The rise in conspiratorial thinking is the product of several interrelated trends: declining trust in institutions; demise of local news; a social-media environment that makes rumor easy to spread and difficult to debunk; a President who latches onto anything and anyone he thinks will help his political fortunes. It’s also a part of our wiring. “The brain likes crazy,” says Nicco Mele, the former director of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, who studies the spread of online disinformation and conspiracies. Because of this, experts say, algorithms on platforms like Facebook and YouTube are designed to serve up content that reinforces existing beliefs–learning what users search for and feeding them more and more extreme content in an attempt to keep them on their sites.
All this madness contributes to a political imbalance. On the right, conspiracy theories make Trump voters even more loyal to the President, whom many see as a warrior against enemies in the “deep state.” It also protects him against an October surprise, as no matter what news emerges about Trump, a growing group of U.S. voters simply won’t believe it. On the left, however, conspiracy theories often weaken voters’ allegiance to Biden by making them less likely to trust the voting process. If they believe their votes won’t matter because shadowy elites are pulling the country’s strings, why bother going through the trouble of casting a ballot?
Experts who follow disinformation say nothing will change until Facebook and YouTube shift their business model away from the algorithms that reward conspiracies. “We are not anywhere near peak crazy,” says Mele. Phillips, the professor from Syracuse, agrees that things will get weirder. “We’re in trouble,” she adds. “Words sort of fail to capture what a nightmare scenario this is.”
“How Conspiracy Theories Are Shaping the 2020 Election” – Time: