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"They’re turning the frogs gay": The psychology behind internet conspiracy theories

Conspiracy theories are appearing on both the political left and right. 

They’re turning the frogs gay.

If you have ever watched a video by the internet’s premier conspiracy theorist, Infowars’ Alex Jones, you will know that this is an undeniable fact. Chemicals in the water are turning the (frigging) frogs gay.

The blatant absurdity of this conspiracy theory (which scientist is perving on homosexual amphibians, anyway? Stop them) makes it one of the most widely mocked and memed of Jones’ outbursts. Yet despite the ridiculousness of the red-faced ranter, he has a large and vocal fan base that even includes the 45th president of the United States himself.

We seem to be living in an era where conspiracy theories are booming. From Hillary Clinton’s paedophile pizza parlour, to Russian hackers, Red Pillers, Obama's communist coup and Trump’s 4D Chess – the internet has been flooded with conspiracies from both the Left and Right. Dr Robert Bartholomew, a sociologist who specialises in mass delusions, believes that social media has exacerbated conspiracy culture.

“We now live in a niche world, making it easier for people to construct their own reality - a world as they want it to be, not as it is,” he says. “A person who believes that Obama wasn’t born in the US can just visit sites that reinforce his or her beliefs." Batholomew explains that because of the internet, conspiracies can be passed on “at the speed of light”, while other experts have noted that emotions can also spread online, in a process known as “emotional contagion”. 

Yet though social media helps conspiracies to spread, the psychology behind them is age-old.

“Conspiracy theories are a product of our psychology and our psychology doesn’t really change over time,” says Dr Robert Brotherton, author of Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories. “A certain proportion of people have always been receptive to conspiracy theories.” But who are these people – and what happens to make them fervently believe in gay frogs?

Brotherton emphasises that the psychological biases at work in conspiracy theorists’ minds are biases that we all possess to some extent. The “proportionality bias” means that if something big happens, we intuitively assume that something big must have caused it. Some of us can accept when this isn’t the case – when a lone gunman, for example, is responsible for assassinating the president from a grassy knoll – but others go looking for alternative explanations.

Humans also have a propensity to seek patterns, so we bend over backwards to connect unrelated facts (side note: why do the two psychologists thus far in this piece have remarkably similar names? Is there a psychologist Illuminati?).

“Confirmation bias” also means that we accept information that confirms our beliefs and ignore that which doesn’t. Once these biases lead someone towards a conspiracy theory, they might develop a “conspiracy worldview”, whereby everything becomes suspicious. Brotherton explains, for example, that after the Watergate scandal was exposed, conspiracy theorists weren't vindicated like you would expect - but instead believed that the official narrative was a cover-up and that Nixon was set up. 

A Pizzagate post on 4Chan, outlining alleged patterns and meanings

Yet though the psychology behind conspiracies is timeless, Brotherton does note that certain factors exacerbate our willingness to believe. And this credibility is not limited to right-wing Americans.

“One of the things I think that is most revealing is how quickly conspiracy fears have shifted to the Left, especially in the States, since the election,” he says. The night before the election, videos spread on right-wing social media profiles claiming to show that electronic voting machines were rigged to vote for Clinton. When Trump won, Democrats began to believe that Russians had hacked the voting machines in favour of Trump (though claims Russia manipulated the election are rooted in fact, there is no evidence they tampered with the actual count).

 

A Pizzagate meme

Brotherton explains that cognitive dissonance is to blame.  “In an election, if you voted for the losing candidate, that makes you feel kind of bad because it’s not what you wanted, and makes you look kind of silly, like why would you vote for the loser?"

The most obvious way to reason this out is to accept the candidate wasn't so good, and agree more with the other side.

"Obviously that’s not what happens at all," says Brotherton. Instead, he argues, we tend to go in the other direction. Instead of admitting that our candidate lost because they had flaws, we theorise about hacking and rigging in order to feel as though we were right all along.

A false claim about Donald Trump's administration

Yet conspiracy theories do continue to spread among the far right as well as the left, despite their electoral gains. Dr Mike Wood, a psychology lecturer and expert in the techniques used by conspiracy theorists online, explains that those with extreme political views might still be drawn towards conspiracy theories, even when they gain some power.

This is because their extreme position means they are still unlikely to get to accomplish what they want to do. "They have to rationalise that in some way," Wood says. "Often that leads to conspiracy theories.”

A Pizzagate meme

Alienation, a lack of control, and uncertainly are all facts that lead someone towards a conspiracy worldview, explains Wood. As he puts it: “basically conspiracy theories are a way to try and make sense of the world that in that moment doesn’t particularly make sense.” According to Wood, victims of social exclusion do tend to take conspiracy theories more seriously.

“If the world seems like a very random and kind of capricious place where things don’t particularly make sense and you can’t really control what's going on, that's when conspiracy theories are at their strongest," he says. Conspiracy theories "allege that things that are happening are basically controllable". 

