If you’ve been on social media for any measurable amount of time, you’ve seen a conspiracy theory or two shared by someone you love, someone you know, or even just a stranger you follow.
Social media and conspiracy theories have a unique relationship.
The Ingredients and Appeal of Conspiracy Theories
The ingredients of popular conspiracy theories vary based on the kinds of people who would be interested in such theories. Some people are more prone to believe conspiracy theories about sneaky government activity. Others are predisposed to conspiracy theories rooted in public health and the medical system. Yet others’ ears are tickled by conspiracy theories surrounding religious groups and their secret maneuvers to seize power from world governments.
Conspiracy theories have been around for decades, and it should be noted that not all conspiracy theories are created equal. The most famous conspiracy theories in American history surround the possibility of extraterrestrial life at Area 51 or the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. These “conspiracy theories” are a bit less harmful to discuss than, say, the idea that Bill Gates created COVID-19 to implant Americans with a microchip via a vaccine. Discussing “who really killed JFK” is a little more innocuous than discussing whether or not to protect yourselves and others from a raging disease.
Though these conspiracy theories are different, and are different degrees of harmful, our fascination with all conspiracy theories are rooted in the same need: an explanation for the seemingly inexplicable.
All of us, in our sin, face the temptation to believe and share conspiracy theories with others. This reality has been more prevalent in the last couple of years than any other time in recent history.
I say we are tempted to sin because sharing conspiracy theories is clearly sinful. Perpetuating lies is an abomination to God and will not go unpunished (Prov. 6:16-19; 12:19, 22; 19:9; others). Why are we tempted to sinfully pass along conspiracy theories? We all recognize the brokenness of the world, and we have trouble believing that all of the death, destruction, and turmoil that surrounds us is simply the result of our collective sinful behavior. We recognize the tragic effects of sin on the world around us, and we think, “This has to be the coordinated effort of [fill in your favorite villain].”
The introduction of social media into our everyday lives has given more influence to conspiracy theories than they have had previously.
Social Media Propels Conspiracy Theories
How does social media effectively pour gasoline on the fire of conspiracy theories? Let’s look at Facebook as an example, as conspiracy theories tend to spread fastest there.
Facebook’s number one goal is to make money, which makes sense. It’s a private business. It has every right to do that.
The number one way Facebook makes money is by selling advertisements. In 2019, 98.5% of Facebook’s revenue came from advertisements—a whopping $69.7 billion.
The number one way Facebook sells billions of dollars in advertisements is by keeping your attention for as long as it possibly can.
So, Facebook’s business model relies on your attention. Your attention allows them to sell ads, and their ads make them lots of money.
The question follows, then, “How does Facebook keep my attention so well?” Facebook keeps our attention by putting content on our news feeds that it believes will get us to respond in some way (like, comment, or share) and keep scrolling for more. Facebook knows what you want to see before you even see it.
In the world of monetizing our attention, Facebook does not have a preference toward content that makes us happy or makes us mad. It just wants to make us feel something. Facebook doesn’t care if you share a funny video that made you laugh or spend 10 minutes typing an angry comment on a post you hated. It’s all the same to Facebook, because it kept your attention.
Facebook knows this. Just recently, the Wall Street Journal reported about an internal Facebook presentation, in which one of the slides read, “Our algorithms exploit the human brain’s attraction to divisiveness.” The group presenting, which was an internal Facebook group focused on investigating how Facebook causes divisiveness, concluded that the Facebook algorithm is designed to deliver “more and more divisive content in an effort to gain user attention & increase time on the platform.”
Connecting the dots between “how social media works” and “why conspiracy theories spread” is not difficult. Conspiracy theories generate a lot of attention and engagement on Facebook. Because conspiracy theories get a lot of engagement, they show up on a lot of feeds, and the result is a snowballing effect.
Consider Your Witness
My intent in writing this is not to call out anyone who shares conspiratorial social media content. Scripture does that on its own. My intent on writing this column is to alert you, if you’re a social media user, to how social media is wired to keep your attention, even with misinformation.
It is important for those of us who are Christians to not perpetuate misinformation…especially in the form of conspiracy theories. Doing so could lead those who watch you to believe the gospel you share alongside conspiracy theories is just as untrue.
The greatest conspiracy theory in history was ignited in the Garden of Eden, and it has spread like wildfire since the beginning. The brokenness you see sucking the peace out of the world all around you isn’t the work of a shadow government—it’s the work of sin in our hearts. It really isn’t any more nefarious than that.