An Austin jury on Thursday decided Infowars host Alex Jones must pay at least $4.1 million to the family of a 6-year-old killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting for the suffering he and his website and broadcast caused them by spreading lies about the 2012 massacre. The parents described how the Infowars founder’s malicious falsehoods made their lives “hell,” being threatened and hounded by Jones’ followers.
Conspiracy theories clearly have real world and devastating consequences—think QAnon and Pizzagate, the Jan. 6 insurrection, Covid-19 misinformation and the false narrative that the election was stolen. , but why do people believe them despite overwhelming evidence debunking them?
Here are some tips to help you and your friends recognize and avoid falling for them.
What are conspiracy theories?
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.
Why do people believe in conspiracy theories? And How do we prevent ourselves from falling for them?
1. They don’t consider the source of the information.
Maybe it comes from a friend who tends to believe whatever they are told — the more fantastical the better. People want to trust friends, especially if this is information that confirms an already-existing bias.
To double-check its validity, ask how they learned of it.
Once they tell you, check out the source or the publication. If it isn’t a newspaper or magazine that you know well, delve deeper. Go online and actually read other articles or at least headlines.
Look for biases in one direction or another. Biases can include things like headlines that tell you that a specific politician is a crook or a liar.
If you can pinpoint the biases, take those into account when deciding if the information is true or false.
In other words, don’t just take your friend’s word for it. Check it out yourself if you wonder if it might be true.
2. They don’t pass information through their filters.
In other words, when people believe conspiracy theories, the aren’t using their own knowledge and experience of the world to determine if the information is likely to be accurate.
Instead, ask yourself if things like that happen normally.
For example, there’s a conspiracy theory that says that forest fires are caused by giant lasers in the sky. Many people sharing this conspiracy theory include anti-Semitic elements as well.
But, you know that’s not true because most people have seen lightning. It’s a natural phenomenon. It looks like a jagged or bright light coming down from the sky shortly before the thunder.
Often, it happens during a rainstorm but not always. In some places, dry lightning is common. Nobody causes it, even when it ignites dry wood or other things, causing fires.
Nobody should be surprised when this happens, though the fire has to be put out.
The conspiracy theory just doesn’t pass through most people’s filters.
3. They don’t question whether a conspiracy theory is designed to target a marginalized group.
All too often, conspiracy theories sound plausible on the surface, but with further analysis involve a religious, ethnic or racial group that is often the target of discrimination.
People fall for these stories because they don’t question whether the theory comes from someone who has an agenda designed to hurt that group.
When you encounter a rumor or theory, ask yourself whether the story targets anyone in particular — either a person the theorist doesn’t like or a marginalized group, in general?
For instance, many conspiracy theories feature “evildoers” who are identified as Jewish, or people of color who are immigrants. Covid-19 inspired many anti-Asian conspiracy theories that led to hate crimes and violence.
Conspiracy theories frequently target Jewish, Muslim, or other people unfairly. Usually, a conspiracy theory will conform to a bigoted view of the group.
Theories about other marginalized groups will exploit the bigot’s view of members of those groups.
If you’re a member of one of those targeted groups, decide if your group is being portrayed in a fair and factual manner.
If it’s a conspiracy theory, you will likely find your group is unfairly portrayed.
Realize that if your group is not being portrayed fairly, probably the theorist is not portraying anyone correctly.
4. They never ask themselves the most important question: Does this story make any sense?
While this seems like the most obvious first step to analyzing a theory or rumor, it’s easily overlooked. Perhaps this is because of how quickly technology is evolving, or maybe because we are quick to want to believe in the fantastical.
Regardless, it’s important to filter everything we believe through the most basic common sense theories.
Is there a benefit for the targeted group for engaging in the alleged behavior? Does it make any sense at all?
Weigh this as you decide whether the information is true or likely to be true.
If there’s no benefit, there’s not likely to be any reason for the targeted group to engage in the behavior of which they are accused in the theory.
This is especially true if the behavior they’re being described as doing is difficult, dangerous, or costly.
Shooting giant lasers from outer space into dry forests doesn’t seem like something people can do, given the current level of technology.
It would be difficult — and impossible — to do. If it’s possible, at all, it would be very expensive. It’s, therefore, unlikely that this conspiracy theory holds even a modicum of truth.
5. They never question whether the theory benefits the conspiracy theory supporters.
It might place their favored politician in a more favorable light. It might portray a group they dislike in an unfavorable light, possibly even causing others to act vengefully against members of that group.
And it might keep other supporters under their control in some way like donating money that they can then use to put their ideas forward, especially if there’s no truth to the theory and no actual societal benefit.
To combat conspiracy theories, we must always examine who benefits from the rumor or theory being presented and ask ourselves why someone may be motivated to spread the story.
Does it benefit them politically, by undermining an opponent? Does it encourage people to make purchases they may not normally make?
Does it encourages others to oppress a group they see as the “enemy”?
So, as you can see, there are a number of ways to determine whether something you are hearing or reading is a conspiracy theory or the truth.
Once you know what it is, you can decide that you don’t want to fall for a conspiracy theory.
Truly, keeping those theories, which are by their very nature untrue, out of your life and your decision-making process will be of great benefit to you and the world.