It is hard to say whether any of this is at work in the mind of Conspirator-in-Chief Donald Trump. The President has previously spread information from Jones’ Infowars, most notably when he claimed three million votes in the election were cast illegally. “I won the popular vote,” he tweeted alongside this alleged fact, perhaps attempting to explain away his own cognitive dissonance. Yet whether or not Trump believes the conspiracies he spreads, the psychologists I speak agree on one thing. Having such a high-profile figure spreading conspiracies means they're not going away any time soon.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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Clickbaiting terror: what it’s like to write viral news after a tragedy

Does the viral news cycle callously capitalise on terrorism, or is it allowing a different audience to access important news and facts?

On a normal day, Alex* will write anywhere between five to ten articles. As a content creator for a large viral news site, they [Alex is speaking under the condition of strict anonymity, meaning their gender will remain unidentified] will churn out multiple 500-word stories on adorable animals, optical illusions, and sex. “People always want to read about sexuality, numbers of sexual partners, porn habits and orgasms,” says Alex. “What is important is making the content easily-digestible and engaging.”

Alex is so proficient at knowing which articles will perform well that they frequently “seek stories that fit a certain template”. Though the word “clickbait” conjures up images of cute cat capers, Alex says political stories that “pander to prejudices” generate a large number of page views for the site. Many viral writers know how to tap into such stories so their takes are shared widely – which explains the remarkably similar headlines atop many internet articles. “This will restore your faith in humanity,” could be one; “This one weird trick will change your life…” another. The most cliché example of this is now so widely mocked that it has fallen out of favour:

You’ll never believe what happened next.

When the world stops because of a tragedy, viral newsrooms don’t. After a terrorist attack such as this week’s Manchester Arena bombing, internet media sites do away with their usual stories. One day, their homepages will be filled with traditional clickbait (“Mum Sickened After Discovery Inside Her Daughter’s Easter Egg”, “This Man’s Blackhead Removal Technique Is A Complete And Utter Gamechanger”) and the next, their clickbait has taken a remarkably more tragic tone (“New Footage Shows Moment Explosion Took Place Inside Manchester Arena”, “Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, Bruno Mars and More React to the Manchester Bombing”).

“When a terrorist event occurs, there’s an initial vacuum for viral news,” explains Alex. Instead of getting reporters on the scene or ringing press officers like a traditional newsroom, Alex says viral news is “conversation-driven” – meaning much of it regurgitates what is said on social media. This can lead to false stories spreading. On Tuesday, multiple viral outlets reported – based on Facebook posts and tweets – that over 50 accompanied children had been led to a nearby Holiday Inn. When BuzzFeed attempted to verify this, a spokesperson for the hotel chain denied the claim.

Yet BuzzFeed is the perfect proof that viral news and serious news can coexist under the same roof. Originally famed for its clickable content, the website is now home to a serious and prominent team of investigative journalists. Yet the site has different journalists on different beats, so that someone writes about politics and someone else about lifestyle or food.

Other organisations have a different approach. Sam* works at another large viral site (not Buzzfeed) where they are responsible for writing across topics; they explains how this works:  

“One minute you're doing something about a tweet a footballer did, the next it's the trailer for a new movie, and then bam, there's a general election being called and you have to jump on it,” they say.

Yet Sam is confident that they cover tragedy correctly. Though they feel viral news previously used to disingenuously “profiteer” off terrorism with loosely related image posts, they say their current outlet works hard to cover tragic news. “It’s not a race to generate traffic,” they say, “We won't post content that we think would generate traffic while people are grieving and in a state of shock, and we're not going to clickbait the headlines to try and manipulate it into that for obvious reasons.”

Sam goes as far as to say that their viral site in fact has higher editorial standards than “some of the big papers”. Those who might find themselves disturbed to see today’s explosions alongside yesterday’s cats will do well to remember that “traditional” journalists do not always have a great reputation for covering tragedy.

At 12pm on Tuesday, Daniel Hett tweeted that over 50 journalists had contacted him since he had posted on the site that his brother, Martyn, was missing after the Manchester attack. Hett claimed two journalists had found his personal mobile phone number, and he uploaded an image of a note a Telegraph reporter had posted through his letterbox. “This cunt found my house. I still don't know if my brother is alive,” read the accompanying caption. Tragically it turned out that Martyn was among the bomber's victims.

Long-established newspapers and magazines can clearly behave just as poorly as any newly formed media company. But although they might not always follow the rules, traditional newspapers do have them. Many writers for viral news sites have no formal ethical or journalistic training, with little guidance provided by their companies, which can cause problems when tragic news breaks.

It remains to be seen whether self-policing will be enough. Though false news has been spread, many of this week’s terror-focused viral news stories do shed light on missing people or raise awareness of how people can donate blood. Many viral news sites also have gigantic Facebook followings that far outstrip those of daily newspapers – meaning they can reach more people. In this way, Sam feels their work is important. Alex, however, is less optimistic.

“My personal view is that viral news does very little to inform people at times like this and that trending reporters probably end up feeling very small about their jobs,” says Alex. “You feel limited by the scope of your flippant style and by what the public is interested in.

“You can end up feeding the most divisive impulses of an angry public if you aren’t careful about what conversations you’re prompting. People switch onto the news around events like this and traffic rises, but ironically it’s probably when trending reporters go most into their shells and into well-worn story formats. It’s not really our time or place, and to try and make it so feels childish.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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