement. What we can understand from this is that conspiracies circulated through social media have the potential for virality that is somewhat similar to an actual virus, and could contribute to an ‘infodemic’.
Other investigations showed similar concerning trends. A Durham University researcher found that a majority of Americans viewed their main source of news as social media (55%) and that the number of conspiracy theories fanned through social media increased significantly in countries where conspiracies were echoed by extremist politicians or media outlets. Conversely, in countries where there were laws restricting the spread of false information, far fewer of these retweets occurred. This study certainly supports the idea that social media facilitates widespread belief in conspiracy – in places where social media is regulated, there is less spread of fake news, and with less regulation, the spread of fake news is more prevalent (see the US, specifically Texas and Florida).
It would be impossible to write an essay on conspiracy and social media without analysing the effects of social media platforms themselves. A Guardian article investigated the use of WhatsApp during the trying times of coronavirus lockdown, finding that in Spain, a country with exceptionally strict first lockdown restrictions, usage of WhatsApp had gone up by 76%. The usage of WhatsApp, however, was what researchers found more curious. While there were many mutual aid groups and examples of a ‘positive’ use of WhatsApp, several negative uses were also observed. Conspiracy theories began to circulate certain groups, such as the theory that 5G masts caused coronavirus.
The curious effect of platforms like WhatsApp is the closed element that they contain. Groups can exist without anybody on the outside of them knowing they exist, giving a certain feeling of solidarity to these groups. Moreover, while there were certainly malicious theories spread through these groups, the majority of them were marked by one thing; a desire to protect, born out of concern and care for other members. This, combined with a higher level of trust among people one is mostly friends with or knows, means that conspiracy theories could easily spread within social media groups. This is what can make certain social media platforms so dangerous when concerning conspiracy theories.
To conclude, unchecked social media has the dangerous potential to facilitate concerning belief in conspiracy; however, in a modern, intelligent society, it is impossible to have entirely ‘widespread’ (majority) belief in conspiracy theory. This is because of the limited pool of personalities that can be affected by targeted conspiracy materials, especially in a modern ‘information’ society. However, social media certainly has the potential to indoctrinate a significant number of people; this becomes ever more apparent when considering that research has shown that being targeted by one conspiracy can lead one to find several other theories which may cause similar affectation. The effects of social media spread can also be nullified; as observed in an earlier paragraph, regulation can be used to stop the spread of fake news. Specific platforms, such as WhatsApp, can also have more targeted effects which would be more difficult to nullify through regulation. Overall, while widespread belief in conspiracy and living in a post-truth ‘infodemic’ is impossible, social media still has the potential to indoctrinate a worrying number of people into conspiracy.