Conspiracy theories in fake news


Sydney Wargo, Investigative Reporter

Just a week before Christmas of 2012, a tragic shooting occurred at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. A 6 year old boy named Noah Pozner, one of the 26 victims, was shot and killed that day.

His family was devastated, as anyone with empathy could imagine. Noah’s family suffered greatly from the death of their young son. As if they hadn’t been hurting enough, a conspiracy theorist named Alex Jones, best known for his fake news site InfoWars, posted a conspiracy about the Sandy Hook shooting, featuring Noah Pozner.

Mr. Jones claimed the shooting was a “hoax,” and that Noah Pozner was an actor that was set up to be the face of the tragedy. This went viral, and many other conspiracists followed suit and posted their own videos and articles supporting the article Mr. Jones had written with “proof.”

The New York Times wrote an article about the situation, discussing the numerous threats the Pozner family was facing. These threats include invasions of privacy, copyright infringement, harassment, and claims that Noah was a crisis actor, including photoshopped pictures of him in Pakistan after the shooting.

But it doesn’t stop there. Leonard Pozner, the father of Noah Pozner, had his drivers license and his address leaked, bringing the threats from the internet to his own home.

Mr. Pozner fought to keep these conspiracy theories off the Internet, and he reportedly spent months flagging and reporting as many videos and articles about his son as he possibly could; he even brought Alex Jones to court for harassing his son, himself, and his family.

This is only one of many cases in which a shooting was claimed to be fake. The Las Vegas shooting that took place in October of 2017 was reported to be staged by countless theorists.

During a music festival in Las Vegas near the Mandalay Bay Hotel, a man named Stephen Paddock shot a gun towards the crowd from the 32nd floor of the hotel . After killing 58 people and injuring over 800 people, Paddock shot himself in the head, killing him instantly.

Another article from The New York Times states, “After the (Las Vegas shooting) YouTubers filled a void of information about the killer’s motives with dark speculation, crowding the site with videos that were fonts of discredited and unproven information, including claims that the tragedy had been staged.”

This same article discusses the Parkland shooting that took place just earlier this year, in February of 2018. A survivor of the shooting named David Hogg spoke out about gun violence, and advocated for stricter gun control.

Soon after David’s public appearances, a video came out on YouTube titled “DAVID HOGG THE ACTOR.” The video claimed that “left-wing activists”  hired David Hogg as a crisis actor hired by to convince people to support gun control.

These examples of conspiracy theories are one of many aspects of fake news. The term “fake news” is a large umbrella term that represents a number of issues.

Fake news quickly circulates on social media, and with the advances in technology, it has become much easier for fake news to spread.

Conspiracy theories enable people to manipulate others into believing their point of view. Fake news caters towards certain groups of people’s ideology in order to get more clicks, attention, and money.

Fake news is defined as “false stories that appear to be news, spread on the internet or using other social media, usually created to influence political views or as a joke,” according to Cambridge Dictionary.

“Conspiracy” is also a term used very loosely to describe a myriad of things. Conspiracy theories are often the reasoning behind fake news. They are often used as “evidence” in order to make something that sounds unbelievable by itself seem to be true.

Conspiracy theories are also found to be the main topic of fake news articles. For example, the article from InfoWars about Noah Pozner claiming his death was an elaborate made up scheme to convince people to support gun control is a conspiracy theory.

The YouTube video claiming David Hogg to be a “crisis actor” is a conspiracy theory. These stories are only a fraction of the conspiracy theories featured in fake news.

In order to look further into conspiracy theories, it’s important to figure out exactly what a conspiracy is. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, the definition of ‘conspiracy theory’ is “a belief that an event or situation is the result of a secret plan made by powerful people.”

Freshman Slava Hausler-Lew describes what she thinks a conspiracy theory is: “it’s something made up by people who have no factual evidence to support their theory, which is influenced by their own opinions or beliefs.”

Many conspiracy theories are very well known, such as the theory that the moon landing was fake, or that the world is run by a secret government known as the Illuminati.

Conspiracy theories are everywhere, some more ridiculous than others. However, the amount of people that really do believe certain conspiracies is shocking.

For example, according to “The Cut”, a news source owned by New York Magazine, says in one of their articles that 37 percent of Americans are convinced that climate change is a hoax.

