Mass-paranoia: conspiracy theories and fake news
Some notes from Mass-paranoia (2018) by Peter Kreko — Originally I wrote this post in 2018…
Kreko’s recent and timely book is all about conspiracy theories and fake news, exploring how they work, why people believe in them, and how to overcome them. It is indeed a topical issue as we are told to be living in a post-truth world where facts count less than personal (subjective) opinions and beliefs. Nowadays, it seems that everyone can have not only their personal opinions but their personal facts. In this atmosphere, it’s hard to know what is real and what is fiction, everything becomes questionable, and the truth is created by persuasion.
Fake news and conspiracy theories — what are they?
By definition, fake news is disseminated information that contains verifiably false or misleading claims, while conspiracy theories attempt to explain events or situations as the result of the actions of powerful groups without creditable evidence. Such explanations reject the accepted ‘official’ narratives. Disseminating fake news is a tool to strengthen, give creditability to, and promote such theories.
Why do we believe in conspiracy theories and fake news?
In a nutshell, we have a natural need and urge to describe and explain the world around us, especially when we do not feel that we are in control. We do the explaining based on our beliefs and emotions, thus we tend not to seek real knowledge, rather we look for answers that psychologically appease us and do not contradict our existing beliefs. We want clear-cut answers to why bad things happen to good people. Conspiracy theories help to create the illusion that it is fully known to us how the world works and — after all — we are still in control.
Conspiracy theories also play a key role in creating and forming group identities, which has been critical for group survival throughout our history. They help people to unite under one flag by dividing the world into friends and foes. It is also interesting to note that humans are perceptive to news about possible threats, which is a natural surviving mechanism.
A fascinating question is why people have the urge to imagine themselves living in a world where hostile forces have total control over them, continuously threatening their lives, and being always misled. To our best knowledge, it seems that imagining to be constant victims gives the impression of being important, being the chosen one.
Why is it an issue now?
Although fake news and conspiracy theories have always been with us, since ancient times, nowadays the internet and especially social media are the perfect breeding ground for them because ‘information’ is disseminated by ‘friends,’ people who we trust and believe. While reputable media outlets only share information when the source and validity can be proven, on social media we get them without fact and quality filtering.
Are they dangerous?
They can be if they are used to legitimise violence and hatred towards other individuals or groups of people by suggesting oppression and/or violence is inevitable for self-defense. Conspiracy theories are often directed towards minorities.
Democracy is especially exposed to conspiracy theories as they can undermine one of its building blocks: general trust. For example, by suggesting that elections are rigged, institutions are biased, or the democratic checks and balances are under the influence of foreign powers, harmful individuals. One of the effects is that it can withhold the rate of democratic participation as people tend to think that their vote does not count, and their voices will not be heard. It is also shown that people who believe in conspirations think less and do not fully acknowledge the importance of human rights and fundamental freedoms.
Who profits from conspiracy theories?
By nature, conspiracy theories are populist. Thus, populists often use these theories to get fame, support from the masses and mobilise their constituents — ‘the people’ against the hidden conspirators. In their rhetoric, the common people are the victims who struggle against the powerful, the elites controlling politics, economics, and culture. For them, the world is black and white, the constant battle of evil and good forces. In addition, conspiracy theories, the same as populists do not like political pluralism. Illiberal politicians often turn to populism and conspiracy theories as they need to justify why they are tearing down democratic institutions. They disseminate fake news in the name of free speech.
How do I know if I encounter fake news or conspiracy theories? Are they all misleading and what should I do?
Indeed, sometimes it is quite challenging to know whether we encounter a fake or real conspiracy theory because there are indeed existing ‘conspirations’ out there. Therefore, according to Basham, we should approach conspiracies with agnosticism. It is possible that some of them are real, but we do not have the necessary knowledge to come to a reassuring conclusion or even have the power to do something about them.
But if we do not want to be agnostic, it is helpful to understand their driving logic to have a fairly good shot of spotting whenever they are fake. As Karl Popper argues, the logic behind conspiracy theories is that every unfavorable happening in the world can only occur because of the conscious activity of people or groups of people with enormous power and influence — nothing can happen by chance, without somebody’s interest. The logic of conspiracy theories also dismisses that within (powerful) groups there can be conflicting interests. Conspirators thus are superhumans who can stay hidden, have unimaginable powers, and can keep in check their conflicting interests with each other — as opposed to masses who can be easily manipulated. It is not hard to realise that this logic is false as in reality conspiracies get revealed at one point as ordinary people curate them and they make mistakes.
