Illustration courtesy of: A. Tatone

Conspiracy Theories And Algorithms Are Hurting Democracy

As more people fall deep into conspiratorial thinking. Is Silicon Valley doing enough to stop this threatening trend?

There’s never been a better time to become a conspiracy theorist. From the moon landing, staged in a TV studio, to global warming, a hoax invented by scientists, and even vaccinations being evil and causing autism, conspiracy theories are more alive, more pervasive and widespread than they have ever been before in history.

Conspiracy theorists are thriving in the current political climate, and they might be shaping it too. We are at a pivotal moment in democracy since post-truth reality is gaining ground and penetrating every corner of the political and social spectrum. Amid this explosive growth, are conspiracy theories a threat to one of democracy’s bedrock: a collective commitment for the truth?

The growing reach and scale of conspiracy theories is astonishing as theories swiftly and rapidly crossed over the internet into the real world. Disillusion with democracy and distrust of the political apparatus and the media appear to be the main reasons why conspiracy theories have been flourishing over the last few years.

For years, conventional wisdom said conspiracy theories lived inside the obscure blogosphere — such as alt-right playground 4chan — and that those behind the strange convictions and beliefs — most notoriously Alex Jones — were incapable of damaging, not even, touching the pillars of democracy. That notion nowadays, unfortunately, couldn’t be further from the truth.

Since the arrival of social media and the rise of populism across the western world, it all had dramatically changed. Experts agree that President Trump is one of the most prominent enablers of this growing trend. By constantly deploying an arsenal of misinformation, lies, and conspiracy thinking into the mainstream, conspirator-in-chief has provided conspiracy collectives with a platform and a voice — a strong one — something they lack before.

Whereas before the harmless eccentrics disseminating their ludicrous theories used to deliberate their views off the street, and gather away from the public’s view. Now they do it openly, often, with the support of right-wing leaders; reaching every realm of society. No ideology, religious belief, political or social persuasion are free from them nor their negative impact.

Extreme right-wing political parties around the US and Europe are embracing and pushing conspiracy theories and the circle around them. This poses a dangerous risk because statements made by political figures often carry a level of authority and automatically truthiness, and when the media in their task to inform, report about them, it gives them unprecedented reach outside of their own following.

Openly claims by high-ranked politicians offer conspiracy theorists a reason not only to further believe into a theory but also a legitimate purpose to indulge in the alteration of other views in order to adjust their demands to support their own fabricated theories.

“ People can foresee the future only when it coincides with their own wishes, and the most grossly obvious facts can be ignored when they are unwelcome.” — George Orwell

More supporters than ever before

Along with their first cousin, fake news, conspiracy thinking is challenging the public’s opinion and society’s trust in facts. Though, Conspiracy theories represent the most toxic side of fake news, mostly, because the stories manufactured in the past two years have been deliberately produced and shaped to manipulate and serve specific political agendas.

Unluckily, the fervent believers of such theories as voter fraud, QAnon, anti-vaxxers, chemtrails, and the flat earth are succeeding in their mission of persuading others into believing their discredited theories.

“People who believe that climate change is a hoax will be less motivated to reduce their carbon footprints; while people who believe that the pharmaceutical industry tries to harm instead of help the public through vaccines are less likely to get their child vaccinated.”

A 2014 study, carried out by the University of Chicago, estimated that half of the American public endorses at least one conspiracy theory. When the survey was repeated last November, that proportion had risen to a shocking 61%. These findings were echoed by similar research from the University of Cambridge which found that around 60% of British citizens are wedded to fake narratives.

Furthermore, followers and seekers of the post-truth not only are encouraging divisiveness, but also spreading hate, intolerance, and bigotry with the dissemination of prefabricated lies, calibrated just enough to sow paranoia and hostility not just within the general population but between communities and minority groups as well.

Conspiratorially minded individuals pose a risk to how we see political institutions, the government, how we think about democracy itself, and the actions citizens are willing to take in order to make democracy better or worse.

As Jan-Willem van Prooijen, an associate professor at VU University Amsterdam wrote back in 2015, “Conspiracy beliefs can have harmful consequences: people who believe that climate change is a hoax will be less motivated to reduce their carbon footprints; while people who believe that the pharmaceutical industry tries to harm instead of help the public through vaccines are less likely to get their child vaccinated”.

Algorithms are the ones to blame

Algorithms have aggravated the current problem of conspiracy thinking on the internet, mostly, since a huge percent of the population are getting their news from social media, usually thinking they have a hold to the whole picture when, in fact, is the contrary. Is Silicon Valley the one to blame for the current conspiracy crisis?

Simply put: we’re are living in times of digital segregation

Public discourse suffers when citizens have a narrow perspective of information. The internet was supposed to democratize information, and it has occurred, but not in an organic manner. Before Facebook, Twitter and Google, news curation was a task performed by news editors across the globe, that function is, almost entirely, nowadays perform by lines of code, which control the entirety of our digital newsfeeds.

In the case of Facebook, its algorithms rank posts according to the topic’s popularity, the number of likes amassed by a page and the times a user, in particular, have interacted with similar content. This set up has led to people living inside echo chambers, eventually creating an illusion that everyone believes or have the same habits.

As our experiences online grow more personalized so does the internet itself. Simply put: We’re are living in times of digital segregation, yet at the same time, we are too busy liking, sharing and engaged in our own online businesses with like-minded peers that we don’t stop for a second to think about the consequences these ever-growing digital habits are having to our society’s well-being and to our overall existence.

Not only Facebook has been under scrutiny in the past two years over how its algorithm had influenced the U.S. Elections and the Brexit referendum, but YouTube also had come under siege for helping popularize viral hoaxes and misinformation by awarding conspiracy-related videos into their top spot Trending section.

The Google-owned video site had repeatedly has said they’ve tweaked their algorithms to surface more reliable content, using human moderators to vet it, but given the pace and the volume of which the videos are being uploaded, especially around news events, their efforts have been drastically outmatched.

Facebook’s algorithms promote extreme messages over neutral ones, which can elevate disinformation over information, conspiracy theories over facts.” — Roger McNamee, Silicon Valley Investor

The biggest issue regarding the spread of conspiracy theories is that once content has gotten certain momentum online, it gets too powerful, so much so, that even tech companies sometimes are unable to stop its impact.

The internet was supposed to be this global village where truthful information was going to be accessible for all. We achieved that, yet sifting through this looming mounds of information poses a huge challenge, that’s why the internet makes it a fertile and thriving place for misinformation. The truth of the matter is that

We are facing a complete crisis of digital trust. The internet is a breathing, living map of our societies. Which means is also chaotic, dark, and extremely human, as we are. It is fair to conclude that while more research still needs to be done one thing is for sure, conspiracy theorists will continue to reinforce political suspicion and prejudice worldwide, and technology will continue playing a big role consecutively in the dissemination of truth and falsehood. Yet, it’s worth wondering: it is too late to do something about it?