How to Spot Conspiracy Theories

Jan 7, 2023

On May 14, an 18-year old white man drove across New York state to a largely Black neighborhood, where he shot and killed 10 Black people at a grocery store. According to documents and messages the suspected shooter left behind, he had become radicalized into believing white supremacist conspiracy theories, and premeditated a racist attack.

A conspiracy theory is a belief that a covert effort, like a secret plan or an influential group, is responsible for a particular event or circumstance, rejecting established and accepted narratives. As I wrote about in my book, True or False: A CIA Analyst's Guide to Spotting Fake News , conspiracy theories have existed throughout history, and have been used to justify violence against people from historically marginalized groups, such as people of color, Jewish people, and immigrants. Despite their existence across time, and while research suggests that belief in these ideas spikes during times of turmoil (like a global pandemic, there's another factor at play that's influenced current belief in conspiracy theories: In recent years, politicians, public figures, and growing online conspiracy communities around the world, such as QAnon, have made the belief in harmful conspiracies more mainstream.

Indeed, we are being inundated with conspiracy theories like never before on social media platforms, like TikTok and Snapchat; streaming platforms, like Twitch; and on communication platforms, like Discord. For example, TikTok videos containing “#conspiracy” have more than 10.7 billion views alone.

You might be tempted to brush them off — after all, some conspiracy theories, like the one falsely claiming the Earth is flat despite centuries of science proving otherwise — sound pretty out there. But as we saw with the attack in Buffalo, falling for conspiracy theories online can lead to dangerous offline consequences. Here are some tips to help you and your friends recognize and avoid falling for them.

What to Know About Conspiracy Theories:

Know how conspiracy theories work 

Conspiracy theories are fictional stories that cherry-pick “evidence.” They are often told in entertaining ways, especially on social media, using pictures, video clips, audio, and statistics that are made up or taken out of context to hook viewers. For example, a young girl on TikTok who claims the Earth is flat — using a spooky audio clip, a quote taken out of context, and screenshots of a cartoon — got 2.2 million views. But the supposed proof she, and other similar conspiracy theories, presents is selectively chosen from the many, many of pieces of evidence from experts that contradict the claim. Conspiracies encourage potential believers to connect events and circumstances that are usually unrelated and then to find their own evidence and conduct their own investigations to prove the claim, like believers are detectives in a true-crime case. But, if someone wants to find evidence to confirm their beliefs, they likely will — something aided by social media algorithms that serve users content to cater to their tastes, with little regard for whether it's true or false.

Watch out for claims that appear to deflect blame or stoke fear and anger against a particular group of people

Conspiracy theories use narratives that are meant to sound scary and stoke fear. They try to explain why bad things happen in the world by blaming some sinister plot, usually by a particular group of people, a government, or a public figure. For example, one of the conspiracies the Buffalo shooting suspect believed in called the “Great Replacement theory,” falsely claims that the immigration of people of color is a coordinated effort to replace white people in what believers consider a white genocide. In that way, conspiracy theories allow believers to avoid blaming themselves for personal decisions that may have led to negative consequences, politicians they support who may not actually act in the best interest of voters, or socioeconomic inequities that put them at a disadvantage.

Keep in mind that there are entire online communities built to promote conspiracy theories 

Conspiracy communities often attract believers who feel isolated and alone in their own lives. They give people a group of like-minded individuals to talk to and make people feel like a special member of a club that has access to information they believe is hidden or unique. And, especially during times of isolation or crisis, that can be powerful. For example, QAnon started with an anonymous account in 2017 posting conspiracy theories on the fringe message board 4Chan under the name ‘Q.’ As of 2021, approximately 16% of Americans believed the QAnon conspiracy that “the government, media and financial worlds are controlled by Satan-worshiping pedophiles,” according to the Public Religion Research Institute. Soon after those posts became popular on fringe forums, the theories were shared on mainstream social media platforms like Facebook, on political websites and blogs, and on podcasts, quickly gaining attention and popularity. For people who do get sucked into these kinds of conspiracy theories, it can be tough to break free — when we feel like we’re part of a group, it can be harder for us to speak up when the group does or says something with which we do not agree.

How to Avoid Conspiracy Theories:

Educate yourself and make sure to share accurate information from reputable sources

Increasingly, we are relying on other people, like influencers, to filter through the vast amounts of news and information each day to tell us what is important. Conspiracy theories promote the idea that traditional sources of information, such as actual experts who have studied and worked in their relevant career fields or reputable news outlets that employ people like fact-checkers, seasoned reporters, and editors to ensure accuracy, are trying to hide the truth from people and cannot be trusted; some may even argue that this article meant to help readers avoid falling for conspiracy theories is an effort to prevent people from finding out what they believe is “the real truth.” That is one of the ways people peddling conspiracies destroy trust in accurate sources in hopes that you will believe them instead.

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