Conspiracy Theories

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.