Conspiracy

Don't Blame the Internet for Conspiracy Rumors

Lack of transparency, on the other hand...

|

Know Your Meme

I have mixed feelings about Zeynep Tufekci's op-ed about conspiracy theories in today's New York Times. On the plus side, she recognizes that such stories aren't simply an irrational invasion from the fever swamps—that when elites are secretive and dishonest, suspicious speculations follow. But her arguments about the internet are much weaker.

"I'm originally from Turkey, so I'm used to my Western friends snickering at the prevalence of conspiracy theories in the Middle East," Tufekci writes. "It is frustrating, but the reason for these theories is not a mystery. Elites do practice excessive secrecy. Foreign powers have meddled in the region for decades. Institutions that are supposed to be trusted intermediaries, separating facts from fiction while also challenging the powerful, are few and weak." And the Middle East, obviously, isn't the only place where some or all of that is true:

People think that their governments are working against them, or at least not for them, and in some cases this is true. Ruling elites around the world are circling their wagons, and fueling more suspicion and mistrust. Reversing that would be the best defense against baseless paranoia…

Since Tufekci's piece is pegged to recent rumors about Hillary Clinton's health, it's worth noting a big reason those long-simmering stories just boomed: Last weekend, Clinton really did try to conceal a health problem. Hide one secret, and people find it easier to believe you're hiding more. It isn't the most significant case of secrecy sparking speculation, but it's a pretty clear-cut example.

So that's where Tufekci is right. What I have trouble buying is her argument that "new technologies" are making conspiracy theories more popular:

The new, internet-driven financing model for news outlets is great for spreading conspiracy theories. Each story lives or dies by how much attention it attracts. This rewards the outrageous, which can get clicks more easily.

However, conspiracy theories can live only to the degree they can find communities to flourish in. That's where social media comes in. Finding a community online has been great for many people—the dissident in Egypt, the gay teenager in a conservative town—but the internet is not Thor's hammer, which only the purest of heart can pick up. Connecting online also works for an anti-vaccination parent or a Sept. 11 truther. Conspiracists can organize online and can push their version of the world into the mainstream.

First of all: The profits-through-outrageousness business model did not begin with the internet. It emerges any time you've got a lot of commercial news outlets competing with each other, a fact you can confirm by looking back at the days when every big city had more than two dailies duking it out for readers. Or, hell, by looking at a city where you still have more than two dailies duking it out for readers. Remember this headline from 2002?

New York Post

There was a legitimate story there about Bush being briefed on the threat of domestic Al Qaeda attacks—and there were two giant words that implied he knew those particular attacks were on the way. While I'm sure the Post got a lot of clicks that day, that cover was conceived with newsstand sales in mind.

In any event, conspiracy theories have always found "communities to flourish in," circulating in alternative media or via stories transmitted orally. The internet has made many of those communities more visible—now you can watch a rumor spread among people you've never met!—but more visible does not necessarily mean more widely believed. More people may be seeing those stories, but more people are seeing debunkings now too; it is easier than ever to check whether the yarn you just heard is an urban legend. (How I wish that Snopes existed when I was growing up.) It is far from clear that the theories are garnering more believers than the critiques, and it certainly can't simply be asserted as fact that they are. Both bullshit and bullshit detectors are plentiful online.

Bonus links: Hillary Clinton isn't the first presidential candidate to be dogged by allegations of a health cover-up. To read about a case where the rumors were bunk, go here. To read about some cases where there really was a cover-up, go here.

NEXT: The NCAA Should Be Free to Boycott N.C. Taxpayers Should Be Free to Stop Subsidizing Them.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Conspiracy theories were around well before the series of tubes, the key difference is the variety you get to hear these days. In person I’ve only heard one guy ranting about various conspiracies. Online I’ve heard dozens from a wide geographic area!

    1. I think there’s even a book out there about conspiracy theories predating the age of tubes. Not that I’d ever buy such a book.

