If one person has a crackpot theory, it’s harmless. If two or three people agree, it becomes a secret among friends. If a hundred people believe it, it becomes a conspiracy theory. If a million people think it’s true, it becomes a movement that can attempt to overthrow a government.
There has always been the truth of “the establishment” and the alternate realities offered by people outside the establishment, and each path has its own agenda. Each version of the truth asks that you believe without questioning or investigating other possibilities. Sadly, people are often willing to leave the thinking to others and accept whatever opinion is easiest to digest. If you hate immigrants, or distrust vaccines, or question your political leaders, or think your football team was robbed by the referees, someone out there has the set of truths that will reinforce your opinion.
Before the web existed, conspiracy theories were more difficult and expensive to share. People had to write down their thoughts on paper and mail them in an envelope to someone else or print them in a pamphlet or a book to be disseminated. Printing and distribution costs meant that someone had to be bankrolling the effort to sway the opinions of the masses. Important, influential individuals outside the “mainstream” had to build clubs and societies of like-minded people over time. Creating a movement was harder work, and more people had to be involved.
Today, the power of technology makes it feasible for a single person to influence many people very quickly at minimal cost. With the ease of self-publishing tools available on the internet, any crackpot theory can be dressed up as an alternate set of facts. The search engine’s algorithm makes it easier for individuals to find someone who agrees with their interpretation of the facts. The global availability of social media makes it easier than ever for an alternate reality to be shared and distributed to the ends of the earth, gaining followers and adherents along the way.
It is easier than ever to persuade the public with irrational and dangerous conjectures. But at the same time, it is harder than ever to convince them that the conspiracies just aren’t real. If the truth is what you believe to be true, nothing will convince you of the possibility that you might be wrong. People with open and curious minds are able to take in differing sets of information and logically determine what is truth and what is fiction. Unfortunately, there seem to be a lot of closed-minded people who have already decided they know the truth.