The Conspiracy Theories Plaguing 2020
In the hectic world of social media during an election year, it doesn't take long to stumble across something that doesn't seem quite... right. Armed protestors traveling to your area? Positive COVID-19 results coming to the inboxes of people who never even took the test? The information we find on the internet can be scary regardless of how uncertain we are that it's untrue, especially when some stories look more accurate than others.
We asked you what conspiracy theories you've come across on the internet this year and you answered in spades. Here are a few we heard about frequently and why they are untrue.
Automatic Positives and the "Plandemic"
"The coronavirus is a hoax!"
"My friend went for a COVID test then had to leave before they administered the test and still got a positive result two days later."
By far one of the most popular conspiracy theories of 2020 is that COVID-19 was a planned event or a hoax all together. Not only is this devastating to those who have lost loved ones to the virus, but it also detracts from the fact that the coronavirus is still ravaging its way through the U.S. today.
Some have also expressed concern over the accuracy of COVID-19 tests. Specifically, there have been stories of people leaving the test site before their test was administered and receiving positive test results anyway. While Iowa has experienced inconsistencies with the reporting methods of COVID-19 numbers, explained here, there is no evidence to support this theory. Politifact fact-checked this conspiracy theory in this article. And remember, even if you receive a negative coronavirus test, it's still important to maintain social distancing guidelines and mask up to protect yourself and others.
Security Concerns with Masks
"Masks make children easier to kidnap."
"Masks are harmful to your health and are a means of government control."
The CDC recommended face coverings to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus shortly after the virus took hold in the U.S. Since we know that COVID-19 is spread through respiratory droplets, masks are a simple tool to contain these droplets. We also know that many people who test positive for coronavirus are asymptomatic and possibly wouldn't know they have the virus at all. People who are asymptomatic can still spread the virus to a person who is more vulnerable. For this reason, the CDC recommends everyone to participate in mask-wearing as well as social distancing.
"George Soros and other rich democrats are paying people to riot and loot."
"There was a Craigslist advertisement supposedly written by ANTIFA. 'We are ANTIFA, and we’re willing to pay up to 1,000 people $25 per hour for protesters in Lincoln, NE and Omaha, NE.'"
IPR's Kate Payne wrote an article focused on how the people of Muscatine, Burlington, and Council Bluffs prepared to receive violent protestors in June. As warnings continued to spread across Facebook, residents grew anxious about the safety of their towns. In the end, the expected rioters did not show up. The protestors that participated gathered peacefully.
Additionally, the dialogue regarding protestors getting paid for violence has been fact-checked by Politifact in this article. According to Politifact, there is no evidence that supports anyone paying off violent protestors. In fact, this theory has been circulating on social media for years and has been a common theme for articles on satire news websites. Politifact notes it's easy for social media to erase the context of these satirical articles, therefore propelling users to believe their validity.
QAnon and Antifa
"Antifa is starting all the fires on the West Coast."
"Dozens of trafficked children were rescued from a semi-trailer in Georgia."
QAnon and Antifa are two internet buzz words that you've probably seen a lot of lately. So what are they and why are they in an article about conspiracy theories?
In short, QAnon started as a fringe conspiracy group that hinged on "pizzagate," a conspiracy that Hillary Clinton was running a child sex-trafficking ring out of a pizza shop. Since then, it has gained momentum across the country. Some supporters have even made their way onto the ballot. Learn more about QAnon.
Antifa, on the other hand, isn't as easily defined. In an interview with Noel King on Morning Edition, Rutgers historian Mark Bray says of antifa, "It's not a singular organization. It's a kind of politics or activity of radical opposition to the far-right that doesn't have any qualms about physically disrupting far-right demonstrations. But it's not something new. That's the misconception." President Trump's attempt to declare antifa a terrorist group is what made the term relevant for so many Americans this year.
