9 Investigates

Ever fallen for a conspiracy theory? Here’s why it can be so difficult to tell fact from fiction

ORLANDO, Fla. — Conspiracy theories may seem like they’re spreading at an alarming rate. But the idea of believing in something not supported by evidence is as old as civilization.

Only now, we have greater access to these theories through the internet and social media.

As Channel 9 political reporter Christopher Heath discovered, the confluence of a highly polarized population and the internet at our fingertips means just about any idea can take hold in seconds.

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As an example, first let’s take you back to 1985. The year Coca-Cola rolled out “New Coke” with a new taste that turned out to be a disaster.

Suddenly demand for Classic Coke skyrocketed and a conspiracy theory was born. The company had clearly released an unpopular drink to boost sales.

That one is an example of a harmless conspiracy theory, but not all are like that.

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In the fall of 2018, Florida resident Cesar Sayoc latched on to a string of conspiracy theories ranging from one that said that Jewish billionaire George Soros was paying kids to stage fake school shootings to another suggesting Barack Obama was born in Kenya and never went to Columbia University.

Sayoc would mail 16 potentially-explosive devices to perceived enemies, and in 2019 plead guilty to 65 federal counts.

“We do find that there is a general tendency for people to buy into conspiracy theories so that people who have a worldview in which conspiracy theories dictate events and circumstances then they’re going to believe a lot more conspiracy theories compared to somebody who does not have that worldview,” said Joseph Uscinski, an associate professor of political science at the University of Miami.

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Uscinski has studied these theories for the last decade.

He said just about everyone is prone to believe some form of a conspiracy theory.

“Rarely do you find people who believe in every conspiracy theory out there, but people are very good at picking out the things that match what they already believe,” he said.

That’s because of what’s called confirmation bias. If you already distrust vaccines and billionaires, then you’re likely to believe Bill Gates is using COVID-19 to inject people with microchips, a conspiracy theory that’s spreading right now, but is not new.

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“Now we’re talking about Bill Gates. A couple of weeks ago we were talking about George Soros, and before that it was the Koch brothers and before that the Rockefellers and the Rothschilds,” Uscinski said. “There’s always some powerful rich person who we want to blame for whatever we want to blame them for at any given time.”

But Uscinski’s research shows while we may be more aware of these theories now, they are no more prevalent today than they were 20 years ago

He said often the names change, but the plots, and those prone to believe them, do not.

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Video: How you can tell fact from fiction from conspiracy theories online

Misinformation is spreading online and on social media at an alarming rate, especially leading up to Election Day. 9 Investigates and reveals how to navigate through these conspiracy theories and how to separate fact from fiction. READ ==> at.wftv.com/37T8IL0

Posted by WFTV Channel 9 on Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Sarah Wilson

Sarah Wilson, WFTV.com

Sarah Wilson joined WFTV Channel 9 in 2018 as a digital producer after working as an award-winning newspaper reporter for nearly a decade in various communities across Central Florida.