-3

It is obviously important to divide truth from conspiracy theories. Truth is good, and conspiracy theories are bad and disturbing. But how would common citizen know what is good, and what is bad?

For example, citizen hear a theory that governor A is corrupted (or eating children!), or theory about governor B being hidden racist. Who would help him to have a right, truthful view?

Is there any mechanism to divide fake news from TRUTH in forming media narrative?

12
  • Are you looking for an official mechanism (such as courts or a government agency) or a practical mechanism (such as independent fact checking websites)? – Bobson Feb 10 at 6:55
  • Practical mechanism - I don't that media directors are corellating to government agency every morning.) Also, please, don't use the word "independent" - it doesn't worse pixels to show it. – user2501323 Feb 10 at 6:59
  • Not an answer, but in practice I find that I get very far with a variety of Hanlon's razor: No need to think of evil intentions/conspiracy for anything that can be explained by stupidity. The beauty of this wrt. every-day politics is that as a voter it often doesn't matter whether a politician is stupid or "evil". Already stupidity is sufficient for many voting decisions ;-) – cbeleites unhappy with SX Feb 10 at 9:43
  • "Already stupidity is sufficient for many voting decisions" - an example?) Above all, that is very interesting point of view.)) – user2501323 Feb 10 at 9:45
  • @user2501323: no need to decide stupidity vs. conspiracy/intent when already stupidity is sufficient to not vote for them. (And often I'm not even sure which is worse for someone in power...) Obvious drawback of that approach is that you may easily run out of people you may want to vote for... – cbeleites unhappy with SX Feb 10 at 9:53
5

First off, conspiracy theories involve a powerful group of conspirators all conspiring for the same sinister goal. So "politician X is racist" is more of a statement of fact (which may be true or false) and not a conspiracy theory. 'The Democratic party runs a pedophile ring from a pizzeria' would be a conspiracy theory. 'The government sells weapons to Iran to fund terrorists in south America' would be another example.

Michael Shermer has given a 10 point list in helping identifying true vs false conspiracy theories. Among them are: a pattern of "connecting the dots" with no evidence supporting the connection; conspirators would need an unlikely amount of power; the theory is highly complex or requires an unlikely count of co-conspirators; the theory posits world domination or control of the nation/economy/etc (all involved groups have the same aim); the theory goes off small, possibly true events and extrapolates to large, improbable events; the theory doesn't differentiate between facts and speculation; the theory is suspicious of all government agencies or groups; the theory rejects all alternative explanations and facts not supporting it.

Jovan Byford also wrote an article on how to differentiate between genuine conspiracies and conspiracy theories. Actual secret collusions "rarely work out according to plan" and involve "different actors, with disparate aims and goals, limited to certain locations and time frame". On the other hand, conspiracy theories are about "spurious connections between disparate historical actors or events" with overarching plots that explain everything.

According to Byford, the most important aspect is how evidence is approached. In investigations into real conspiracies, "[t]he approach to evidence demands that sources are checked and claims verified. If there is an absence of proof or if evidence contradicts the hypothesis, this is not automatically considered to be part of a cover-up." On the other hand:

For the conspiracy theorist, the opposite applies. The idea of a plot is not a hypothesis, but a fundamental, unshakeable principle. The possibility that the basic premise of the conspiracy theory may be wrong, or that it might be proven wrong by new evidence, is not even entertained.

Based off this, deciding on what is a conspiracy and what is an actual secret plot, it is important to properly approach evidence. If a number of different reliable sources all report X, the reaction shouldn't be "well, all of the media/academia/government is obviously in on the conspiracy". Instead, given evidence should be evaluated to see if it fits the conspiracy, or if other explanations are more likely.

5
  • Very interesting answer, especially that 10 points list. But there is one phrase I didn't understand (in the 1st paragraph): "would be another example" - example of what? – user2501323 Feb 10 at 9:42
  • @user2501323 of a conspiracy theory (or more precisely, a genuine secret collusion). I originally planned to apply the methods described by Byford and Shermer to those two examples (one real, one fake), but decided against it, as the answer was already quite long. It's now left as an exercise for the reader. – tim Feb 10 at 10:46
  • Ah, I see. An example of non-conspiracy theory, but a factual story. – user2501323 Feb 10 at 11:21
  • It might be instructive to go through the ten points with a real-world example, if you have the time to write it up. Length is not a problem in a world if bits and bytes. – o.m. Feb 10 at 11:54
  • @o.m. But time and reader attention spans are a problem :) – Philipp Feb 10 at 14:05
6

A conspiracy theory is an attribution theory: it asserts (by its nature) that some observable phenomena is attributable to the intentions of some group, and creates a structure/system in which that group has the motive, means, and opportunity to create the given (observable) outcome. Thus someone like Marjorie Taylor Greene might consider the increase in California wildfires, but instead of attributing those fires to uncontrolled forces (natural or man-made), she attributes them to some intentional action by a human agent: in her case, George Soros, trying to develop some space-based solar power system backed by money from a Jewish cabal, which has gone horribly wrong.

