The Life Cycle of Conspiracy Theories

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The Life Cycle of Conspiracy Theories

Key Takeaways

Introduction

Conspiracy theories general begin during times of sociopolitical unrest with a single influencer utilizing small, unexplained phenomena or events to further their own false agenda. The theories are repeated over and over, beginning in niche groups but eventually spilling out into the mainstream, and as they are repeated they grow and gain more credibility. Theories reach peak popularity when they are spread by mainstream influencers, such as major celebrities, members of the media, or political leaders. Some conspiracy theories simply fade with time similar to a fad, while others have extreme longevity.

Perfect Environment

  • Conspiracy theories tend to generate during times of considerable sociopolitical turbulence. This is because these moments are generally highly politicized and individuals are seeking ways to simplify and understand events in order to feel more in control.
  • Conspiracy theories also tend to begin with a "a kernel of truth," a part of the theory that is, in fact, true and gives way to the broader, false theory. This is clearly illustrated in the false claim that the COVID-19 vaccine causes infertility, which may have originated after many women truly experienced slight changes to their menstrual cycles post-vaccine.
  • Theories also thrive on "gaps in knowledge," according to Melanie Smith, former director of analysis for Graphika. When a kernel of truth is combined with a lack of knowledge about what caused the event, conspiracy theories can pop up to explain the anomaly.
  • According to the BBC, successful conspiracy theories have these similarities at their core: 1) they have a socially-relatable and acceptable villain; 2) they tap into collective and socially-acceptable anxieties; 3) they align with and perpetuate pre-established cultural tribalism; 4) they arise during a time of uncertainty or are linked to something most people do not understand; 5) they take advantage of knowledge gaps; and 6) they are started or championed by those with ulterior motives.

Origins

  • Theories then originate from these kernels of unexplained truth and are bolstered by influential individuals or group leaders, many times via underlying cues, in order to further their own agenda.
  • The agenda of these initial influencers is generally to "drive traffic to websites where they can make money, or [...] to shape a political narrative."
  • At first, most theories are initiated by niche influencers — those that are well-known within a certain group but not well-known to the general public. Case in point is Naomi Wolf, a "very highly followed influencer in what we call the pseudo-medical community," according to Melanie Smith. Wolf took the opportunity of many women experiencing temporary changes to their menstrual cycles post-COVID vaccine to further her own anti-vax agenda by casting doubts about the COVID-19 vaccination and fertility. She stated in a COVID-19 vaccination side effects group on Facebook: "Hundreds of women on this page say that they are having bleeding/clotting after vaccination, or that they bleed oddly AROUND vaccinated women. Unconfirmed, needs more investigation, but lots of reports."
  • These niche influencers are generally given a level of "unearned authority" that give their claims credibility among their followers.
  • These influencers generally do not come out and specifically state the conspiracy, instead, they cast doubt on real-world phenomena that cannot yet be explained without providing any facts that can actually be debated. These open-ended questions and calls for "further investigation" are sometimes referred to as "breadcrumbs" by conspiracy researchers and function as a way to construct a conspiracy narrative and draw readers down the path of conspiracy thinking.
  • The influencers also seamlessly link the real-world phenomena to broader myths that have no basis in reality, such as, in the Wolf example above, the idea that vaccinated women could affect the fertility of the unvaccinated around them.
  • By linking more and more semi-related falsehoods together, eventually, what originated as a single, questionable phenomena turns into a full-blown conspiracy theory. For example, QAnon began when one individual linked their own anti-Clinton beliefs with Pizzagate, a pre-established but more specific conspiracy theory about the Clintons and a sex trafficking ring in a pizza parlor.

Repeat Exposure

  • Once a conspiracy theory has been established by niche influencers - who use real, unexplained phenomena or events to further their own agenda — it is then repeated over and over in order to give it credibility.
  • This repeat exposure is key, according to Kelly M. Greenhill, a professor of political science and director of the Tufts International Relations Program, whose research found "that prior exposure to EFI makes individuals between two and eight times more susceptible to accepting it as definitely or plausibly true."
  • According to Gordon Pennycook, Professor of Behavioral Science at the University of Regina, "A key element is the extent to which you are exposed to conspiratorial ideas... No one is reflective enough to bat away literally everything that they come across that’s false. Things will seep in if you’re repeatedly introduced to them."
  • In modern society, repeat exposure to conspiracy theories generally occurs on social media, where, despite the efforts to debunk these statements, false theories can quickly spread amongst those with similar belief systems, which predisposes them to believing the theory in the first place, as "there’s some evidence that people are attracted to conspiracy theories that satisfy these prejudiced attitudes" found in ones social group, according to Karen Douglas, a social psychologist at the University of Kent.
  • Modern society has also drastically increased the ability of conspiracy theorists to find and connect with one another, which further entrenches their beliefs.
  • As theories spread, they also tend to grow and become connected to other theories with a similar core audience, as can be seen with the growth in the QAnon theory, which is now linked to the anti-vax movement and the pro-Trump movement.

Peak Popularity

  • Theories tend to reach peak popularity when major, mainstream figures begin supporting them, such as Trump spreading Coronavirus lies or misinformation about the 2020 Presidential election.
  • Eventually, theories get so big that the mainstream media will begin reporting on them. Even if the mainstream media is not supporting the claims, but simply reporting on others who do, that coverage gives the belief credibility and provides increased exposure to new audiences.
  • These mainstream figures have massive audiences and therefore can be extremely dangerous when purporting false claims and theories.
  • Some conspiracy theories, such as QAnon, also reach major popularity as they are "meta-conspiracies," or theories that are "capable of integrating local narratives," and thus have maximum appeal.

Demise

  • Most conspiracy theories generally do not last long in the mainstream because there is no evidence or further fact to report on. According to NPR: "They don't stick around. They grab the attention, raise questions and doubt, but there's no substance there. So once they've shocked those they're meant to engage, they disappear."
  • Of those theories that do disappear, they may also do so because the believers simply move on, as they have less time or less interest in re-engaging with the conspiracy materials that reinforce the conspiracy belief. In this way, many theories simply behave like a "fad."
  • However, some theories, such as the Flat Earth, Illuminati and Moon Landing conspiracies, have "extraordinary longevity," and researchers do not understand why. One possible reason that some theories tend to stick is the sheer magnitude of the event they are describing, according to Douglas.
  • In order to decrease the amount of conspiracy theories that gain hold, Greenhill recommends disincentivizing the behavior that leads mainstream media, politicians and influencers to share the theories, instead of trying to get people to stop believing them.
  • Some historical tropes keep re-surfacing in different conspiracy theories, such as "such as the centuries-old fear that people in power are kidnapping children to drink their blood," which was previously part of anti-Jewish conspiracies and is currently part of the QAnon theory. These specific tropes are so popular due to the fact that they "trigger moral outrage, prompting audiences to spread the story."

Factors Contributing to Belief in Conspiracy Theories

  • Individuals that are naturally predisposed to making decisions quickly are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories. Experts found that those with the "jumping to conclusions bias" are more likely to have conspiracy beliefs.
  • Individuals with illusory pattern perception, or the tendency to see patterns when there are none, are also more likely to have conspiracy beliefs.
  • Those that are more analytical, instead of intuitive, tend to believe in fewer conspiracy theories.

Research Strategy

The research team utilized general articles about conspiracy theories, conspiracy theory research and articles about specific conspiracy theories in order to gain insight into their life cycle.

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