How conspiracy theories spread

This article is part of Conspiracy theories

Conspiracy theories aren’t a new phenomenon, but these days they can spread much more easily than before. Discover the various forms of conspiracy theories you can encounter, and the role of social media in their spread.

Various forms

The word ‘theory’ might seem to imply that conspiracy theories are always a dry slab of text, but that’s far from the truth. They can take many shapes: videos, discussions on internet forums, articles with impressive pictures, … Some famous conspiracy theories even live on in books and movies, like in Dan Brown’s Angels & Demons, where the Illuminati feature prominently.

Even memes are a common format for conspiracy theories. Memes are pictures with short bits of text, often meant to be funny, that can be created by anyone on the internet. They are simple, recognisable, and skip all pretence of nuance. They are often used to attack certain targets, like the government or a company. 

An example of a meme:

Meme Conspiracy Theory

‘Sediment’ of conspiracy theories

Sometimes little bits of conspiracy theories get a second lease of life in society: statements that occur every now and then in a conversation or on social media. For example: ‘There are spies everywhere, even your friends could be spies!’ or ‘Everything you do on your computer is watched by the government’.

The role of social media

Social media has a major impact on the spread of conspiracy theories. That’s mostly because of the algorithms (a type of mathematical formulas) that decide what we get to see on our timelines. The goal of algorithms is to show us information that interests us. To achieve that, they base their decisions on questions like:

  • What have you looked at in the past?
  • What sorts of things do your friends engage with?
  • Which articles and videos are popular at the moment?

To answer those questions, algorithms look at amongst others likes, reactions, and the number of times a post was shared. That’s exactly why there’s a good chance you’ll see polarising statements and conspiracy theories on your timeline: because they elicit strong emotions and get a lot of response. And if something is popular online, journalists will also catch wind and report on it. That’s how conspiracy theories can end up in newspapers or on television.

Why are all the videos I watch the same?

Sometimes it can seem like every video you look up about a certain topic has exactly the same contents. This is once again the algorithm at work! YouTube doesn’t necessarily want to give you the ‘correct’ information, it wants to show you information that will keep you watching for as long as possible. That way, YouTube earns more revenue through advertisements. That’s why you’ll see suggested videos that are even longer or more spectacular, but also videos that all agree that the earth is flat or that corona doesn’t exist ...

Published on 18 October 2023