I have been on Twitter for about four years now and I never understood how some people get so many followers in no time. Obviously, one reason is that I don’t post often enough. I have a job and a life, so I don’t have time to write dozens of posts a day. But recently, I played an online game that showed me that the contents of my tweets have been all wrong. You should check it out. The goal is to get as many Twitter followers as possible and influence public discourse.
But the game isn’t really a game. I stumbled on it because I was reading a range of articles on conspiracy theories and what makes people believe in them. I have heard recently of a former colleague of mine who is arguably a smart person but has in the last couple of years fallen prey to conspiracy theories and is now a believer in QAnon.
Some people argue that we live in an age where conspiracy theories such as QAnon have become more common, but that is not true. Conspiracy theories have always been around as Uscinsky and Parent showed in their book American Conspiracy Theories. And while people who are leaning conservative politically tend to believe more often in conspiracy theories than people who lean left, the difference isn’t large. It’s just that the type of conspiracy theories they believe in differ in content. Conservatives tend to believe more in theories that put liberals and communists in the role of conspirators, while liberals tend to believe more in conspiracies cooked up by conservatives and corporations.
Proportion of Republicans and Democrats who believe that these groups work in a conspiracy
Source: Smallpage et al. (2017).
The problem with conspiracy theories is that today, it is much easier to spread them. First, there is the “illusory truth effect”. Because we are bombarded all the time with information and cannot always check the original source of the information, our brain is hardwired to take information that is repeated often as true. In the era of social media and information bubbles, it is so much easier to fall prey to this effect because your social media feed keeps on repeating your beliefs in your newsfeed over and over again to create engagement. The result is that what may seem ridiculous at first gets repeated so often that eventually, many people will start to believe it.
Second, there is our natural inclination to find patterns in random events. Studies have shown that people who are more inclined to see patterns in random events such as a series of truly random coin tosses, abstract drip paintings like those of Jackson Pollock (one of my all-time favourite painters), or – dare I say it – chart patterns like Fibonacci retracements or extensions are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories.*
But what can we do to avoid falling for conspiracy theories? Well, the best help is to always go to the source of the information. Often, I get mail from readers who ask me something that they could answer by simply clicking on the link of the studies I mention in these posts. Don’t take my word for it. Just click on the link and read the paper. It is the best way to learn and form your own opinion. In general, my view is that education is the best antidote to conspiracy theories, lies, and fake news. Unfortunately, educating oneself also takes time and effort and that’s why so many people simply don’t do it.
The other technique, I have mentioned often is to read news sources from both sides of the political spectrum. Read news sources on the left and the right to check your own biases and the biases of the media outlets you find trustworthy. And finally, turn off social media. It is the most destructive force of our times. If you stop going to Facebook, Twitter, or TikTok you will automatically lead a better life. Trust me. I may be on Twitter, but I never read my newsfeed and post only once a day. And I sleep so much better for it.
*Note that I am not against chart patterns in general. Some can have value as an expression of the behaviour of investors, but Fibonacci patterns are simply ridiculous.