Social media’s role in conspiracies

Fake news, conspiracy theory and flat-out lies are the formula for social media conspiracies – and it doesn’t help that many of the people peddling these falsehoods draft the same terms to describe the facts being used to debunk them. Conspiracy theories cover all sides of the political spectrum, too – and dozens have been shared by people in Donald Trump’s administration.

Right-wing attitudes towards feminism, sexuality and gender, anti-Semitism and race tend to blend with left-wing suspicions about government control, black ops and false-flag operations. These bizarre concoctions, based on speculation or flat-out misinformation, are easy to disseminate on YouTube videos and YouTube channels. There, they are picked up and spread on social media platforms both by live conspiracy-theory believers, and automated bots set up specifically to spread these lies far and wide.

What makes it worse, is that even when platforms like YouTube respond to complaints about this fake news and clamp down on it, they are accused of censorship and working in service of the conspiracy. When this happens, they probably wish they’d decide to open an online casino rather than a social media-sharing site, as the issues they have to navigate are far greater, and far harder to control, and the focus shifts from fun to a very serious problem, fast.

From the Bizarre to the Ridiculous

The woman who shot three people and herself at YouTube’s headquarters in San Bruno earlier this year was allegedly tipped over the edge by YouTube’s ‘censorship’ of her radical vegan videos. She’s now become a martyr among conspiracy peddlers.

In an even more bizarre turnabout, a video exposing conspiracy theory falsehoods was recently removed from the platform for a short time, following complaints by the conspiracy theorists it was debunking that their views were being ‘censored’.

The Alex Jones Effect

At the centre of two pernicious conspiracy theories is US Info Wars host Alex Jones. His frequent use of outright lies and debunked ‘evidence’ does not deter fans; any opposition is seen as the shadowy ‘world government establishment’ trying to muzzle a brave crusader for truth.

A rabid right-wing commentator who has built a massive following on YouTube with his diatribes against the idea of gun control, Jones has been instrumental in spreading the Pizzagate and Sandy Hook conspiracy theories. The first is an outlandish story of a supposed global paedophile ring that includes Hillary Clinton, purportedly operating in the basement of a Washington DC pizza parlour.

The pizza joint in question doesn’t actually have a basement, but that doesn’t stop Jones and his millions of followers sharing their “Hillary Clinton is a secret paedophile” stories on multiple platforms. It also didn’t stop a man who believes Jones’ nonsense from walking into the place and firing a rifle in 2017.

Jones’ lies about Sandy Hook and other US school shootings are even more harmful to parents of the victims. He insists these incidents are ‘false flag’ events staged by government agencies, using ‘crisis actors’. After the Florida school shooting at Parkland, as well as the Orlando nightclub shooting, Jones and his ilk were still claiming ‘false flags’, and one of the students speaking out after Parkland was demonised falsely as a ‘crisis actor’.

But even when Jones is called out on YouTube – as he was recently by the group Media Matters, who posted a video debunking his Sandy Hook lies – complaints calling this ‘fake news’ can see YouTube suspend posts critical of conspiracy theorists. This was the case with the Media Matters video, until complaints forced the site to reinstate it.

Ironically, when the Sandy Hook parents sued Jones for his defamatory remarks regarding their murdered children, he countersued, saying the lawsuits themselves had ‘defamed’ him.

How the Filth Spreads

Unfortunately, even trying to debunk these vile untruths online can help to spread them. Supporters of conspiracy theorists will spread their videos and posts on many social media platforms, but this is boosted enormously by bots. Recent studies of Jones’ influence have revealed that thousands of Russian-based bots are involved in his distribution network. However, even well-meaning people fighting against these hateful theories can inadvertently help them spread.

All social media sites boost content according to algorithms – sharing what people are talking about most, whether it’s good or bad. So even a backlash against a cynical, lying conspiracy theory can help to spread it. The more people interact with a post, even to prove it wrong, shout it down or argue with whoever shared it, the more visible it is to the algorithm, and the more it gets shared, which starts a ripple effect.

Social media platforms need to work on this with their algorithms. In the meantime, those trying to shut down the spread of these lies should block and report, but not share or engage otherwise. As they say, don’t feed the trolls, and in this case feeding them means reacting, sharing and drawing attention to what they want the world to see.


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