The article continues to say that due to the amount of people believing this, it has been much harder to get people to take action to prevent global warming, contributing to the problem.

Junior Hayden Smith explains how he think fake news spreads: “More often than not, people will only read the headline of an article, and not do any more in depth research whatsoever. This leads to a large amount of people with half baked political opinions and no arguments to back them up.”

The New York Times wrote an article titled Why Rational People Buy into Conspiracy Theories. The article mentioned a study performed by Fairleigh Dickinson University, which revealed that 63 percent of registered voters in the United States believe in at least one political conspiracy theory.

In order for people to believe fake news, it has to get around to them. With the internet, and the obsession society has with social media, it’s much easier for fake news to spread to people. Whether it’s on someone’s Instagram feed, or it’s in their suggested videos on YouTube, the internet allows fake news to sneak their way into the view of millions of people without having to even look for it.

Science Magazine performed a study to see how many people see fake news, and how quickly it gets to them compared to real news. Unfortunately, the results came out in favor of fake news. The article states “…a data set of rumor cascades on Twitter from 2006 to 2017. About 126,000 rumors were spread by 3 million people… the top 1% of false news cascades diffused to between 1000 and 100,000 people, whereas the truth rarely diffused to more than 1000 people… It took the truth about six times as long as falsehood to reach 1500 people… False political news also diffused deeper more quickly and reached more than 20,000 people nearly three times faster than all other types of false news reached 10,000 people.”

It turns out that fake news is actually more present online than in real news; making it much more likely for more people to click on it. The more clicks it gets, the more popular it gets, and it could result in thousands of people believing false information.

A question surrounding fake news often arises: Why do so many people fall for fake news? The easy answer is ignorance, but this word only answers a fraction of the question.

A large part of the issue is confirmation bias. The New York Times describes confirmation bias as “the tendency to pay more attention to evidence that supports what you already believe.”

To elaborate, confirmation bias is the reassurance and validation that you consider to be evidence that reassures you that opinion to be correct.

For example, if someone hates Donald Trump, they would be much more likely to believe an article providing “proof” that Trump is a horrible president. On the other hand, if someone who supported Trump saw this same article, they would brush it off as ridiculous or false.

Junior Carmen Simons gives his input the issue:“Fake news satisfies a fundamental question of ‘what if?’ better than anything else. Humans like to tell stories, and fake news tells exciting stories that can incite conflict, debate, and can just seem more interesting than real life. Essentially, we believe because we want to believe, it’s almost like a self contained form of escapism from current events within current events.”

Carmen continues to elaborate on confirmation bias. He says, “In the same way a conspiracy theory gains ground via echo chambers and people wanting them to be true, fake news uses confirmation bias to spread. Someone will instinctively like a news story that backs up their pre-existing beliefs, just because it does and regardless of fact.”

An electoral study featured on Science Direct further elaborated on confirmation bias. The study was performed on racist individuals. The data consists of the opinions of these people of president Barack Obama. The data showed that individuals who disliked black people are much more likely to dislike Obama.

Further data shows that those who are against Obama were much more likely to believe the conspiracy that Obama was not born in the United States.

The same study was done with Republicans; conservatives proved to be very susceptible to negative claims about Obama, including the conspiracy that Obama is not from the United States.

Similar to confirmation bias, ideology contributes to the belief of fake news. Ideology is a system of ideas that form the basis of opinion and morality, especially concerning economic and political theories.

Another survey featured on Science Direct found that agreeableness, low self esteem, negative attitudes towards authority, and paranoia are all factors that result in the belief of conspiracy theories.

The Washington Post discusses ideology in an article about how conservatives have benefitted from conspiracy theories. Ideology has contributed to the success of the Republican Party, especially through cable news and radio shows.

According to the article, conservative news outlets base their sources on ideology, rather than facts. They have shown to manipulate their audience into believing other non-conservative news sources are unreliable and biased, which further pushes conservative ideology.

Ms. Strassler, the U.S. Current Events teacher at the NYC iSchool, further explains why so many people are influenced by fake news. Ms. Strassler says, “I think fake news influences people when they’re not really informed at all about the way the government works, or about what’s happening in the mainstream news media. Because then they could be won over by fake news, because it looks appealing and it sounds controversial. I think people tend to fall for (biased news) a lot because you want to read something or listen to something that reinforces your own opinion.”

