The standing rule is that people tend to most easily believe in conspiracy theories that they create; and tend to reject the conspiratorial thinking of others.
The trouble with our concerns about fake news, is that they come from a place where critical thinking has been reduced in favor of playing to (and supporting) audience attention spans that rival those of hummingbirds.
The long read, the long form content, the long movie; the challenging idea, the scientific journal, the complicated path to learning a new language; these are all in competition against TL;DR (too long; didn’t read), the 30 second cat video on YouTube, the 6 second looping Vine video, or the easily shareable click-bait article.
Audiences have been convinced by both marketers, and journalists (just marketers in another way) that their thinking and content consumption choices are sophisticated. That they are able to sift through biases consciously (without relying on assumptions and inferences from facts not in evidence), come to rational conclusions, and then act on those conclusions to co-create an orderly world.
Oh, but were that so.
When audiences can pick their own personalized access to “knowledge” and can choose their own “facts” then news that comes from sophisticated marketers (some former journalists) and content creators, becomes the coin of access to the conspiratorial realm. And social cueing, confirmation bias, and attribution activates individuals in the audience to create their own, publicly viewable, and socially shareable conspiracy theories.
Not about aliens landing at Roswell.
Not about the Illuminati running the world.
Not about a rising one-world government.
Not about a coming cashless society.
But conspiracies about stolen votes, illegal voting (and voters), racialism, economic injustice, Big Pharmaceutical companies poisoning vaccines, Big Agricultural companies poisoning seeds, Big Banks ceasing to be allowed to failed, Big Governments seeking to curb natural rights, Big Faith seeking to curb libertine tendencies, and on, and on, and on.
This type of conspiracy theory mongering is particularly subtle and insidious, because it plays on the mistrust and biases audiences already have built in to their world-view and thinking, but it does the play at scale, and one-to-one. This creates a feeling of community (we’re in the know) while also creating a feeling of persecution (we’re on the outside of everyone else).
And people should have expected it. As more knowledge, has become more accessible to the common individual (if you have a smartphone in your pocket with Internet access, you have a supercomputer) we have been encouraged to embrace the conspiracies we like, share them with our friend circle, and then sit back and wait passively for reality to match our frames and worldviews. And when that doesn’t happen, we go back, double-down, and start the conflict cycle.
Mass media (led by the collapsing and panicking journalism field) is complicit in this as well, seeking to drive audience attention to ideas and concepts that are spurious, but that also generate clicks. This is because mass media content production can’t figure out (at scale) how to get audiences to pay for something they can get anywhere for free, but it’s also driven by the ego-based desire to be seen, be acknowledged as an expert, and to grow the network and personal brand of the content creator at the expense of the market, and the audience, gaining new knowledge, or being challenged in any meaningful way.
Fake news—and the environment that allows conspiracy theories to metastasize—is not going to go away. The echo chambers of social platforms are too powerful, with too many voices, too many passive audience members, and too many exclusively self-interested actors.
What is going to have to change is, as always, the hardest piece: Individuals are going to have to decide what they will absorb, what ideas they will believe, and they critically reject other ideas, based on objective evidence and proof.
But if individuals (and audiences) could do that effectively, the placebo effect long-ago would have ceased to be effective.