by Leah Peloff ‘18
Conspiracy theories have always been a part of society to some extent, but have formed a particularly overarching presence in Americans’ lives of late. Sometimes comedically unrealistic, other times frighteningly convincing, they give some people an alternative explanation to things that they cannot explain, or wish have some deeper meaning.
There is a dilemma, however, when these seemingly harmless “theories” morph into the recently prevalent phenomena of fake news. Fake news websites purposefully publish hoax articles, incorrect statements, and propaganda in order to mislead, not entertain, the general public. Social media is also used to propagate fake news by quickly reaching the large platform of people who have various social media accounts, specifically twitter.
The debunked “Pizzagate” scandal, for example, which emerged during the 2016 presidential election, proved as a very key example of fake news. Initially titled a conspiracy theory, it was claimed that some emails, disclosed by WikiLeaks, contained coded messages that linked a number of American restaurants and Democratic party-members to a child-sex ring and human trafficking. It quickly spread across a multitude of platforms; appalled by this “news,” people did not think to make sure it was correct before passing it on, like a devastatingly real game of telephone.
This quickly escalated into violence when a man from North Carolina went into a popular pizza shop, carrying an assault rifle and firing several shots. According to an article published in The Washington Post, “The man told police he had come to the restaurant to ‘self-investigate’ a false election-related conspiracy theory involving Hillary Clinton that spread online during her presidential campaign.”
Along with Pizzagate, there have been other similarly harmful conspiracy theories fueled by malice and misinformation. For example, the so-called Sandy hook “truthers” claimed that the massacre of the 20 elementary school students was an elaborate hoax, and the shootings never happened. According to Benjamin Radford, a researcher for Live Science, “Most events producing conspiracy theories have important social and political implications, and the Sandy Hook shootings are no exception,” stated Radford. “They believe it’s all a hoax to scare people into supporting more gun control and a step toward an outright repeal of the Second Amendment.” People who believe this will feel obligated to publicize why their theory is so important and correct as a ploy to get the support of the general public and make their desired changes to society.
This fake news is becoming very problematic with President Donald Trump blindly retweeting or commenting on false news stories, such as Hillary Clinton being too ill to serve as president or Barack Obama being a Kenyan Muslim, making him ineligible to run and serve as president.
With the most powerful man in the world distributing fake news, it becomes crucial for citizens to learn when the intent of these stories go from lighthearted accusation to purposefully deceitful, often leading to societal turmoil. After making this distinction, the negative impact will greatly diminish, giving much less power to these malicious sources. The inherent differences between harmless and malicious theories must become a common recognition among all citizens.