Most news sources are guilty of bias. The New York Times is a trustworthy news source, but it does tend to have a liberal bias, catering towards Democrats. The same goes for Fox News– a popular news channel, but also caters towards Republicans.

But it’s not all psychological; biology also plays a large role when it comes down to falling for fake news. As evolved animals, humans still have the same basic instincts, as any other living creature.

One of these basic instincts is to avoid danger. This comes with fear, an emotion controlled in the amygdala. The amygdala, a cluster of nuclei located in the brain, jump starts the “fight or flight” response in order to signal our body that danger is present. The amygdala is the stem of fear, an emotion humans feel in a lot of situations.

The New York Times explains the role the amygdala plays when it comes to encountering fear. “The amygdala jump-starts the rest of the brain into analytical overdrive — prompting repeated reassessments of information in an attempt to create a coherent and understandable narrative, to understand what just happened, what threats still exist and what should be done now.”

The article continues to explain that conspiracy theories stem from fear and the human instinct to rationalize and explain events that cause widespread panic; which often results in “conspiracy theories”.

As mentioned, conspiracy theories are frequently used as reasoning, resulting in the main issue: fake news.

Fake news wouldn’t be so present in today’s society if it weren’t for all the people behind it. And it’s not all random trolls on the internet. Some very infamous public figures are the reason why fake news becomes so relevant, including the President of the United States.

Donald Trump at the CPAC Conference in Maryland,                                               February 2018.

For example, President Donald Trump is one of the most influential people in the United States, if not the entire world. President Trump has said he strongly believes climate change is a hoax, despite the scientific evidence proving him wrong.

Nonetheless, Trump’s power as president allows his opinions to be heard by millions of people, and because of his position, many people go along with the things he says.

Donald Trump is infamous for his Twitter moments. Trump has over 55 millions followers on Twitter, which is only a fraction of his audience.

In December of 2017, Trump posted a tweet that was bound to be seen by millions of people. In this tweet, he says, “In the East, it could be the COLDEST New Year’s Eve on record. Perhaps we could use a little bit of that good old Global Warming that our Country, but not other countries, was going to pay TRILLIONS OF DOLLARS to protect against. Bundle up!”

This tweet caused lots of controversy, coming from both his supporters and his haters. Trump has hundreds of similar tweets about climate change, all of which are referencing to his belief that climate change is fake.

In another tweet, President Trump attacked Google for featuring news that made negative claims about him, or as Trump described, “fake news.”

Trump used his platform to defend himself by making claims like these that make him look good and other people or companies (in this case Google) look bad.

Trump said in his tweet, “Google search results for ‘Trump News’ shows only the viewing/reporting of Fake New Media. In other words, they have it RIGGED, for me & others, so that almost all stories & news is BAD. Fake CNN is prominent. Republican/Conservative & Fair Media is shut out. Illegal? 96% of results on ‘Trump News’ are from National Left-Wing Media, very dangerous. Google & others are suppressing voices of Conservatives and hiding information and news that is good. They are controlling what we can & cannot see. This is a very serious situation-will be addressed!”

Freshman Dexter Armstrong shares how he thinks Trump uses his position in power to influence his audience. “I think he lies a lot, and people gobble that up because they hear what they want to hear. Trump uses his title to influence and manipulate people’s views that will fit his ideology.”

A popular conspiracy theorist is a man named Alex Jones, famous for his website InfoWars, as well as his radio show. With 2.4 million subscribers on his YouTube channel (that was eventually removed from the site for violating YouTube’s policies), and a net worth of over 5 million dollars, Alex Jones is a very wealthy, successful, well known public figure.

Alex Jones at a protest in Dallas, Texas 2014.

Jones uses conspiracy theories that support his extreme conservative views as supporting “evidence” for his claims, most of which attack democrats, liberal opinions, Democratic candidates, and facts that support claims opposite to his.

Jones has become popular by posting controversial and offensive content. As a result, Jones can catch get more clicks and reach more people.