The heart of a conspiracy theory is the idea that bad things only happen because of bad actors, and that one must ferret out the bad actors responsible for those bad things at all costs. Thus conspiracy theorists seek out conspiracies — groups of bad actors coordinating to hide their bad actions from others — because the idea that a bad outcome is due to anything other than human intervention is pragmatically unthinkable. This is actually quite normal in a way, because people tend to think in term of narratives. We prefer stories about agents, about people who make decisions that have impact on their own lives and the lives of others; we reject stories in which unpredictable events occur for no reason. And so (to be topical) we might see someone prefer to believe a story of wide-spear voter fraud, however improbable, because the alternative is that one's preferred candidate lost where he should have won, for no readily apparent reason.

Losing is bad, therefore someone must have done it to us, because bad things don't happen otherwise.

There is no cure for conspiracy theory except the re-invocation of common sense. At some point, one has to be able to say:

Ok, this is ridiculous; something I don't like happened and nobody did it. Time to move on.

But there will always be people who refuse to move on, and refuse to grasp that basic acceptance of reality. One has to be able to distinguish ardent belief as a thing in itself, but something that it is not an acceptable replacement for truth. Otherwise one is vulnerable to every huckster with a tale to tell.

9
  • 1
    Very well-based question. But that point: "one's preferred candidate lost where he should have won, for no readily apparent reason" - can it be applied to 2016 election and anti-Trump histeria afterwards? Those "russian hand" claims fits to "bad actors" term very well. – user2501323 Feb 10 at 11:25
  • 3
    You were misinformed. The Mueller report explicitly said that it did not exonerate the president and that the reason charges were not brought forward against him was because he was a sitting president. He was not impeached following the investigation into Russian interference because they could not determine a link between Trump himself and Russia, but several members of his campaign team received prison sentences for their part. – ewanc Feb 10 at 13:27
  • 1
    @user2501323: That's actually a good point that I should clarify in the answer; I'll edit in a bit. But for the nutshell, attribution is normal: we frequently try to suss out who or what 'caused' what we see. But the difference between a 'conspiracy theory' and a 'theory about conspiracy' is that the first is usually based on an unseen counterfactual while the second starts with an unaccountable fact. e.g., a UFOlogist starts with the premise that we don't see solid evidence of aliens we know exist, and creates a conspiracy to explain that lack of solid evidence. – Ted Wrigley Feb 10 at 14:40
  • 4
    @user2501323: In 2016 we had solid evidence that things happened — the DNC servers got hacked, broad coordinated patterns of election disinformation were evident, etc. — so people started looking to determine who (if anyone) caused them. The possibility of a Trump organization conspiracy was raised because (1) many of Trump's allies had close connections to Moscow, and (2) Trump's campaign stood to benefit significantly from the things that had happened. The theory that there was a conspiracy was reasonable (making no judgements about whether it was true). – Ted Wrigley Feb 10 at 14:48
  • 1
    One of the most well-balanced comments I've ever read on that theme. – user2501323 Feb 10 at 15:16
4

Common sense

First, there is the Sagan Standard: Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. If you claim to be an extraterrestrial, it is not sufficient to say that I cannot disprove it. It is up to you to prove it. And with a default assumption that you are either a human or possibly a reasonable clever bot, any claim that you are extraterrestrial would need solid evidence.

Second, follow the sources. Fact checkers can help you, but they don't decide what is true or false, they do the legwork of looking up reliable sources. There is some risk of getting into a filter bubble, with low-quality sources quoting each other at length. Peer-reviewed publications in reputable journals are good, but it is hard for a layman to tell what is reputable in each field. At some point I have to decide if I believe that, say, The Lancet is a good source for medical information.
But I'd trust the BBC over some random guy on twitter, I'd trust the Washington Post over The Sun, I'd trust Fox News over OAN.

Third, scientific truth is a process of challenge and improvement. Newton came up with a model that is still taught at school, because it is still useful at human scales. But relativity and particle physics demonstrated that Newton is not the whole truth.
Conspiracy theorists seize upon improvements in the models, and disagreements within the scientific community, to dismiss an overwhelming consensus like climate change or evolution.

Fourth, look at patterns common to conspiracy theories. They often try to explain the hardships in the life of ordinary people with the conspiracy of an elite group. They accuse critics or sceptics of being part of that conspiracy. Or they claim that there is no hard evidence because the conspiracy suppresses it. They assume that there must be something bigger than incompetence or bad luck behind any large event. And they assume that the beneficiary of an event must have caused it.

Conspiracy theory fits together neatly, because it is constructed. Reality is messy. But reality can be validated in many different ways.

2
  • WashPo trusted over The Sun. No, it is already known fact that major newspapers have squashed stories by those in power making "requests". And many stories from "Rags" have turned out true because so much dirt was put into the light that the conspiracy could no longer be kept quiet. – paulj Feb 12 at 20:36
  • @paulj, I was giving relative ratings. I do trust the Washington Post more than I trust The Sun (I mean the UK tabloid, in case you thought of one of the others). I don't really trust Fox, but I trust OAN even less. – o.m. Feb 12 at 20:47

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .