Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Social Media and the rise of conspiracy theories

With great power comes great responsibility, said Voltaire. Well you can also attribute its popularity to Spiderman's uncle too :) When Technology gave us, the general public, the great power of Social Media, we didn't become more responsible, only more frivolous

The aftermath of the Hyderabad bomb blasts which took place on Feb 21st saw a slew of Facebook updates and Tweets in my network ranging from benign to malicious. More dangerous were the purportedly expert opinions without proper basis. The same could be seen on popular blogs/websites too which treads on conspiracy theories. This lead me to think, why do people create such conspiracy theories and why it is popular among social media

The crux of conspiracy theories lies in the 2 primal human traits - Fear and Greed. Fear helped us survive and greed helped us to evolve as human beings. Most conspiracy theories are based on Greed - Money or Power, and the culprits are usually, Corporate, Political, or Military... or Fear - Unknown, Safety, Culture and the culprits are usually Religious, Cults, or even Extra Terrestrial. 

We also want to believe that most events in life are controllable. This makes us decipher events so that are easily understandable to us. Thus we join the dots to create a picture that we already have in our minds. Most of the events, like the Hyderabad bomb blasts or even 9/11, that happen are then interpreted through confirmation bias or hindsight bias

Confirmation bias, is a tendency for people to favour information that confirms to their beliefs. Each event is then seen as an incident that strengthen's their belief. For example, for a marketing guy like me, everything that happens would have a marketing purpose attached to it... Similarly, any events that happen would trigger reactions (especially conspiracy theories) from users on social media that would be an opportunity to propagate their belief. (Read more about Confirmation bias at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confirmation_bias )

Hindsight bias, on the other hand is trying to bring predictability to an event that has happened. This is one of the main reason for the rise of conspiracy theories in the social media space. Since, hindsight bias is all about explanation of what already happened, and by its very nature, Internet offers fertile ground to create, place and join the dots to resemble the final picture. The Internet as a repository of information, and Search Engines like Google as a pipe to access the information helps people in creating and placing the dots. And since the final picture is already there (the event that has occurred , overlaying it over the dots you get to join it easily.. (Read more about Hindsight bias at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hindsight_bias )

In the days of limited media reach, the information that gets published in the mainstream media gets curated by lot of experienced people before the general public consumes the information. Since 'different' people go through the information at various stages, what comes out is a non-partisan, researched information; And propagating the conspiracy theory that would arise out of such information would be limited to the individual's immediate sphere of influence. However, with the rise of Internet and social media specifically, any active user on social media platform has the potential to reach out to millions of users (within couple of degrees separation ...and since groups or communities formed on social media platforms based on some common ground, it acts as an ideal launchpad for any conspiracy theory to take off. Also Internet have become the source of information or research for most media coverage now-a-days..thus the opportunity for any fringe theory to gain prominence through mainstream media has increased manifold...

Since most of the stuff put on the Net remains there - Internet never forgets-  and as the reach of social media spreads, it becomes necessary for all the content creators on social media to think about the power in their hands and act responsibly



Other reference links:
Image: http://blogs.thenews.com.pk/blogs/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/conspiracytheories1.jpg

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