What happened?

Do you know anyone who believes powerful world governments created COVID-19 to make money selling vaccines? Or by a scientist modifying a strand of HIV? Doesn’t something with significant impact make sense to have a big cause? These examples are called conspiracy theories, as there is no factual evidence or reason to suggest they are correct. Yet despite this, conspiracy theories are becoming more popular. This rise of accepting conspiracy theories about COVID-19, the US presidential election, the government, and the Trump administration is interesting to consider to learn about information consumption. Do you believe information because it sounds right, because it agrees with something you already consider correct, or because it’s readily available? 

Background

Cognitive biases help explain how people process information. Humans like the world to make sense and for information to agree, so our minds will try to form cognitive closure in our decisions, intake of information, and existing opinions. For example, the ambiguity effect explains how we avoid making choices with uncertainty and instead rely on what is comfortable or familiar, like choosing food you already like on a menu over something new. Confirmation bias shows that we seek and interpret information in a way that confirms our existing views, like reading only news sources affirming your political ideas. The backfire effect demonstrates that even when presented with  contradictory evidence, we are more likely to stick with our biases and further resist other information.

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Connection

Spikes in sociopolitical turbulence correlates to an increase in conspiracy theories. For example, the continued polarization in the Trump administration spread distrust of the media and supported conspiracy claims like QAnon. Unsurprisingly, that conspiracy theory’s popularity increased. At the end of Trump’s term, unsupported claims of voter fraud and an illegitimate election by our president resulted in planted bombs, rioting, and destruction of the Capitol building on January 6, 2020. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have blocked Trump’s account as a result. 

These same internet giants that can protect against misinformation also further increase its spread. With how social media collects our information, interests, and views, we are often further surrounded by topics, perspectives, and ideas that we already think are true. The information readily available to us is that which confirms our existing biases, playing into confirmation bias. Often, social media algorithms cause us to become further surrounded by our existing views. When confronted with new information, people will first see if it fits with familiar information, as explained by the ambiguity effect. Instead of examining the evidence or an arguments’ validity, people will base the value of new data on what previously was certain and familiar. These self-enforcing beliefs cause conspiracy theories to spread quickly between people who have bought into one. It is challenging to correct conspiracy beliefs. As the backfire effect shows, conspiracy theorists’ ideas often grow stronger after being presented with contradictory evidence. 

Understanding the cognitive biases that may impact how we process new information is essential. Attempting to simplify and make sense of an uncertain world furthers the appeal of conspiracy theories. We live in a time where so much is unknown. It can feel more comfortable to grab at any information that gives us a feeling of closure and concreteness rather than its actual credibility.