How Online Conspiracy Theories Make Their Way Into The Mainstream
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
So how do fake narratives and conspiracy theories make it from the far-right corners of the Internet to mainstream conversation or even the president's Twitter feed? This question carries new urgency after the events of recent days after a gunman killed 11 people in a Pittsburgh synagogue over the weekend.
The suspect was an active user of the social media site Gab, where he posted his anti-Semitic thoughts. Gab bills itself as a free speech alternative to Facebook and Twitter and is hardly the first place on the Internet where anti-Semitism, white nationalism and other extreme ideologies spread. We spoke earlier this morning to Will Sommer, who thinks about all this a lot. He reports on fringe right-wing media for The Daily Beast. And he's actually tracked how conspiracy theories gain traction.
Hi there, Will.
WILL SOMMER: Thanks for having me.
GREENE: So what's a good example of how this works?
SOMMER: Sure. So for example, I mean, the most obvious example right now is the caravan - the so-called caravan coming out of Honduras. This is the idea that this was some big menace, you know, an invading horde is something that really sort of bubbled up on sort of the darkest edges of the right-wing Internet with a lot of sort of hoaxes behind it. And, you know, they've kind of been pushing this idea for a couple months now. And it's only really this month that it's caught on, so much so that the president is now sending troops to fight off this sort of nonexistent invasion.
GREENE: Now, I mean, of course, the president would say sending the military somewhere is a very important decision. But you are saying that you have been able to actually track this, that the idea that this caravan is a menace was on some of these fringe sites. And you could watch it work its way into the conversation in sort of mainstream politics.
SOMMER: Absolutely. People have done analyses of this that show sort of like, you know, starting on various Facebook pages, Reddit accounts, 4chan, which is a pro-Trump Internet forum, all of these places. And they kind of hit the meme enough in the message. And then just in the past week or two, it really has caught on. You know, Representative Matt Gaetz from Florida was one of the big promoters of it. And then from there, it really took off.
GREENE: Are there other examples where you've actually seen these sort of theories work their way as high as, you know, top officials and even the White House?
SOMMER: Yeah. I think some of the most fascinating stuff happens when these weird hoaxes and conspiracy theories affect actual policy. So the president claimed after the 2016 election that he had lost the popular vote because 3 million illegal votes were cast. And you can draw a pretty direct line from that to an InfoWars article that had originally made that claim. And then that claim then goes on to inspire the president to create the presidential voter fraud commission.
GREENE: Will, who does something about this, if anyone? I mean, if these conspiracy theories are not true, if some or all or many of them are not based on fact, who reins this in? Is it the job of the press to knock these things down? Should it fall to social media platforms to regulate what's being shared there?
SOMMER: You know, I think it's an incredibly thorny issue. I mean, we've seen in the past when the press tries to fact-check things, you often end up amplifying the hoaxes and spreading them around. And you aren't really convincing the people who believe in them already. You know, at this point, I think people have kind of decided the ball is in the court of the social media companies. But you know, they've been very reluctant to step in, understandably, into adjudicating political controversies. So I think it's a very sticky issue. I think the companies, right now, are erring more on the side of banning people and stuff like that than they were in the past.
GREENE: Are we seeing this a lot more than we used to, or has this always been going on?
SOMMER: I mean, it seems like something that has really accelerated. Obviously, we've had conspiracy theories for decades and even before that. But it's really accelerated with social media. And also, I think, the Internet and social media allows people to connect and reinforce one another's beliefs in a way they couldn't really in real life.
GREENE: Will Sommer reports on fringe right-wing media for The Daily Beast, joining us this morning in our studios in Washington.
Will, we really appreciate it.
SOMMER: Hey, thanks for having me.
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