Fake news and conspiracy theories

Dr Daniel Jolley, Lecturer in Psychology

Dr Daniel Jolley

Popular conspiracy theories propose that members of UK government murdered Diana, Princess of Wales; climate change is a hoax orchestrated by the world’s scientists to secure research funding and pharmaceutical companies and governments cover up evidence of harmful side effects of vaccines for financial gain.

Conspiracy theories like these accompany almost every significant social and political event and can typically be defined as attempts to explain the ultimate causes of events as the secret actions of malevolent powerful groups, who cover up information to suit their own interests.

Fake news, which involves the publication of fictitious information on social media, appear to be a fertile ground for conspiracy theories to flourish.  Indeed, millions of people subscribe to conspiracy theories.

They are not reserved for only people who are paranoid, but rather, they are a normal everyday process that we are all susceptible to.   With the popularity of social media, conspiracy theories are at our fingertips more than ever before.

What’s the harm with conspiracy theories, anyway? In research conducted with my co-author, Prof Karen Douglas at the University of Kent, we have shown that being exposed to the idea that governments are involved in plots and schemes reduces people’s likelihood of wanting to engage in the political system.  People were less likely to want to vote.

We found that being exposed to conspiracy theories can make people feel politically powerless and feel that their vote will not count; if the government is conspiring against us, how can I make a difference?

In our most recent research, we have also uncovered that conspiracy theories are potentially resistant to correction.  Once a person subscribes to a conspiracy theory, they can be increasingly difficult to debunk.

It is, therefore, important that at the point of exposure to information, people are thinking critically.  If the headline sounds too good to be true, it very well may be!  Here are some practical suggestions to help with this:

  • Think about the source; who has written the article?
  • Evaluate the evidence contained within the article; is the piece based on fact?
  • Read multiple articles from a variety of outlets on the same topic. Do not just trust one article; try and get a full picture of the story that takes into account all sides of the argument.

We know that conspiracy theories can be potentially damaging and difficult to debunk.  So, think critically before clicking “share” on Facebook or “retweeting” on Twitter.  Be sure you feel confident that the piece is accurate before sharing!

 

Dr Daniel Jolley blogs at conspiracypsychology.com and tweets @DrDanielJolley