    2. That’s what the Illuminati and Church of the Sub-Genius want you to believe!

    3. I bet you’re one of those people that thinks Coke and Pepsi are different things. Wake up sheeple.

    4. And you were that guy, presumably.

    5. Yeah, conspiracy theories have always been around. But with the internet, anyone with some crazy idea can easily find hundreds of other people who share their particular type of crazy.

      1. I was very disappointed the X-Files reboot did not exploit the pre/post-internet conspiracy thing better. They tried, and some of it was good, but it was mostly stupid and convoluted, the Joel McHale character sucked and he wasn’t given much to do. It worked better as a gag with Mulder and his smart phone.

  2. My lord, that NY Post cover is gross and irresponsible. Hyping up Attack of the Clones like that. Outrageous.

    1. Klaus only knows what he reads in the NY Post

    1. You know what I don’t understand about the health issue? Why do people consider bad health a reason to not elect someone? I view Hillary’s poor health as a bonus for her. The more of these fuckers that die in office, the more people will understand that they’re mostly figureheads. The sooner they die, the sooner they can be replaced with the next fool who will hopefully die in office.

      1. The sooner they die, the sooner they can be replaced with the next fool who will hopefully die in office.

        Unless you’re an egomaniacal narcissist hell bent on establishing your legacy now and forever. Then, it’s just a question of, “Does ‘First and Last Female President’ sound better than just ‘First Female President’ or no?”

      2. The sooner they die, the sooner they can be replaced with the next fool who will hopefully die in office.

        Oh, God, no. Dying in office gives their successor unearned credibility, People remember the corpse more fondly than the actual bastard in office.

        1. People remember the corpse more fondly than the actual bastard in office.

          This. Is there any doubt that JFK would be remembered far less fondly had he not had his skull aerated by a rifle round?

          1. Fair enough. Can I just wish that they all start their terms exactly one year before they’re scheduled to pass from this world? Or would that just be an excuse for them to “get things done” faster because they have less time to do it?

      3. “Why do people consider bad health a reason to not elect someone?”

        I totally am all for more people realizing that the president should be a figurehead, but:

        Logically, if you hire someone to be a high-level decision-maker, you want them capable of making decisions. Especially in emergency situations.

        Thus, a sickly president dying isn’t so bad.

        A sickly decision-maker becoming hospitalized and incapable of doing their job or making decisions for long stretches of time is pretty bad, on the other hand.

        Thus, some health problems are not concerns. Whereas problems capable of incapacitating but not killing are probably bad.

        Also, a sickly figurehead really sucks as a figurehead. Your figurehead needs to be up and about in order to give speeches and look inspiring and such. They need to be able to travel and make joint declarations of pointless solidarity that nevertheless look good with other figureheads from other nations. You don’t want a figurehead incapacitated for lots of time, otherwise you have a shitty figurehead.

        It’s like a sports team mascot. You aren’t going to hire a mascot that needs to take lots of time off for medical reasons, because then you loose the guy you hired to get the crowd pumped and excited, potentially at critical moments (like games) where you need them to do their job.

        1. Logically, if you hire someone to be a high-level decision-maker, you want them capable of making decisions. Especially in emergency situations.

          Personally, I like my decision makers to be capable of facing the consequences of their decisions.

          Also, as you sort of indicate in your post, the particular health crisis doesn’t appear to be a straight binary capable/incapable scenario. At least one supposed health incident involves her locking up and then clearly acting on direct suggestion from her Secret Service detail.

        2. Honestly, I’d rather have a shitty figurehead that can’t travel. At least give it a shot.

          In my fantasy world, the president is just a head administrator and boss of the military when needed, and has no figurehead function at all.

          I don’t want a leader. The president shouldn’t be some kind of elected monarch.

          1. I don’t want a leader. The president shouldn’t be some kind of elected monarch.

            This. I wish more people agreed….even around here.

        3. You don’t want a figurehead incapacitated for lots of time, otherwise you have a shitty figurehead.

          I’m perfectly content with a shitty figurehead, considering I don’t really want one to begin with.