These groups embody the fears of both the right and the left, which make them prime vehicles for spreading misinformation that can end up being harmful. Oregon officials released a statement asking residents to "stop spreading rumors" as emergency responders wasted resources following up on antifa-related calls. In 2017, Edgar Maddison Welch was arrested for wielding a firearm in a Washington D.C. pizza shop he suspected was part of the "pizzagate" conspiracy linked with QAnon. Perhaps the most upsetting example is QAnon's takeover of #SaveOurChildren, using human trafficking as a call-to-action to get people involved with the QAnon community. While the internet attention could be helpful to spread awareness about the very real dangers of human trafficking, some are concerned that linking these stories to QAnon might encourage funding to end up in the wrong places.
For information about human trafficking in Iowa along with resources and ways to help, visit iowadot.gov/endslavery/.
How to find the truth
While technology makes it easier to feel connected in a time of extreme isolation, it has also never been easier for misinformation to spread in such fast and aggressive ways. This could be because the internet is largely unregulated, so false information is more easily presented as truth and is available for anyone to find.
Recently, many have become aware of the divisive nature of social media platforms with regards to the election. It's also true that there are millions of dollars being spent on advertising and operations to undermine our trust in each other. What we perceive to be true on the internet can have a damaging affect on our personal relationships, whether with family, friends, or partners. When in doubt, don't trust what you read online until you can verify it with a second source, especially if the information is coming from an unfamiliar or non-reputable news organization. Here are a few more tips on spotting misinformation.
Tips for identifying fake social media profiles, trolls and bots
Ask these questions:
- Is the account anonymous?
- Does the profile provide a picture of a person and some description of who the person is?
- Are they only talking about politics?
- Are they only attacking one political candidate?
- What kinds of memes are they sharing?
- From the photos provided, does the person who appears to be running the account seem to be unrealistically attractive?
- Where possible, check to see that the account is verified.
More on the impact of social media
There are three recent documentaries that we recommend to get a solid understanding of the impact of our social media usage, how easily content (and in that way, people) can be manipulated, and how social media can be used to drive negative change in society.
The Social Dilemma
The Social Dilemma is now streaming on Netflix. It’s a docudrama that explores the impact of social networking on our lives. In the film, director Jeff Orlowski makes an argument that social media companies are data mining and exploiting users for financial gain. It outlines how platforms like Facebook are designed to keep users engaged by creating highly curated content feeds.
It’s no secret that the social media platforms can be addicting. According to this film, that addictive nature can do a lot of harm to our mental health. Read The New York Times' review of the documentary here.
Feels Good Man
This documentary is streaming on Amazon Prime. It costs five dollars to rent, and it’s 100 percent worth it. It was awarded at both the 2020 Sundance Film Festival and was an official selection for SXSW.
This doc is about an artist named Matt Furie, who created a meme character you may have seen: Pepe the frog. Pepe started as a character in Furie's 2005 small indie comic, Boys Club. One comic in particular featured Pepe urinating with his pants pushed all the way down to his ankles, explaining to his roommate that it 'feels good, man.' It was a punchline that became a slogan for a certain carefree lifestyle that thrives in between beers and bong hits. From there Pepe was excerpted, repeated, excerpted, repeated — each time drifting further away from his original context, and away from Furie's hands.
The documentary explains in detail how and why it got really bad and the power of the internet in fueling miscommunication.
The Great Hack
The Great Hack was produced by documentary Academy Award nominees, Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer, and premiered at the Sundance Film Festival before it's release on Netflix in 2019.
David Carroll files a formal complaint against Cambridge Analytica, a political consulting firm based in the U.K., for all the data they have collected on him without his knowledge or permission. The case that ensues brings forth whistleblowers from Cambridge Analytica, including former director of research, Christopher Wylie, and former business development director, Brittany Kaiser. As the case makes its way into Parliament, more and more information is uncovered about how data collection is used to make, break, and change campaigns all over the world, including Brexit and the 2016 election of Donald Trump.