Is social media a petri dish for conspiracy theories?
The answer? Yes.
Just as COVID-19 has uncovered the vast disparities and vulnerabilities in our health care system and care facilities, so has it laid bare our overall inability to scrutinize claims and convictions broadcasted on platforms like YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook. Just as our borders aren't impervious to COVID, they are also not impervious to social media.
Pick your favourite social channel, but be prepared to follow a rabbit hole into a swirling hot mess of claims, images, and videos:
“Bill Gates is responsible for the coronavirus pandemic.”
“COVID was cooked up in a Chinese lab and intentionally released.”
“COVID is all because of 5G towers!”
Or, the new mother of all conspiracy theories: the so-called, “plandemic” theory. The gist of this one is that wealthy people have deliberately spread the pandemic to cash in on the soon to come, necessary vaccinations. Brilliant! It was all so … er, um, obvious.
Conspiracy theories are nothing new. Just think of the faked moon landing of yesteryear. Quaint stuff by today’s standards.
Today, one makeshift video, posted on YouTube, shared on Facebook, becomes multiplied the world over. The preposterous and absurd suddenly becomes “true,” not because of any facts, but because of its ubiquity.
As a former computer engineer for YouTube put it in The Guardian: “On YouTube, fiction is outperforming reality.”
What can the average person do?
When sent a YouTube video and told by a friend, “Better watch the truth now before it’s taken down!!” Or, “Wow! You’ve got to look at this Facebook post to see what’s really going on!!” How do you go about deciding if it’s based in fact or fiction?
Firstly, understand that a claim isn’t necessarily true and reliable just because it’s made without hesitation or presented with oodles of confidence. Think of it this way: no matter how confident one is that gravity is “Deep State” propaganda, it’ll easily be put to the test when tripping over a rake.
Trouble is, such disconfirming evidence (or lack of confidence) rarely accompany conspiracy claims. That’s one big reason why they are conspiracy claims: they can’t be tested in the real world of facts.
But there are other ways you can put the claims to the test to spot red flags:
Above all, be a skeptic. You always need evidence, especially when the claim sounds incredible. When someone raves about some new “discovery” hidden from the general public, try this:
“Oh, interesting. What was the source for this claim?” Or, “How did you come to that conclusion?” Or, “What reasons do you have to believe that?”
Chances are, you’ll hear crickets. Remember, you have no obligation to believe something just because someone says it’s true, no matter how confident they might be about it.
In the rare case that names and links are provided, find out who exactly is making the claim.
Google the name to find out their qualifications. Is there an actual name behind the claim? If so, look at their record at making other declarations. Do they have a long record of zingers?
Have they published their views in peer-reviewed journals? Or, can they only advertise their views on Facebook threads and sketchily filmed YouTube videos?
Google the website where the assertion is presented, along with the words, “criticism,” or “critical review.” What do their peers think of their theories? Look through the Google results to see if they’ve been taken to task by qualified researchers. The keyword here is “qualified.”
This might be all you need to see the red flags. But the reliability of the claim may still be difficult to determine.
If so, do not abandon your healthy skepticism. It is to conspiracy theories what an N95 mask is to COVID.
Above all, remember the advice of Carl Sagan: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” When it comes to separating the brilliance from the balderdash, especially on social media, that’s about the best advice possible. Happy surfing!
Elijah Dann is a long-time Squamish resident, and teaches courses in philosophy and religion at Quest University and SFU.