      4. If they die in office then their replacement is an unknown quantity. What do you know about Hillary’s VP? Do you have any clue exactly how he plans to fuck us over? Also, her death would be used a rallying cry to pass legislation in her honor, because you do not speak ill of the dead (especially dead with a D after their name).

        1. But do we really know how candidates that get elected are going to fuck us over either? I’d say we definitely don’t know with Trump, and you never know what Clinton might do. Campaign rhetoric is always mostly irrelevant.

          1. Again we agree.

            A dead Clinton is a Clinton that can’t do evil Clinton shit. Granted, Kaine would probably just do evil Kaine shit, but that can’t be nearly as terrible as evil Clinton shit.

            1. Kaine’s got some Commie shit in his past too.

      5. A president that a keels over from a sudden heart attack is not that big a problem. There is a process for an orderly transition to the VP.

        However, if Reagan actually started having symptoms of Alzheimer’s in his second term, that would have been a terrible problem for the commander in chief.

        1. Why? I bet you never would have known, and it wouldn’t have mattered one whit.

  3. That’s just what they WANT you to think.

    1. Damn right!

      *pulls another sheet of foil off roll, pats onto foil pakol*

      Tonio, I am going to need moar foilz!

  4. So I’ve been trying to figure out if the Incunabula/Ong’s Hat conspiracy is the last pre-internet or first internet conspiracy theory.

    1. When I think classic internet conspiracy, rendered in the loud Frontpage aesthetic, there is Timecube.

      1. +1 4-dimensional cubic thinking

  5. Conspiracy theories exist because no one person can know everything, and when knowledge is limited (including leaders who bullshit us), humans fill in the blank spaces with whatever they can imagine. Add to it that many people are easily duped and half of everyone is below-average intelligence, and you get a litany of dumb-ass beliefs, which the internet merely spreads at a much faster rate (Putin is a great leader! Derpity derp).

    What bothers me more than conspiracy theories themselves, is the need for people to cling to them, even if they are shown the truth (and that truth makes a hell of a lot more sense than their stupid conspiracy theory).

    1. Yeah, people fill in the blanks with how they understand the world from their own perspectives, and that’s an entirely normal function of living within a limited perspective.

      There are additional questions, though, about why certain people attach more certainty to conspiracy theories–as if everything they see confirms what are actually just perspective limited biases.

      To me, that’s the question: Is your level of uncertainty sufficient so that you can disregard the theory given sufficient evidence? Are you willing to seriously consider other plausible explanations?

      No can only prove things with absolute certainty outside of mathematics. Everything else is subject to a limited perspective and uncertainty. It really is possible that Bill gave Hilary herpes under orders from the Bilderberg group, and she just doesn’t want the world to know; it’s just that there are other, more plausible explanations.

      Why do some people reject the more plausible ones?

      I suspect it comes from people subconsciously and instinctively wanting to assert their agency in an uncertain world. They don’t want to believe that the world is beyond their understanding or control, and conspiracy theories are a reaction to that.

      1. I think your conclusion is correct, but I think it also has a lot to do with the human inability to admit we’re wrong. Once we’ve attached ourselves to a conclusion it’s hard to let go. Haven’t they done studies to show that people who are given a side in a debate begin to agree with that side, regardless of what they believed prior? I think it’s the same thing at work. People often can’t help but defend their position, no matter how stupid it can make them look.

  6. “Since Tufekci’s piece is pegged to recent rumors about Hillary Clinton’s health, it’s worth noting a big reason those long-simmering stories just boomed: Last weekend, Clinton really did try to conceal a health problem.”

    The reason the conspiracy accusations about Hillary’s health were so strong is because those conspiracy theories about her health predated her episode the other day. The conspiracy theorists have been talking about her having Parkinson’s disease for weeks.

