Conspiracy theory, as a category of ideas, has been a prominent topic of political discourse since the 2016 American presidential election and the EU referendum in the UK. Many suspect those elections could have been influenced by conspiracy theories spread by both foreign and domestic propaganda and misinformation campaigns. Policymakers in the UK, EU, and US are debating the effects that conspiracy theories could have on elections and policy.
In the US, Congress has questioned the CEOs of large social media companies and pressured them to limit the reach of fake political news. While there has yet to be any legislation, this sparked action from the major social media platforms. YouTube, for example, is taking steps to stop recommending conspiracy theory videos; it is also de-monetizing some medical misinformation.
Limiting the spread of conspiracy theories seems prudent for two reasons. Firstly, because democracy relies on informed voters, limiting the amount and spread of misinformation, disinformation, and dubious information is likely a good thing. I recently edited Conspiracy Theories & the People Who Believe Them: many chapters document how conspiracy theories have the power to drive public debates and policy outcomes on an international scale. In the US conspiracy theories have surrounded policies addressing issues as far ranging as gun control, bicycle sharing, water fluoridation, mosquito abatement, and GM food.
Misinformation combined with a willingness to accept the idea that shadowy elements are colluding against the public good lead individuals to accept conspiracy narratives; together in groups, the people that accept these ideas can not only sway policy, but become irrational, radicalised, and violent. Consider the groups who, against the recommendations of scientists and dentists, organised to stop water fluoridation with devastating consequences for public health. Or, consider the group of armed men patrolling the Arizona desert looking for satanic sex traffickers they read about on a social media site. These are just the latest incarnation of conspiracy theory-fuelled witch hunts which have harmed numerous innocents over the centuries.
Secondly, individuals rely on information to make choices; bad information leads to choices disconnected from reality. Take for example the startling amount of misinformation on social media surrounding vaccines. Even before a vaccine for Zika has been developed, misinformation about it has outpaced accurate science on social media platforms. Implicit in this misinformation is a conspiracy theory suggesting that unscrupulous pharmaceutical companies and corrupt governments are attempting to poison the public. Outbreaks of once cured diseases have re-emerged because of these conspiracy theories. YouTube’s policy of demonetising channels that spread such content should be applauded. But, there are costs and risks involved in such policies that have thus far rarely been considered.
Conspiracy theories are unique in that they are not necessarily false. They can be true or false; the problem is that they have not been verified as likely true by the appropriate authorities. Should tech companies ban or bury conspiracy theories, they may be suppressing vital ideas which could be verified if investigated further. Also, even if many of them are false, conspiracy theories may help uncover truth. We know more about the assassination of President Kennedy because conspiracy theorists pushed for more transparency.
It is extremely difficult to determine what counts as conspiracy theory in real time for the millions of ideas that traverse social media every day. Most scholar’s definitions of conspiracy theory are as follows:
an unverified explanation of past, present, or future events or circumstances that cites as a main causal factor a small group of powerful people working in secret for their own interests and against the common good
We might assume that it’s obvious which ideas would count as a conspiracy theory, but people seldom agree on what counts and what doesn’t. Vast majorities of people believe in conspiracy theories because they believe their theories are true, and therefore not conspiracy theories at all. Further, what counts as a conspiracy theory is often driven by a person’s predispositions (i.e., Republicans are more likely than Democrats to believe Democrats are conspiring, and vice-versa). Asking tech companies to identify conspiracy theories would put them in the position of making millions of subjective decisions about what is true and what is not. And they would be making these decisions under pressure from governments who may have a stake in many of these decisions.
Policymakers have focused much of their discussion on social media and political conspiracy theories, but these are only a part of a much larger problem. Traditional media sources traffic in conspiracy theories too. Should these be regulated? Should television channels be expected to screen content for truth? Consider the History Channel which has become a swamp of pseudoscience and conspiracy theories, or Animal Planet, which traffics in conspiracy theories about the US Navy killing off mermaids. If we are concerned about conspiracy theories on social media, why not on television? Why not in movies? If we are going to ask YouTube to hide or demonetise flat earth videos, why wouldn’t we ask movie theatres and streaming companies to do the same with films like Oliver Stone’s JFK?
Yes, conspiracy theories bring problems, but on the other side of the ledger, there are some benefits to letting ideas battle it out in an open playing field. Policymakers have focused on social media, but conspiracy theories have a long history, and it’s not clear that online activity has made people believe conspiracy theories now more than before. Even if social media companies were to ban conspiracy theories, it is not clear what effect that would have (it could potentially lead to a backlash by conspiracy theorists who see their worst fears realised).
Throughout the entire discussion, it has been missed that government is one of the biggest purveyors of both conspiracy theories and actual conspiracies. If policymakers were to have a more open and transparent government which did not engage in conspiracies, and if politicians did not spread conspiracy theories as a means of manipulating the public, then people might feel less of a need for conspiracy theories in the first place. It would be nice if governments and politicians cleaned up their act, but as with conspiracy theories, it’s much easier to scapegoat.
Joseph E. Uscinski is Associate Professor of political science at University of Miami, College of Arts & Sciences. He is editor of Conspiracy Theories & the People Who Believe Them (Oxford, 2018) and coauthor of American Conspiracy Theories, (Oxford, 2014). The Bennett Institute’s Dr. Tanya Filer contributed a chapter to Conspiracy Theories & the People Who Believe Them.