Mass-paranoia: conspiracy theories and fake news

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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.

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.

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.

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.

Selected further reading

Basham, L. (2003) Malevolent Global Conspiracy. Journal of Social Philosophy, 34 (1). 91–103. (Wiley)

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Balint Hudecz

Balint Hudecz

Communication, data, peace research and a bit of egyptology