False flags, true believers and trolls: Understanding conspiracy theories after tragedies
It is almost guaranteed after any tragedy: mixed in among the outrage and sadness is the doubt.
Skepticism is a natural part of reporting and understanding a fluid situation, but it can be taken to an extreme.
Conspiracy theories abound after tragedy.
It was true after Sandy Hook, it was true during and after the Colorado Springs shooting last week, and it is true again following the San Bernardino shooting.
But what drives the conspiracy theories? Has the echo chamber of the Internet allowed them to proliferate?
To better understand the low murmur of disbelief we see online after most major news events, we reached out to Joe Uscinski, co-author of the book "American Conspiracy Theories" and an associate professor of political science at the University of Miami, where he chaired the Conference on Conspiracy Theories in March.
Here's an abbreviated version of our conversation.
Q: How have conspiracy theories changed in the digital age? Has the Internet changed their nature or their frequency or their impact?
A: There's tons of stuff out there if you want to find it. The question is are people actively looking for it, and if they do by accident stumble across it, do they believe it?
The answer is people aren't any more into conspiracy theories now than they were before the Internet. I can give you some examples, but one is that belief in JFK conspiracy theories was at its height right before the Internet really blossomed. Since then, belief has dipped about 30 percent.
Most people go to the Internet for dating, for sex, for airline tickets, for all sorts of things. But way at the bottom of that list is to find conspiracy theories. If you were to look up what are the most trafficked websites in the U.S., conspiracy theories aren't anywhere near the top.
So it's not having that big of an effect. And if we look at polls of belief in specific conspiracy theories or if we try to track beliefs over time, what we find is that people are probably less conspiratorial now than they were 50 years ago, 100 years ago.
There are a whole lot of reflex mechanisms built into the Internet, too.
As San Bernardino happens or the Planned Parenthood shooting happens, you'll have a handful of people -- some of them might be trolls, some of them might be true believers -- say this must be a government plot to get gun control or maybe it was some sort of MKUltra experiment that went wrong or maybe it was the Illuminati. Those things hit, they circle around, and then people quickly beat the crap out of them.
One good example was when Ebola became a big news story a year ago there was a picture that went around on Twitter that said Ebola zombies are coming to get you.
The Internet quickly figured that out -- no, that's not an Ebola zombie, that's actually a cast member from a movie about zombies.
This conversation we're having right now is one of those reflexive mechanisms that take place. People spout these things, and then people say "Why the heck are people saying crazy stuff? What's wrong with the world?" But the world isn't so wrong, this conversation we're having now proves it.
Q: You mentioned that belief in the JFK conspiracy theory has gone down. Is the opposite true then? That the Internet has a fact-checking effect on conspiracy theories?
A: Scholars who look into this say that the Internet has provided a mechanism to really discourage the rumors and the conspiracy theories because it can quickly put those things to the test, and it can see if there's any truth to them. If there isn't, it travels just as fast, that these things aren't true.
And that wouldn't have been the case before. If you go back prior to any medium for sharing news, and you have rumors going around, there would really be no mechanism to stop that.
The Internet acts both as the incubator for conspiracy theories, but it also acts as the anecdote.
Q: Why do people feel the need to come up with alternative explanations for these events as they unfold?
A: There are some people who just view the world in conspiratorial terms, so that everything they see is the product of a conspiracy. On the opposite end, there are people who think nothing is the product of a conspiracy. You have this range from highly cynical to completely naive. I wouldn't suggest that either extreme is good. Some sort of a healthy skepticism is a good thing.
But you have these people out there that see events specifically and only through this conspiratorial lens that they have. The shooting can't just be the product of a psychotic madman with guns, or a psychotic couple with guns. It's got to be some nefarious string-puller somewhere doing this evil deed for some evil purpose. And if only we look beneath the surface we'll find the real truth. There are people who are just like that, they have that predisposition to an extreme.
That's why we see with every event like this, it's that same group of people. The same people listening to Alex Jones, the same people trolling around on YouTube. It's the same people, and it's the same theories.
