Conspiracy Theories

Is the Internet Making People More Paranoid? Probably Not.

Throwing cold water on a common idea


The Washington Post recently interviewed Joe Uscinski, a political scientist at the University of Miami who studies conspiracy theories. The best part of the conversation comes when Uscinski brings some much-needed skepticism to the idea that the Internet has made conspiratorial beliefs more common:

Clinton conspiracy theories: older than you'd think!
John Wood

Q: How have conspiracy theories changed in the digital age? Has the Internet changed their nature or their frequency or their impact?

A:…[P]eople 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….[I]f 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.

A bowl o' zombie
Paramount Pictures

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.

I don't know who this is, but in my headcanon he's a young William Burroughs.

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 antidote.

For my own thoughts on how the Internet has changed conspiracy theories, go here. For my report from a conference on conspiracy theories that Uscinski organized, go here.

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  1. This post is obviously funded by the Illuminati

    1. We’re through the looking glass here, people…

    2. Given the clear, and indeed imminent, danger that conspiracy theories pose to society, their dissemination via the Internet should be (and undoubtedly, in certain jurisdictions, has been) criminalized, along with other sordid manifestations such as inappropriately deadpan “Gmail parody.” See the documentation of America’s leading criminal “satire” case at:

  2. I’m pretty sure the second photo is of Lee Harvey Oswald.

    1. Or third. Numbers are difficult.

      1. Before & after.

      2. 0-based indexing.

  3. Conspiracy theory is a side effect that originates from the fact that our brains/minds are hyper-specialized in finding patterns; so much so that our minds will impose patterns upon data that is truly stochastic. Our consistent and largely subconscious* pattern-making is why optical illusions work; it also why experience the phenomenon of pareidolia. As such, many people cannot comprehend that algorithmic processes can transform chaos into orderly design without any sort of conscious direction. Dennett called this “Darwin’s dangerous idea” that upset what had been established as the cosmic pyramid of Nothing, Chaos, Order, Design, Mind, and God.

    *Though I might be using ‘subconscious’ here in a way that irritates cognitive psychologists. I still get confused by the differences between subconscious and low-order consciousness, at least as they define it.

    1. It’s also probably a reason chaos theory took so long to develop. It’s hard for humans to think like that.

  4. I think the internet is out to get me.

  5. Probably Not.

    That’s what They WANT you to think!

  6. Someone oughta write a book on this.

    I sense a conspiracy to delete any comments mentioning this, but not necessarily including those comments which point out the conspiracy itself. That committee is still in session.

  7. The internet doesn’t make people paranoid. It just allows the paranoid people to talk and reinforce each other. The vast increase in communication afforded by the internet is a wonderful thing, but it has secondary effects, and promulgation of conspiracies is one, as are echo chambers and other things. It’s all part of the growing pains of being able to communicate on a level never before afforded in history.

    1. Well, that’s the thing. The numbers of whiny losers haven’t increased, but the poor bastards that have to be in earshot of them certainly has. When they were confined to expressing their views in dive bars, only the bartender had to put up with them…and he was compensated for his ability to pretend to care about the shrill hysterics of whiny losers.

      1. Absolutely. And this extends to just about any subculture, from conspiracy theorists to furries to twerking video enthusiasts. People of like minds can find each other so easily, and reinforce each other’s vile habits, such as enjoying twerking videos or having sex wearing animal costumes.

        It’s not a bad thing for people to be able to communicate. But sometimes unfortunate/negative/flat out wrong ideas will get a lot of life because of it. But no advancement comes without a price.

        1. People of like minds can find each other so easily, and reinforce each other’s vile habits, such as enjoying twerking videos or having sex wearing animal costumes.

          Why not both?

  8. The picture apparently is not Burroughs, but a coach pointing to a basketball diagram. It’s licensed under getty images, and you can see the original here.…..7trNJuow==

        1. Fuck it I give up.

  9. I sometimes look at sites, especially YouTube videos, that show “mysterious” photos, unexplained phenomena, etc, and often come across things that have already been debunked, yet people in the comments say how mysterious this is, and this proves the existence of ghosts, aliens, tyime travelers, etc.

    I’d like to think these commenters don’t really believe their own comments, but it’s hard to do so when they argue with debunkers and skeptics who comment.

  10. Shockingly enough, more communication makes people smarter! I wonder if a similar thing happened after Gutenberg made his whatsit…

    /typical person ignorant of logic and history

  11. I thought the picture was an old Fox Mulder.

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