Fueled by hate rhetoric spewed like molten lava from the mouth of our future president, trolls truly won 2016. Fake news and viral memes dominated social media, perpetuating the willful ignorance of our own worldviews and drowning out legitimate, thoughtful discourse on the insidious nature of what was unfolding right in front of us. Propaganda for imperialism and white supremacy thrived under the assumed title “alt-right,” and some of the most dubious conspiracy theories from the darkest corners of the web reared their ugly heads to remind us all that willful ignorance is alive and well in a large population of people who would seemingly like nothing more than to watch the world burn.
It’s easy to dismiss the current trajectory of sociopolitical events as the result of an election that struck a nerve in a demographic of people who were waiting, patiently, for their mouthpiece to sound the alarm. But the collective voices of hate and unfounded suspicion have been reaching a fever pitch for decades now. They have found camaraderie and reassurance in Bill O'Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, David Duke, and a host of other talking heads who have irresponsibly shunned critical thought in favor of ratings and favoritism among a subset of people who have allowed their worldviews to remain remarkably narrow. These communities have rallied in the YouTube comments sections of purported truthers, in chat rooms, and through Reddit threads
They have taken shape in “hoaxers” and information disseminators who specialize in outright fiction. An example of the absurdity of how this insular hivemind manifests—while there are many—is perhaps best exemplified by a group of truthers who have fixated on debunking the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, which left 20 children and six adults dead in December of 2012.
Conspiracy theorists perhaps fixated on this particular tragedy because of its impact on the national conversation surrounding gun control, mental health care, and the overwhelming response from the public and legislators to enact change to prevent such a tragedy from occurring again. Possibly stemming from an already shaken community of people who believe that their right to bear arms is being stripped by a government conspiracy to render us all powerless, Sandy Hook hoaxers arrived at the conclusion that the shooting was staged by the government, merely something that resembled a national tragedy but in which no one was actually harmed. From there, the web of alleged lies splintered and took shape in ways so extraordinary, they are very nearly satirical.
“In this video, we bust a fake Sandy Hook parent, expose a bogus 9/11 'dead firefighter,' and nail 'Trump beating victim' David Wilcox,” reads the description of one particularly disturbing YouTube truthing video. “Are all three individuals the very same man?” (This individual’s account name also happens to be “Barry Soetoro,” an Obama birther conspiracy theory of its own that you can read about in full in a report from Snopes. The owner of the account did not return Complex’s request for comment.) This particular account has also posted videos truthing and claiming to have predicted #Pizzagate, yielding a meta-hot take on the dark comedy that is 2016.
Reached for comment by Complex, Professor Karen Douglas of the University of Kent in the UK says that while there is an element of conspiratorial thinking in everyone, “certain characteristics of people that make them more predisposed to believe conspiracy theories.” “There are a range of personality (e.g. paranoia, mistrust) and social (e.g. education, political orientation) factors that have been linked to conspiracy belief,” she said when asked about characteristics typical of conspiracy theorists. “For example, people who score high on scales measuring mistrust show a tendency to score higher on conspiracy belief. But conspiracy theories are very complex and coming up with an overall 'profile' of a typical 'conspiracy theorist' is therefore almost impossible. Also, recent polls suggest that about half of us believe at least one conspiracy theory, so some conspiracy theories are not too far from the mainstream and there is therefore perhaps an element of conspiratorial thinking in us all.”
But there is significant difference between general inquisitiveness—indeed, even an interest in things we cannot explain—and the types of conspiratorial thinking that resulted in the arrest of 57-year-old Lucy Richards of Tampa, Florida. Richards was recently charged with making death threats against the parents of a child slain in the Sandy Hook shooting, according to the Associated Press. Her messages reportedly included threats like "you gonna die, death is coming to you real soon," and "LOOK BEHIND YOU IT IS DEATH." She allegedly sent the messages because she believed the incident to be a hoax.
Complex asked Professor Douglas what might lead an individual to gravitate toward a specific conspiracy theory, and in this case, the Sandy Hook tragedy in particular. “These are significant events, and people understandably want explanations for what happened,” she said. “Most of the time, the 'official' explanation is fairly straightforward and may therefore sometimes seem to be too mundane to explain such a significant event. In psychology, we call this the 'proportionality bias,' the idea that big events must have big explanations and that straightforward explanations somehow don't seem satisfactory. Conspiracy theories on the other hand offer interesting, complex explanations for what might have happened.”
However outlandish these “complex explanations” may seem, the conflation of fake news and viral content with truth—coupled with online communities that seemingly feed off the salaciousness of a purported hoax—has created an environment in which reality is muddied. It’s not too difficult to see how one could begin with a seemingly innocuous (however misguided) bias, and ensnare him- or herself with misleading information that exacerbates an already problematic belief.
“Fake news, of course, is a big problem,” said Professor Douglas. “People are bombarded with so much information on the internet, and it isn't always easy to separate fact from fiction and reliable sources from unreliable sources. Fake news and conspiracy theories are persuasive, and for various personal and social reasons, some people may be more susceptible to fake news than others.”
And such is the current climate of the information age, in which our social media bubbles essentially perpetuate what we already believe to be right or true. In an examination of hyperpartisan Facebook pages of both left- and right-wing publishers, BuzzFeed News found that these types of conspiratorial, misleading, or false information were being disseminated on both sides of the political aisle. “Our analysis of three hyperpartisan right-wing Facebook pages found that 38 percent of all posts were either a mixture of true and false or mostly false, compared to 19 percent of posts from three hyperpartisan left-wing pages that were either a mixture of true and false or mostly false,” they reported.
So what is there to be learned from the darkest K-hole of conspiracy theorists truthing the very foundation of reality and fact? We have normalized misinformation in a way that has made us all complicit in the fake news epidemic, and it is time for us to stare down our own responsibility for fake news and the destruction that it has inflicted on our democracy. I recall an old acquaintance once dismissing internet callousness by flippantly remarking that “it's just the internet.” It’s our collective dismissal of the internet’s impact on confirmation bias that has led us to this place in which we're collectively scratching our heads and asking each other, “How did we get here?”