    In other words, Hillary’s episode the other day isn’t what sparked the conspiracy theory–it seemed to confirm a previously existing conspiracy theory that has already been circulating for weeks that there is something seriously wrong with Hillary’s health.

    1. This is also a big reason.

      1. Weeks? Scott Adams of Dilbert fame called it a year ago.

        http://blog.dilbert.com/post/1…..ons-health

  7. My ongoing lamentation about these articles is that they seem to perpetuate the notion that once something is a conspiracy theory it will always be a conspiracy theory even when established and admitted as truth.

    I’d say we need to add a modifier like ‘impossible’ to clearly delineate the theories that involve violations of the fundamental scientific laws of biology/chemistry/physics as opposed to the theories that involve secret kill lists, shadow courts, people getting assassinated or disappearing, and teams of government contractors running the head of foreign relations’ IT infrastructure out of a suburban light commercial/residential complex.

    1. I agree. But, there are probably more than just the two categories. There are 1) the impossible; 2) the very unlikely ideas which already have acceptable answers (where Occam’s razor should be used) 3) The very unlikely ideas with no known (current) answer, but there are much more plausible answers than the conspiracy theory, and 4) The ideas that are plausible, if complicated, and shouldn’t necessarily be discounted, but also not necessarily readily accepted.

      1. 5) The ideas that are more than plausible because they’ve happened, but the conspiracy theory just changes the actors.

        1. For example, the “conspiracy theory” that Pay up, Palin’s Buttplug! is Tulpa.

    2. My ongoing lamentation about these articles is that they seem to perpetuate the notion that once something is a conspiracy theory it will always be a conspiracy theory even when established and admitted as truth.

      Well, it is, isn’t it? It just becomes a correct conspiracy theory. Unless you interpret “theory” to necessarily mean something that is untrue or unsupported by the available evidence.

      1. The problem is that ‘conspiracy theory’ is used as a catch all term to dismiss unpopular ideas. So if you think that a 68 year old woman might have health issues, and a group of people known for their tendency towards secrecy might be acting secretive, then you’re no better than the crazy guys wearing tinfoil hats convinced the government is run by lizard people.

  8. Don’t Blame the Internet for Conspiracy Rumors

    Oh, come on! Of course I don’t blame the Internet for conspiracy rumors! That’s preposterous! That’s poppycock!

    No, I blame the Internet for disseminating conspiracy rumors. That’s all.

    1. Man, everybody knows “conspiracy rumors” are a fiction created by the Jews, working in conjunction with the lizard people, the Illuminati and the Proctor and Gamble Corporation. They are designed to fool us into believing that conspiracy theories exist and are wide-spread simply so that in case anybody stumbles onto the truth, they can easily be dismissed as conspiracy theorists. The truth is that there are no such things as conspiracy theories.

      1. Don’t forget about The Pentaverate.

  9. What I have trouble buying is her argument that “new technologies” are making conspiracy theories more popular…

    If only she could have gotten YouTube shut down after the Innocence of Muslims trailer got Chris Stevens killed, then we wouldn’t be subjected to the conspiracy fodder of video after video of Hillary stumbling around like a poet on payday.

    1. If it were, the Nation of Islam and Mormonism would be booming right now.

    2. stumbling around like a poet on payday.

      This is an Edgar Allan Poe reference, right?

      1. Simpsons.

      2. “Coleridge has gotten into the opium again!”

        1. -1 person from Porlock

      3. I think it’s just a general stereotype about poets being drunks and/or druggies.

  10. “Conspiracists can organize online and can push their version of the world into the mainstream.”

    What she is really lamenting about the internet is that she and her associates are no longer the arbiter of what is mainstream. And, see seems to thing that only they are the ‘purest of heart’ and should be the only ones allowed to pick up Thor’s hammer.

  11. “It is frustrating, but the reason for these theories is not a mystery. Elites do practice excessive secrecy. Foreign powers have meddled in the region for decades. Institutions that are supposed to be trusted intermediaries, separating facts from fiction while also challenging the powerful, are few and weak.”

