Carl Wernicke: The Internet & Conspiracy Theories

Jan 16, 2018

An undeniable impact of the Internet is how it reveals more about who we are, and what human society is like, than anyone could have predicted.

On the positive side we see Go Fund Me-type efforts, where people donate money to support causes or help individuals, or invest in small businesses starting up or trying to expand. They do this because they get their own reward from helping other people. It’s heartwarming.

On the negative side we have seen a revival of racism and other evils. Prior to the Internet it was easy to believe we were on our way to a more tolerant society. But the Internet revealed a more substantial racism than almost anyone could have imagined. Even anti-semitism has made a comeback. Whether the Internet simply revealed these latent hatreds and allowed the like-minded to connect, or stimulated their growth remains unanswered. I suspect it revealed what had been hidden, just as the anonymity of the Internet has freed people to express all kinds of anger.

When general public expression was limited to edited content like letters to the editor, we got a bowdlerized view of public opinion. The Internet removed the editor, and whole lot of heck broke loose.

Recently, the Guardian, a British newspaper, detailed how the Internet has facilitated another dark corner of the human psyche: conspiracy theories.

Now, conspiracy theories have always flourished; I mean, who killed JFK, right? And, sometimes conspiracies are real. But what marks the true believer is the ability to find diabolical conspiracies where no one else would even think to look, and to insist on them despite any lack of plausibility, much less actual evidence.

In 2015 the governor of Texas assigned the Texas State Guard to monitor a joint Army/Navy exercise to assure worried conspiracists that it was not a precursor to a federal takeover of the state. In 2012, the Sandy Hook school shooting became a poster event for conspiracists, some calling it a hoax, others charging it was staged to create momentum for gun control. And after Hurricane Ivan in 2004, the News Journal missed its chance at a Pulitzer Prize by failing to find the stacks of bodies tipsters assured us were being hidden from the public in local morgues.

But the Guardian’s report showed just how unhinged conspiracy theorists can be.

After the mass shooting in Las Vegas in October, online conspiracists focused on TV reports about a man who used his shirt to plug a gunshot wound in a friend’s chest, and comforted a dying man he didn’t know. In other words, a real hero.

But soon he was bombarded online with charges that he was hired to play a victim, and that the shooting was a hoax. Type in his name today, and the words actor and hoax pop up, along with numerous videos detailing the conspiracy.

A man who was shot in the head in Vegas had to close his Facebook account after it overflowed with death threats and accusations that he was an actor.

And the father of a reporter killed in 2015 during a live broadcast was accused of being hired to fake the role of grieving father in a hoax to support gun control.

What’s most frightening is the aggressive virulence shown by complete strangers toward people victimized by tragedy. Why you would see a TV report about a man helping shooting victims and conclude that he is part of an elaborate hoax is so incomprehensible as to be, well, incomprehensible.