Summers are hotter and winters aren’t as cold as they used to be!
Sea levels are rising and oceans are getting warmer!
Why is this? There are a variety of reasons, but none as significant as a phenomenon that can be summed up in two scary words – Global Warming.
Greta Thunberg, a teenager, and an environmental activist from Sweden, has become a household name because of her innumerable campaigns and pleas to educate the world and its leaders about the very clear and present dangers of global warming. And then we have US President Donald Trump, who claims it is a hoax and was created by the Chinese for economic gain. One might wonder, why, in the face of irrefutable and overwhelming proof, would anyone believe the exact opposite.
This is because of conspiracy theories. A conspiracy theory is one that rejects the standard explanation for an event and instead credits a covert group or organization with carrying out a secret plan.
NASA has shown that global temperature has increased over the decades and that human activity has been the most impactful of causes for this increase.
US President Donald Trump, on the other hand, in 2012, tweeted:
Seven years and several more studies later, his stance is still, well, unchanged.
Conspiracy theories surrounding human influence in global warming are not new. They range from blaming the Chinese to the “Big Oil” companies putting out studies of their own showing how burning fossil fuels is not actually a factor and to the truly “out there” theory that the Earth is God’s gift and so by not consuming its resources would mean that we are rejecting God’s gifts. Yikes!
The impacts of a conspiracy theory, and believing in it can range from generally harmless to life-threatening. So what fuels a conspiracy theory and how does it spread today? Why does anyone care about anything other than the official explanation? Conspiracy theories have always been with us because of our overpowering drive to survive. Suspicion is what makes us human. Studies have shown that conspiracy theories are appealing to people belonging to disempowered groups (Douglas, Sutton and Cichocka, 2017). To them, conspiracy belief offers an important source of belonging and shared reality. They are likely to have a deep desire and need for uniqueness. To that end, they end up feeling like they are privy to some secret knowledge that no else, not even the experts, know. Upbringing is another factor (Green and Douglas, 2018). People who have had negative relationships with one or both their parents, are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories.
The extent and the pace at which conspiracy theories spread today is faster and wider than ever. Anyone can post anything for free at anytime. There are no gatekeepers like in the days of past when everything was checked and double-checked by editors and journalists before being published (Barkun, 2016). The Internet has revolutionized every sector including the media and how and what people share.
Speaking of sharing, the power of social media, as always, is not to be underestimated. The algorithms and the layout of these websites are designed to keep the user engaged for as long as possible, showing content that will be interesting to him/her and prompting the user to share it with others (Caplan and Boyd, 2016). This action leads to the algorithm to recommend similar articles, creating a loop, or filter bubble. While he/she may not be inclined to fully believe the first article, when similar stories are recommended, confirmation bias sets in and he/she is more likely to believe not only this, but other, future articles too. Several such like-minded people who are connected share these articles and play a part in spreading such theories.
You might then ask, “So what? So what if there are conspiracy theories and people who believe in them?” Well, as with almost everything in life, there are various degrees of conspiracy theories, and how damaging they can be. The April Fool’s one pictured above can be brushed off as a mere joke, or even as an absurd example of a conspiracy theory. There are others which are taken a bit more seriously, but are largely harmless, such as the flat Earth or fake moon landing conspiracies. But what about those which pose a threat to life? The anti-vaxxer campaign risks the lives of children and jeopardizes their adult life. Climate change deniers, by not taking any action to reduce their carbon footprint, and maybe actually doing even more damage, are slowly but surely contributing to the erosion of what is left of the planet. The problem is not that one person believes in a conspiracy theory. It becomes an issue when there are a lot of people who collectively believe in them. The effect is further magnified when there is a socially or politically influential person who has these beliefs too.
The next question that automatically comes to mind then is, “How do we curb this behavior?” There are several ways of fighting the spread of conspiracy theories. Education is one way. When confronted with a conspiracy theorist, rationalize with them. Sit with them, and ask why they believe something to be false and what it would take for them to change their belief. Adopting a collaborative approach can help in breaking any barriers that might exist and help them in coming around. If you merely spew facts at them and try to argue, they will be even more convinced that you are in on it, and will double down on their conspiracy theory. Another way that could help is holding public figures accountable for any false stories or theories they may spread. Given their sphere of influence, it would be the only responsible thing to do. However, it is also precisely for that reason, that actually holding them responsible is easier said than done.
Another way would be for the social media companies to take action. A couple of months ago, Pinterest made a decision to stop showing results for searches related to vaccines as a way to prevent people from encountering misleading health information. Search results now show only content from leading public health institutions and ads, recommendations and comments have been disabled for the same. But can a social media company be trusted fully to take action every time, all the time? And who can decide what is right and what is not? When they start filtering results, there will always be the talk of censorship and freedom of speech. There may never be a right answer to how we can curb the spread of conspiracy theories.
Conspiracy theories have always lived with us and will continue to remain with us. It is up to us to take action and reduce the harmful effects that some cause and adapt to this new connected world and coming up with strategies to curb the spread of misinformation and conspiracies.
Image 1 source: What if April Fool’s Day is really April 2nd and we’ve all been fooled. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.quickmeme.com/meme/3tkl50
Image 2 source: Global Surface Temperature. (2019, April 24). Retrieved from https://climate.nasa.gov/vital-signs/global-temperature/
Image 3 source: Scientific Consensus: Earth’s Climate is Warming. (2019, October 3). Retrieved from https://climate.nasa.gov/scientific-consensus/
Image 4 and 5 source: Twitter. It’s what’s happening. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://twitter.com/
Climate Change Evidence: How Do We Know? (2019, September 30). Retrieved from https://climate.nasa.gov/evidence/
Caplan, R., & Boyd, D. (2016). Mediation, automation, power. Paper written for workshop Who controls the public sphere in an era of algorithms?, Data & Society, New York
Ozoma, I. (2019, August 28). Bringing authoritative vaccine results to Pinterest search. Retrieved from https://newsroom.pinterest.com/en/post/bringing-authoritative-vaccine-results-to-pinterest-search
Barkun, M. (2016). Conspiracy theories as stigmatized knowledge
Conspiracy theory. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.dictionary.com/browse/conspiracy-theory
Green, R., & Douglas, K. M. (2018). Anxious attachment and belief in conspiracy theories. Personality and Individual Differences, 125, 30–37. doi: 10.1016/j.paid.2017.12.023
Douglas, K. M., Sutton, R. M., & Cichocka, A. (2017). The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 26(6), 538–542. doi: 10.1177/0963721417718261
The “Climate change deceit” conspiracy theory and global warming. (2018, May 21). Retrieved from https://ufbutv.com/climate-change/the-climate-change-deceit-conspiracy-theory-and-global-warming/
Ellerton, P. (2019, November 28). The ironclad logic of conspiracy theories and how to break it. Retrieved from http://theconversation.com/the-ironclad-logic-of-conspiracy-theories-and-how-to-break-it-31684