Social media is unparalleled when it comes to the speed at which information spreads. It’s not just the BuzzFeed articles, or the woman that was fired before she even landed on the continent she insulted. Conspiracy theories spread pretty quickly too, and their accuracy doesn’t really factor into their virality.
It only takes a spark of weirdness to fire up the conspiracy machine. The missing flight MH370 spawned dozens of theories, and within hours of the Sandy Hook school shooting, it was called a ‘false flag operation.’ The problem is that when events are in development and rolling online news coverage starts, the truth becomes very flexible.
It’s not just speed that’s to blame. According to a team of researchers at Northeastern University, social media and news reading patterns are the main culprits. The team examined how two million Facebook users interacted with content about an Italian election in 2013. In addition to mainstream news posts, alternative publications and niche political sites, there were 2,788 false, satirical and troll posts.
The spurious posts showed more engagement for longer periods of time than accurate reports. Users prone to reading alternative news sources were more likely to engage with conspiracy theory posts. According to Vice contributor Meghan Neal, “If [a theory] germinates from a niche social network of like-minded people, like a forum or subreddit, it’s more likely to [be] believed by the people within that community.”
Then it just snowballs as community leaders, thought leaders or mainstream news sources pick up on it. Just like the case of Kim Stafford, the story runs out ahead of the facts, and any attempt to counter a conspiracy theory can be brushed away by the theorist as ‘brainwashing’ or the like. Once it’s on social networks, good luck getting people to disbelieve the theory.