In recent years, we’ve seen more conspiracy theories getting traction and they’ve also started to become more mainstream. Maybe they’re not entirely off the fringes yet, but I doubt if there is a person reading this that hasn’t heard of Alex Jones, Pizzagate and the idea that you shouldn’t give your children vaccines because they cause autism.
Specific groups tend to embrace specific conspiracy theories as well. A lot of conservatives think George Soros is behind every nefarious thing the Left does while liberals tend to attribute conservative projects that scare them to the Koch brothers or Steve Bannon. A surprisingly large number of Muslims and members of the Alt-Right buy into Holocaust denial and of the idea that Jews are secretly controlling/manipulating events for nefarious purposes. Liberal black Americans have disturbingly taken to embracing conspiracy theories about police shootings in recent years (e.g.: Hands up, don’t shoot). The reason that these conspiracy theories are getting more lift-off than they used to has to do with the way that the Internet has changed the world, in this case, for the worse. How has the Internet encouraged the growth of conspiracy theories?
1) The Death of Gatekeepers: There was a time when CBS, ABC, and NBC controlled television news and papers and a relatively small number of magazines dominated the written word. I don’t think many of us would want to go back to the days when left-wing “Walter Cronkite” was the most trusted man in America and we were consistently fed whatever center-left pablum a few media elites decided we could be trusted to know, but at least they cared enough about their reputations in those days not to expose their viewers to wild conspiracy theories. The gatekeepers simply made sure conspiracy theories and died from lack of exposure. In a world with no authoritative voice or gatekeepers, there’s nothing to stop any conspiracy theory from spreading like wildfire.
2) The Economy of Scale in Media: As someone who has been making a living in online media since 2005, once thing I can tell you about people that love conspiracy theories is that they read more, share more, and comment more than other people. What this means is that a relatively small number of people in the “real world” can have an oversized impact online on the bottom line of a website. In a supply driven online world where media outlets are willing to sell whatever people want to buy, pushing conspiracy theories can keep the lights on.
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