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:
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.
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 antidote.