How Conspiracy Theory is used by Social Media to keep people online

Today, I had turned on MSNBC while I made lunch, and was half-listening as the host and various guests discussed Facebook, who, due to yesterday’s announcement of removing pages due to coordinated inauthentic behavior, is hotly in the news again.

A man, whose introduction I had missed over the sound of a boiling kettle, began to discuss the presence of 'conspiracy theory’ groups on Facebook. He said, “it turns out conspiracy theories––disinformation––are a lot more engaging, and get shared virally, a lot further, much faster, than photos of puppies, or babies, or things that make people feel happy.”

The gut feeling I had when Zuckerberg said he felt Holocaust deniers had a place in the Facebook community, last month, was expressed in this 7/18/18 tweet, which I would post as a pic if that was allowed:

“The decision to let hate-based conspiracy theorist communities exist on Facebook doesn’t make me worry they will start breeding there––it tells me they already have & are a demo that is so big, or so responsive to ads, that they feel it’s financially beneficial to support them.”

Which, is essentially what this expert guest on MSNBC was indicating––that content like this, is good for business. I have a lot to say about how cultivating a society of conspiracy theorists is absolutely not humane, but, we’ll save that for another discussion.

I rewound and found out the name of the expert who was being interviewed, and it was Roger McNamee––who is a founding advisor for the Center for Human Technology. I have had this forum open in a tab for months, thinking that this was perhaps a place I should be sharing these thoughts, instead of Twitter(where I think most of my followers just wish this wasn’t happening). I just felt it was a sign that Roger was agreeing with me from the TV screen(surely I was agreeing with him… but you know what I mean), that I should come, finally make a post.

I absolutely believe that one goal of those who wish to create humane & ethical online communities, must be to push businesses to develop models in which they are unable to convince themselves that hosting, breeding and growing groups of conspiracy theorists is lucrative(or a net-positive)––as true as it is, that stripped of their humanity, these groups are seemingly an army of revenue-builders that are reliable for clicking and sharing.

I believe that Facebook(Twitter, etc) viewing these groups as valuable and functioning to protect them, is impacting our society––people who never would have been pushed towards these extremes, have discovered them on these platforms and watched what are complete lies gain likes and reshares––which gives the lie the appearance of legitimacy. It’s not just pre-existing conspiracy theorists finding one another. It is vulnerable people being used, by Facebook, advertisers by others––because, bottomline, there is money to be made.

This is a big, difficult problem, but that means we need to start/keep talking about it.
I definitely have much more to say. Thoughts?

1 Like

I cannot possibly agree with you more. Honestly it is sanity making for me to read your posts from today, because I am so overwhelmed with frustration and deepest concern about this phenomenon and what it means. Thank you.

1 Like

I’m glad to hear this is something you care about. I wrote a lot about it last year, and then didn’t post it anywhere, feeling it was too soon. I may try to, in order to work out my thoughts a little better. It’s a big, messy issue, which I am sure you know, from thinking about it.

I just hadn’t considered, at the time, what an integral part of the social media business these groups were. They probably can’t fully extract them, at this point, without crumbling. They built their success either unknowingly, or knowingly, using their activity as significant structural elements––which in turn validated these groups, and encouraged their further growth. What a mess.

Would be cool if we could think of ways to get more people thinking about this. I didn’t realize conspiracy theorists were going to become a significant demographic. Perhaps, I should have.

I too have written about this and not shared it beyond a few people I"m close to, and I’m contemplating taking on a writing project in coming months. It is a big, messy topic - and relates to work from other fields that I want to integrate as well - and have been in order to deepen and broaden my understanding of what we’re experiencing. I’m based in Washington DC - if you don’t mind me asking, what’s your home base? I’m interested in meeting and talking with people who are interested in these kinds of topics, and I’m also considering trying to catalyze some sort of gathering or convening (something I’ve done a lot of in my professional life). If you’d rather communicate off of the forum I"m happy to do that - I’m going to post this on the forum for now, as I have a sense others here share our concern and may want to find a way to continue the conversation in whatever way makes sense - but I’m also happy to take this offline - my personal email is, though I’m considering switching to using protonmail, which is much ore secure (that’s another subject).

1 Like

Important topic that I am not sure how to address. I guess the unrealistic optimist in me wants to believe that promoting conspiracy theorists produces short-term gains but long-term harm in a myriad of networked ways… and it’s just a matter of these platforms coming around to recognizing them.

I would say the past year might be considered the first wave of that comeuppance… e.g., Facebook getting its stock beaten down $120 billion in market cap in just one day on growth warnings being an example of how the financial chickens could be coming home to roost. But it’s too early to tell if those feedback mechanisms are in place yet, let alone if they clearly exist. While my intuition thinks the economics can’t be sustainable, I have no proof of that. I worry that – much like content prices on the Internet today represent a race to the bottom where so many quality providers have to take a financial bath just to survive – the financial forces behind engaging with conspiracy theorists will just provide a successive series of short-term gains that could feel like a long-term net positive pattern for the publishers.

1 Like

Karen! I am completely across the country from you. I keep wishing I was in D.C., so I could yell at congressmen in person, etc. I am in California. I think creating a group is a great idea, though.

I doubt my 1-woman rants at Jack Dorsey are going to move the needle much––group voices are more effective, obviously––if you are not a big famous, voice. I am here in the Bay Area, right now, and totally willing to meet with Dorsey or Zuckerberg but I don’t think they’re gonna take me up on it. :stuck_out_tongue_closed_eyes:

I think we have kind of figured out, in our threads here, this is really good stuff to talk about in person… there is so much to say.

Great post, @stems!

I’d like to point you to some additional forum posts that also mention the Conspiracy Theory promotion theory and effects:

And on new business models:

There is more to be found. I advise to use the Search function of the forum.

We are now at the stage where we are starting to develop concrete initiatives and projects on top of this forum. We can need all the helping hands we can get, so if you are interested please let us know. See Who we are, What we do, And how YOU ❤ can help Humane Technology too! At the moment we are most active in the Campaigners team and you could join us a campaigner :slight_smile: