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The rise of conspiracy theories

June 8, 2016

One of the large changes of the last three decades is that the kind of fringe conspiracy theories that once circulated on mimeographed tracts now make it to the front of the media stage. Renee DiResta claims that “algorithms, network effects, and zero-cost publishing are enabling crackpot theories to go viral.” I suspect network effects, cost, and human psychology are enough, so I’m skeptical of her proposed solutions. Still, it’s hard to deny the problem, and the Food Babe is a good example:

This asymmetry of passion, and the resulting proliferation of nonsense on social channels, is particularly strong where pseudoscience is concerned. Consider the Food Babe, an anti-GMO “food safety activist” who boasts 1 million Facebook fans and a committed #foodbabearmy on Twitter dedicated to harassing companies (such as the Girl Scouts) to get them to remove ingredients that are hard to pronounce. When refutations, corrections, or takedowns of her often misinformed agenda are published in the mainstream media, her followers dig in more, convinced that the pushback is because they’ve struck a nerve in Big Agriculture or Big Food, or because the reporter is “bought.”

Conspiracy theories can be propagated from most all political and ideological camps. That said, in the US today, the right wing has built much of its movement around them. It shouldn’t surprise that they now have nominated a presidential candidate who gleefully regurgitates so many. While there was considerable parody around some of the notions from Bush’s Whitehouse about making their own reality, the 2016 election may be the one where the issue of reality comes to the fore like never before. The Economist bemoans the problem, without much insight into trend or cause. Thomas Friedman wants a new party on the right that is above all that. That won’t happen soon. The belief in and use of conspiracy theories is not like some poorly chosen political stance that a candidate can re-examine and walk back. Any one is easily discarded. But it’s not so easy to toss aside the mode of thinking, group reinforcement, and media institutions that lead so many on the right take seriously notions such as that global warming is a giant hoax or that Obama is a secret Muslim. It has become the heart and soul of what makes many so-called conservatives today.

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