Q: Is there something about violent acts that stand out? Are shootings any different from other events in the conspiracies they bring about?
A: Not necessarily. It happens almost on everything.
When the Malaysia Airlines jet went down, there were all sorts of conspiracy theories: The Russians did it, it was part of some sort of experiment, or the plane never existed or on CNN they asked did the plane go into a black hole?
They tend to focus on events that are really big in the media. Almost everything that captures the news cycle for a while, someone's going to be saying something conspiratorial about it.
Q: Does anything moderate the extreme belief in conspiracy theories?
A: It's very difficult to get people to change their mind about something. If your view on a specific event is driven by an underlying predisposition that you have, then it's very difficult to combat that.
Just like it's very difficult to convince a Democrat to be a Republican, it's very difficult to convince a conspiracy theorist to say, "hey, there's no conspiracies out there."
Q: Do you have a sense what might make them have that predisposition?
A: The argument that I make, which we don't have any evidence yet to support, is that this conspiracy worldview comes from childhood socialization -- conspiracy thinking is a product just the same way partisanship or ideology is. Those attitudes tend to stick with people throughout their lifetime.
Other people argue that there are underlying psychological issues that drive this. Or there may be some cognitive issues, too. For instance, people who believe in conspiracy theories sometimes fall victim to the conjunction fallacy or sometimes believe two conspiracy theories that can't possibly both be true.
Different personality traits have been linked to conspiracy thinking, too.
In terms of that research, it's good, and it's on the cutting edge, but it's not quite definitive yet, and I think we're going to have to wait a few more years for more studies to come out to really say what it is that's driving it. But the good thing is there's tons of research that's going on right now.
The literature is kind of in its infancy, but there's an engine there that's really driving it forward. Within a few years, we'll probably have some very definitive answers.
Q: Conspiracy theories have existed for quite some time. Why isn't there more research on it?
A: If you go back in time, you have Karl Popper working on it, then you have Richard Hofstadter. And then you have some historians that follow Hofstadter that look at particular episodes in history where people became very conspiracy-minded, like the Salem Witch Trials or the Red Scare of the 1950s. But then you see this lull in scholarship. No one really looked at it until the 1990s when you had some cultural scholars looking at conspiracy theories.
But it wasn't until maybe six or seven years ago that you wind up with this real watershed moment, and I think it might have been driven partially by people wanting to understand 9/11 truther theories.
When Barack Obama comes to power, you have this immediate groundswell of birther theories. And then everything that happened during the Obama administration had a conspiracy theory behind it: Obama faked his birth certificate, Obama blew up the Deepwater Horizon well for his green agenda, Obama did Sandy Hook for his gun agenda. Health Care act, conspiracy. Bailing out the banks -- that's a bank conspiracy.
Q: So, how is conspiracy theorizing intermingled with politics?
A: There's a way you can think about it. You have people who are very conspiratorial, and those who are not conspiratorial. Then you have people who run the range from conservative all the way to liberal.
The birthers tend to be people who are conservative, but conspiratorial. And the truthers tend to be liberal, but with conspiratorial worldviews.
For people to buy into a conspiracy theory, not only do they have to be conspiratorial, but that conspiracy theory also has to match with their other worldviews.
Q: What are some of the bigger open questions that remain, academically?
A: Where the worldview comes from.
There's been a lot of work over the last 60 years on where does partisanship come form, where does political ideology come from. They've been able to do over time studies of people: They survey them every few years for their entire lives, and they're able to track where their attitudes are. We haven't been able to do that with conspiracy theories.
Researchers have also been able to find a link between genetics and underlying political views. And there's an open question of whether there is a genetic link between conspiracy thinking and your genes.
The psychologists are doing a lot of experiments on it and trying to see what the underlying psychological correlates are, and the political scientists are doing a lot of poll work to see what are the attitudinal correlates of conspiracy belief.
There's a lot of polling going on right now, there's a lot of experiments going on right now -- it's a great time to be studying this topic.