Mr. Singh, a special education teacher at the NYC iSchool gives his insight. He says, “the rise of ‘clickbait’ articles on social media, where the focus is an attention-getting, often misleading and controversial title or tagline that does not encourage much critical thought on the part of a reader. As people are quick to comment on or react to those sorts of media, it’s very easy to just outright lie in order to further an agenda, target opposition, or otherwise inflame readers regarding a topic.”

Alex Jones has caused a lot of controversy among political issues such as gun control. For example, as mentioned earlier, Alex Jones spread false claims about the Sandy Hook shooting that killed 20 children and 6 adults. Mr. Jones asserted that the Sandy Hook shooting was a set up staged by “gun-grabbers”, and that the victims of the shooting and their families were crisis actors.

The Sandy Hook shooting, as well as similar events, have been used as reasoning behind instating stricter gun control, which is generally a liberal stance.

After Sandy Hook, many people spoke up about the need for more gun laws. This alone caused political controversy; while Democrats are for strict gun control, Republicans tend to be opposed to it.

In order to invalidate the Democratic stance, Mr. Jones formed the conspiracy theory that the shooting was staged by Democrats who wanted to steal away the guns of American citizens.

From all of the attention Alex Jones and InfoWars has received over the past several years, millions of dollars have come out of it. In a court case Mr. Jones was involved in, it was revealed that he had been making over 20 million dollars a year in revenue.

This leads to the motivation behind fake news: money. Money and wealth is something seeked by most people, and some are willing to go extreme lengths in order to have it. With the current advances in technology, internet popularity is a great way to make money.

The challenge is actually becoming popular and staying relevant. A way to achieve popularity is through posting content that catches people’s eye, something that sounds shocking or controversial that people will be interested in.

Ms. Strassler gives her opinion on what she thinks motivates fake news: “I think they’re trying to make money, so if they make fake news and it’s super controversial and they get a lot of people to click on it, then they could sell advertisements that go along with it. I think that they’re just putting out stuff that people will click on, sometimes it’s called ‘clickbait’ Then you see an ad so the company that made the news site is getting money from those advertisers. I think it’s all about getting money and not about really providing real information to people.”

Identifying and avoiding fake news is very difficult. Freshman Laura Hickson, who is in the Media Literacy module, explains why it is hard to identify fake news: “It’s hard, because most of today’s news is fake, because people can either make money off of it, or they want to persuade you to see their view, so they sometimes twist facts.”

With the internet and advances in technology, it has become very easy for people to post whatever they want on the internet and get away with it.

With fake news constantly present in social media, thousands of people encounter it and fall for it; it’s inevitable. But there are changes that can be made in order to avoid fake news.

Laura continues to explain how to decipher fake news. She elaborates on how finding the motive of a news reporter can be a helpful way to identify fake news. “It boils down to trying to figure out what their purpose is. So, what are they trying to do; are they trying to inform you or trying to persuade you or provoke you?”

An easy way to avoid fake news is to know the telltale signs that something is fake or biased. Ms. Gray is the Media Literacy teacher at the NYC iSchool. In her class, she teaches about fake news and how to identify it.

In an interview, Ms. Gray says that some of the most obvious signs signaling that an article online is fake. “The first thing is bold and unattributed facts that don’t give a source for their statistics.” Ms. Gray continues to say “ hyperbolic and loaded emotional language, and bias that’s not labeled opinion or attributed to a source” are some other telltale signs of fake news.

Junior Lucas Kulin elaborates on bias: “any unreliable news is news with explicit bias” is a big red-flag. Lucas continues, “this makes most news unreliable unfortunately so we are left to put the pieces together from multiple sources.” Lucas also mentions confirmation bias, saying “most people think that so long as news cannot be disagreed with it is unbiased. This is false, they just happen to agree with the bias presented.”

Unfortunately, it is impossible to get rid of fake news all together. It’s unrealistic to assume that real news is the most present in society; it has shown to be the opposite. The negative impact fake new has is very large, and it will never go away.

However, there are things we as a society can do to weed out fake news. Many people are not educated on how to identify fake news, or what fake news even is. It’s important to spread knowledge and to educate people on what’s real, biased, and straight up fake. Instead of using the internet to spread lies, we can use it to spread truth and knowledge.