Overall, a general rule is to start being suspicious when you hear a lot of news from a single or group of sources that pleases or angers you. Do not believe to sources where you get only information that strengthens your beliefs. Reality is more complicated than that.
Structurally speaking, the best way to tackle conspiracy theories is by strengthening democratic and independent institutes. Although true that sometimes independent institutes can be the tool of persuasion and competing agendas, only pluralism, and open societies can ensure transparency because it will be always in someone’s interest to reveal the secrets of conspiracies.
Kreko in his book outlines four approaches to address fake news and conspiracy theories:
Preventive strike: Narrowing down the reach of websites spreading fake news and conspiracy theories. For example, what Twitter did, they do not sell ads to Russia Today and Sputnik anymore. A more radical step is to delete accounts, which can be contested by referring to free speech, but Kreko argues that in the current climate, such a step can be justified if the action is targeted, reasonable, and conducted with diligence.
Striking back: Using fact-checking services to filter and remove news that contains false information or to make consumers realise that what they have encountered is false. Existing services include, for example, snopes.com, euvdisinfo.eu, stopfake.org. Unfortunately, tagging news as fake does not reduce their reach, rather triggers the opposite effect. Konspiratori.sk adopted a different approach, the site advocates for making the promoters of such articles public. Webpages spreading fake news often generate income by selling ad spaces, thus konspiratori.sk tries to make advertisers aware and help them to prevent their ads from appearing on websites that could damage their reputation.
Healing: The main aim here is to contradict with counterarguments, which is needless to say an exceedingly tiring process, but not impossible. Besides reasoning, ridiculing the narrative can be an effective strategy for those who are not totally biased. The logic behind this is that especially the youth does not want to look naïve, a dupe — because being one brings down their social ranking within a group. In addition, it is interesting to note that the strategy to awaken empathy, i.e., to highlight that scapegoating will harm people is totally useless. Communicating counterarguments via official channels is not effective because there is a general mistrust towards them. It is better to tackle conspiracy theories through personal relations.
Immunisation: Research shows that it is easier to counter conspiracy theories before they get vastly disseminated. In addition, critical thinking is also considered to be the most important tool against them. Exercises to improve analytical thinking can be beneficial, or to show how easy it is to make conspiracy theories. The sensation of uncertainty, powerlessness, lack of control, the absence of logical thinking and a strong aptitude to mystification (magical thinking) tend to work in favour of conspiracy theories, thus these need to be tackled. It seems that good education is crucial.
Selected further reading
Basham, L. (2003) Malevolent Global Conspiracy. Journal of Social Philosophy, 34 (1). 91–103. (Wiley)
Carl F. G., and Serge M. (1987) Changing Conceptions of Conspiracy. Berlin: Springer-Verlag (Springer)
Douglas, K. et al. (2015) The social, political, environmental, and health-related consequences of conspiracy theories: Problems and potential solutions. In: Bilewicz, M. et al. eds. The psychology of conspiracy. Taylor and Francis. (Amazon)
European Commission (2018) A multi-dimensional approach to disinformation. (EU)
IFLA (2017) How to Spot Fake News — IFLA in the post-truth society. (IFLA)
Jolley, D., and Dougles, K.M. (2014) The effects of anti-vaccine conspiracy theories on vaccination intentions. PloS ONE, 9 (2). (PLOS ONE)
Kasparov, G. (2015) Winter Is Coming: Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must Be Stopped. PublicAffairs. (Amazon)
Kramer, R. M. (1998) Paranoid cognition in social systems: thinking and acting in the shadow of doubt. Pers Soc Psychol. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 2 (4), 251–75. (SAGE)
Levin, S. (2017) Facebook promised to tackle fake news. But the evidence shows it’s not working. The Guardian.
McCauley, C., and Jacques, S. (1979) The popularity of conspiracy theories of presidential assassination: A Bayesian analysis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 37 (5), 637–644. (APA PsycNet)
Orosz, G. et al. (2016) Changing Conspiracy Beliefs through Rationality and Ridiculing. Frontiers in Psychology, 7: 1525. (Frontiers in Psychology)
Pomerantsev, P. (2014) Nothing Is True, and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia Hardcover. PublicAffairs. (Amazon)
Popper, K. (2001) The Open Society and Its Enemies. (Amazon)
Sunstein, C. R. and Vermeule A. (2009) Conspiracy Theories: Causes and Cures. Political Philosophy, 17 (2), 202–227. (Wiley)
Swami, V. et al. (2012) Personality and individual difference correlate of attitudes toward human rights and civil liberties. Personality and Individual Differences, 53 (4), 443–447. (Science Direct)