The ability of social media to influence how people think about a person or event has been well documented. The 24/7 availability of news shows on television and the addition of a wide-open array of news, with any particular bend you prefer, available online, people can be oversaturated with facts, opinions, interpretations, and all-out falsehoods. It is this diversity of viewpoints that allow readers to develop a loyalty to a singular site, or commentators. Basically, there is something for everyone.
One aspect of the impact of media is the question of its ability to encourage distrust in government. According to Schneider, Gruman, and Coutts “research suggests that reading newspapers and watching TV News programs (e.g., 60 Minutes) increased peoples understanding of the political system. However, other types of TV programming, such as entertainment talk shows actually decreased people’s understanding of the government” (Schneider, Gruman, & Coutts, 2012, p. 160). They go on to say that those who listen to talk radio distrust the government more. Taking those two examples and incorporating social media into the mix adds a number of new players to the game. For people that question and doubt science, medicine, media, and the government it is not hard to see how conspiracy theories are something that they propose and embrace.
With the vast amount of information available online it should not be surprising that conspiracy theorists have found a home on the Internet. From the Journal of Political Philosophy, Sunstein and Vermeule offer this definition of conspiracy theory as “an effort to explain some event or practice by reference to the machinations of powerful people, who attempt to conceal their role (at least until their aims are accomplished)” (Sunstein & Verneule, p. 205). Events such a 9/11, Sandy Hook, and the current Las Vegas incident have all become fodder for conspiracy theorists to float ideas of who is really responsible and what the government is hiding. Another aspect of the impact of conspiracy theories becoming normalized are those members of radio, TV, and the Internet who concentrate their efforts toward those who embrace this point of view but who also admit they are only actors looking to garner ratings.
Applying the theories used to explain negative coverage of the government, conspiracy theorists rest the entire story on ‘framing.’ Framing is used to present the event from a viewpoint that supports the underlying story the reporter/author wants told. In Sandy Hook, the approach was that the families were all actors and it was intended to get Obama reelected (ignoring the fact that he was already elected). The Las Vegas shootings conspiracies include a missing security guard and Antifa. Conspiracy theorists use “what is termed a strategy frame. A strategy frame focuses on the motivations behind the different positions that politicians are taking” (Schneider, Gruman, & Coutts, p. 160). This strategy encourages a general mistrust of government, police and even the mainstream media.
Conspiracy theories gain traction based on the availability heuristic. “The availability heuristic suggests that people make judgments based on how easy it is to recall instances of something from memory” (Schneider, Gorman, & Coutts, p. 158). In addition “a central feature of conspiracy theories is that they are extremely resistant to correction, certainly through direct denials or counter-speech by government officials; apparently contrary evidence can usually be shown to be a product of the conspiracy itself” (Sunstein & Verneule, p.210).
Technology has contributed to education, communications, and the sharing of a wealth of information. But the dark side is when it is used to exploit the vulnerable, mislead and misrepresent facts and events, and to create an opportunity for undermining core values. The use of conspiracy theories can undermine confidence in the institutions and government that we are reliant on. The question is how to respond. Is it best to ignore these things or refute them with factual information? Sunstein and Vermeule propose that: “Some false conspiracy theories create serious risks. They do not merely undermine democratic debate; in extreme cases, they create or fuel violence. If the government can dispel such theories, it should do so. We have suggested, however, that government can minimize this effect by rebutting more rather than fewer theories, by enlisting independent groups to supply rebuttals, and by cognitive infiltration designed to break up the crippled epistemology of conspiracy-minded groups and informationally isolated social networks. This is just another opportunity for social psychologists to develop an approach to dispel or manage the impact of conspiracy theories.
Media/Communications Technology [Lecture notes]. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://courses.worldcampus.psu.edu/canvas/fa17/21781–15384/content/10_lesson/printlesson.html
Schneider, F., Gruman, J., & Coutts, L. (Eds.). (2012). Applied social psychology (Second ed.). Los Angeles, CA: Sage.
Sunstein, C., & Vermeule, A. (2009). Symposium on conspiracy theories: Causes and cures. Journal of Political Philosophy, 17(2), 202-227. Retrieved from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-9760.2008.00325.x/abstract