Faculty Perspective: Internet Conspiracy Theories Have Consequences

January 17, 2021
Students walking across quad on a sunny afternoon

This piece was originally published in the Telegram & Gazette on Sunday, Jan. 17.

By Kyle Moody
Assistant Professor, Communications Media

This week was a sobering one for the American people. Between the violent attempted coup of the government, and the decision by large social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to remove outgoing impeached President Donald Trump, we have experienced much as a nation. Unless we address our nation’s issues with conspiracy theories and social media, these problems are only going to get worse.    

The Americans that flooded into our nation’s capital and caused destruction that left five people dead were not acting based on factual information. Rather, they were incited by frequent exposure to conspiracy theories online, and now we are seeing the consequences of this misinformation pooling around our democracy.

What comes next is going to be based on a combination of actions: our own individual and collective responses, and those belonging to Big Tech platforms like Facebook and Twitter. We can fight these conspiracy theories, but it’s going to take action on all of our parts.

It’s important to know why these conspiracy theories emerged. A conspiracy theory is a way to explain events that credits a small group of powerful persons, the conspirators, acting in secret for their own benefit, which goes against the common good. If you’ve been online at any point during the past five years, you’ve probably heard of conspiracy theories such as the Deep State, where a cabal of secret government workers – including President-Elect Joseph Biden – are dedicated to overturning the will of right-wing leaders such as President Trump. 

Perhaps you’ve heard of related conspiracies such as PizzaGate, which posits that liberal government officials like former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton used a Washington D.C. pizzeria as a front for child trafficking. Maybe you even believe the intricacies of the delusional gamification of the QAnon conspiracy, where Donald Trump is actually toiling to expose the Deep State as child-molesting cannibals that are trying to overtake the country. These are patently false, but their very spreadable nature came about as a result of misinformation spread across platforms to gullible users. 

As social media and technological changes grow at a rapid pace with shifts in political and social culture, the massive scale of these changes can become overwhelming. Proportionality bias is one such way of understanding these changes, where such varying changes can be explained by equally huge causes. In this case, the creation of a fictional Deep State that is doing the bidding of “globalists” was one way that proportionality was used to wave away the shifts of society. The narrative presented by them wipes away their own culpability in the violence that transpired at our nation’s capital, and across our country. 

What has been lacking throughout this administration is a solid application of media literacy by American citizens. This is infuriating to educators like myself, who provide skills to students and encourage critical thinking, research, and to identify news and information that they can trust as reliable. But the fact remains that our job will be a hard one in the coming years as we work to extricate ourselves from a glut of misinformation across the fabric of society, where users both old and young are enticed by false information narratives that appeal to their values. 

There is value in learning about the information we consume on a regular basis. I regularly offer courses at Fitchburg State University on best practices for social media. Usually those include telling students of all ages that their best recourse for posting and sharing content is to slow down and check the veracity of the information they encounter.

Checking information on an independent fact-checking site like Snopes or Politifact is useful to make sure one is not engaging with false claims. Moreover, social media platforms are driven by speed and rapid information sharing. Slowing down allows us to better process the information critically and at a remove, and it requires us to take a step back. This personal strategy is a way of taking back control from conspiracy theories, which thrive on our inability to extricate ourselves from their fictive and fast-moving “reality.” 

There are useful methods available to all of us when engaging with friends or loved ones that have been taken hold by conspiracy theories. Strategies for pulling them out of the disinformation abyss including talking with the person and not the story they are parroting, or appealing to their sense of integrity, reason, and conscience.

Suggesting alternative information sources means we’ll all need to examine our own habits of media consumption and bias, and thus need to expand our media diets. We have a plurality of beliefs in American society, and the onus is on us to learn where our friends and neighbors are getting their information. We will get there by improving our own collective media literacies.   

Technical platforms also have a major role in shaping public discourse. This wasn’t the only time the president has used his voice to rally his base into violent behavior. He was fond of his 88 million followers on the platform Twitter, which he used as his personal megaphone. Before and after the election, President Trump spread baseless conspiracy theories of voter fraud, falsely claiming the process was “rigged” and dedicated himself to overturning the results. On Friday, after nearly every other major social media platform has indefinitely suspended him for his role in inciting the attack on Washington, Twitter took the major step of banning the personal account of the president of the United States. 

We will likely see more bans of accounts like this before the year – possibly even the week – is over. Social media platforms are facing continued scrutiny over their role in distributing misinformation and highlighting extremist posts that have caused violence during the Trump administration, and their role in our everyday information exchange cannot be denied.

Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have benefitted from extreme right-wing media’s migration from the airwaves to the internet, and now that the political winds in Washington are changing, we will see more of these tech giants look to regulate and reform their network policies to ensure that it never happens again – or that they can be held blameless.

We should collectively encourage this, as reformation on a massive scale is needed to make sure that publishers are held accountable for the lies and violence they foment. After all, these were the sites where domestic terrorists were able to share lies that formed their ideologies; it’s also where they organized and set up the “Stop the Steal” march that led to violence and death. Small wonder that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s famous slogan was “Move fast and break things.” 

The choices before us are simple: we must become more media literate as information consumers, and we must also hold these platforms to task for not acting sooner to mitigate the violence that they profited from while democracy grew more fragile.

We must encourage our legislators to begin engaging in discussions that will lead to new regulations on these platforms and hold them accountable for the misinformation that they have highlighted on their sites, including high-profile users and demagogues like Trump.

This needs to change, and soon. Only by becoming more engaged in our media consumption and distribution can we become a better citizenry. 

Kyle Moody, Ph. D., is an associate professor of communications media at Fitchburg State University. He is an expert in online communities, media and information distribution, and social media production.