The Rise of Conspiracy Theories in the Age of Big Tech

On January 6th, 2021, more than 2,000 angry rioters breached the US Capitol building. They proceeded to ransack and pillage a beacon of American democracy. Podiums were stolen, Trump flags were waved, and America’s reputation was shamed. The rioters shared a common goal: halting the inauguration of President-Elect Joe Biden. From the integrity of the moon landing to aliens in the Nevada desert, the rise of conspiracy theories as a result of the Internet is a complex phenomenon with multiple factors at play.

In truth, many of the rioters believed that the fate of defending America from the secret cabal of cannibalistic Washington pedophiles depended on Trump remaining in office. This theory is known as QAnon, and it is one of relatively new conspiracy theories that have taken America by storm. 

To understand QAnon, you must first understand conspiracy theories. Simply put, they are hypothetical explanations that often attribute something’s existence to the actions of a secret and powerful organization. Conspiracy theories are reactionary responses to unexplainable, mysterious, and tragic events. It’s easier to believe alternative facts than accept hurtful truths. To believe that one is fighting a noble crusade against secret pedophile rings is a better reality than that of rioting to overturn an election.

Social media platforms and other online spaces have been heavily exploited by individuals and organizations seeking to manipulate public opinion.

An abundance of psychological research favors this conclusion. A study published in the journal Psychological Science in 2010 found that people who feel a lack of control in their lives are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories. Researchers found that inducing feelings of powerlessness in study participants increased their endorsement of conspiracy theories.

 Another study conducted in 2023 and published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science found that participants who scored high on a measure of need for closure were more likely to endorse conspiracy theories, even when there was strong evidence against them. Overall, these studies suggest that people are often motivated to believe in conspiracy theories for a variety of reasons, such as a need for control, uniqueness, or closure. However, it’s important to note that these motivations are not necessarily the only factors that contribute to belief in conspiracy theories. Further research is needed to fully understand the complex psychological processes involved. 

The advancement of technology and the expansion of the Internet has contributed to a rise in the prevalence of conspiracy theories. The Internet has made it easier for people to access information and connect with like-minded individuals, which has led to the proliferation of conspiracy theories and the swelling of misinformation and propaganda. Additionally, the Internet has also made it possible for anyone to publish information online, regardless of its veracity or credibility, giving a platform for bad actors to spread misinformation. Social media platforms and other online spaces have been heavily exploited by individuals and organizations seeking to manipulate public opinion.

Although it’s easy to dismiss conspiracy theories as mere trivial Internet debates, conspiracy theories can significantly alter the social, political, and economic stability of our country. They fuel polarization, undermine trust in American institutions and designate violence as a means to resolve political dissatisfaction. While technology can be a powerful tool for communication and information-sharing, it is important to be critical of sources of information and to rely on evidence-based information to form opinions and beliefs.