    And the truth isn’t very appealing.

    Right up until a few years ago, North Africa and the Middle East were run by the vestiges of post-colonialism, strong-men who had been discarded in the wake of the Cold War. These are people whose entire countries were carved up and created in the wake of World War I, often in secret agreements among foreign powers.

    Again, I think this is about people asserting their agency (however subconsciously). Who wants to believe that in spite of their government being so awful, there isn’t anything anybody can do about it short of revolution? People want to believe that they can be successful, that their children can be successful, that their institutions are basically good and sound and responsive to the needs and desires of average people.

    And if it isn’t really like that and they have no influence or control over how their institutions operate or understanding of why the strongman does what he does, then they want to believe . . . that there’s an understandable reason for that–which the people could control themselves if only the real truth were known.

    1. It’s more comforting to believe that malevolent masterminds are in charge than to believe nobody’s in charge.

      1. Specifically with regards to Bush and 9/11 – do you really want to believe that our fearless leaders are incompetent boobs and we’re obviously stupid enough to elect incompetent boobs as our leaders? Or would you rather believe Bush is the head of some group of evil geniuses who masterminded this intricate plot for some nefarious reason? I mean, he’s evil, sure, but he’s a genius! He had to be a genius to fool such smart people as us, right?

  12. I’m so old, I remember when concerns about the condition of Sick Illary were a “conspiracy theory”.

    Oh right, that was like four days ago.

    1. Sick Illary is redundant. Thanks for taking a moderately non-stupid nickname that someone else devised and giving it your own special tardsauce twist.

  13. Apparently the writers of Dave were prescient. Have Bill be the secret president the way Woodrow Wilson’s wife was after Wilson’s stroke. And then find a body double as in Dave.

    /adjusting tin foil hat.

    1. When you’ve lost the Onion…..

      I mean, it was a friend of Hill’s that bought the thing and immediately started running stories on her that made sure there were no actual teeth in their “biting humor” and now apparently they’re admitting she’s worthy of vicious mockery? Somebody’s eaten all the shit they can stand.

    2. -1 Seth Rich and Shawn Lucas.

    3. That’s shocking given that The Onion is owned by a major Clinton supporter.

  14. “It is frustrating, but the reason for these theories is not a mystery. Elites do practice excessive secrecy. Foreign powers have meddled in the region for decades. Institutions that are supposed to be trusted intermediaries, separating facts from fiction while also challenging the powerful, are few and weak.”

    Ah, yes. It’s all the gringos fault. It has nothing to do with the sleep of reason that has enveloped the region for decades as a result of the populace’s adherence to the fundamentalist, death-cult version of Islam.

    But hey, “al mawt li Yahudi” and Pokemon Go is haram.

  15. Something else that prompts people to ponder conspiracy – when the media constantly parrots the silly phrase the Hillary! campaign uses to try to put a positive spin on her being tossed into a van like a sack of potatoes. Powering through!!

    https://youtu.be/E96lAHygeIU

    1. Did someone say power through?

      (May be TLFW – Too Loud For Work)

  16. but more visible does not necessarily mean more widely believed.

    Quibble: In one way the internet does mean conspiracies can be more widely believed.

    If a thousand people, spread across the U.S., believe the same conspiracy you do, the chances you will meet one of them at work, or see a paper flyer they distribute, are very remote. The internet, however, makes finding their web page a near-certainty. Renting a convenient-to-everyone physical room for a meeting is daunting, but Skype makes it simple.

  17. I’m confused today.

    Am I still currently a “conspiracy theorist” if I rank three (at least) other explanations for Hillary’s current health problems as more likely than pneumonia? I thought it was frikkin obvious.

    The entire “conspiracy” consists of :

    Hillary is a fucking lying liar.
    The Lapdog media is well, lapdoggy.
    They’ve seen what happened before. They weren’t freaked out, and didn’t go to the hospital.

    I don’t think that’s a really intricate theory.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.