A Grain of Saul is a weekly column that digs into some of the biggest issues we face as a nation and as an international community in search of reliable data, realistic solutions, and — most importantly — hope.
While the Internet has ushered in a new era of access to information, it has also brought with it the ability to access and disseminate conspiracy theories.
In the political world, these conspiracy theories do not belong to just the conservative right — though that stereotype is popular in certain circles. On the contrary, conspiracy theories are propagated by Americans of all beliefs and political affiliations, despite being relatively easy to debunk or verify.
President Donald Trump, for more than five years, claimed that former President Barack Obama was born in Kenya before he admitted he was "mistaken." Despite that admission, little new evidence had presented itself to prove Obama was American, just a new willingness on the president's part to admit he was wrong.
Former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn tweeted out debunked stories of "Pizza Gate" and the conspiracy theory that Hillary Clinton was running a sex slave operation. He later deleted the tweets without publicly retracting his comments, despite no new evidence to disprove them — just new scrutiny of his words.
Those on the far-left have long promoted the theory that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) were dangerous despite little evidence to support it. Many Democrats believe that corporations are "conspiring" to do harm to the public masses, despite few well-grounded theories of how they'd execute such a plot.
Even Robert Reich, former secretary of Labor under Bill Clinton, seemed to promulgate a conspiracy theory when he claimed it was Trump supporters that activated riots against the political provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos.
Interestingly, there is a far better predictor than political affiliation to determine if someone will believe in conspiracies: whether they are getting their way or not.
The New York Times explored this idea recently in a piece that observed how Trump's supporters paid little mind to him promoting conspiracy theories before the election, while Democrats were more likely to share flaky news stories with outlandish claims in the wake of defeat.
"Research suggests that people embrace conspiracy beliefs as a way to cope with perceived threats to control," Brendan Nyhan wrote. "In particular, Joseph E. Uscinski and Joseph M. Parent at the University of Miami have argued that conspiracy theory beliefs increase in response to group threats, including among losers of elections."
But simply knowing why people may attach themselves to a conspiracy is not enough to fix the enormous problem of misinformation we have today.
For one, people must stop sharing news stories because they like the headline. Read what you see before sharing it, then see if you can find a couple sources to back up whatever is inside the article. Perhaps most importantly, though, is what I call "the test" to my friends: If this story was something negative about a person or thing you liked, would it pass muster? Would you believe it? If the answer is no, then you certainly shouldn't share it or promote it.
Fer Gregory / Shutterstock
The truth is, even if the story did help push your political narrative, you're only damaging yourself by sharing it. What typically happens with conspiracy theories is they go unchecked until a person with knowledge of the situation criticizes them. Then, if you were one of the people who shared such a story, it's you who looks bad, not the person or thing the story was critical of. Someone who believes vaccines cause autism is going to have a tough time believing that when they are confronted by a doctor or researcher who specializes in vaccines, and can explain why it's a myth.
And yet, some conspiracies remain wildly dangerous and damaging. An armed man made it all the way to the pizza restaurant Clinton was allegedly running a sex ring out of and fired a rifle inside. Grieving parents of children killed in the Sandy Hook massacre receive emails and phone calls — to this day — from conspiracy theorists berating them for being "actors" or "in on the scheme." Survivors of 9/11 and families of victims are frequently confronted with stories claiming it was an "inside job," forced to question whether their own government killed their loved ones.
Then, of course, there is the outcome at the polls: how many Americans may have been happy with President Obama's performance had they not thought he was a foreign infiltrator? Sure, there's plenty not to like about Hillary Clinton, but how many more Americans would have voted for her if they didn't think she was a child-molesting, Saudi Arabian-loving murderer who had a degenerative brain disease and laughed about rape? These were just a few of the hundreds of conspiracies spread about her on social media, and all were easily disprovable with a little research.
Now, though, the tide is turning. Many liberal Americans believe Russian operatives hacked the actual voting booths during the election, a claim there is no evidence for and that distracts from the more obvious propaganda campaign Russian diplomats engaged in to influence our election. More than 650,000 people now follow "Rogue White House" accounts on Twitter that appear — to me — to be obviously fake. Debunking websites such as Snopes are seeing an influx of fake news aimed at liberals, like the fake story that protestors would be charged with terrorism under a new law.
Nobody is immune. Not the president, and not me. I've shared an article or two that I've had to go back and apologize for, simply because I read a headline or a few sentences without verifying it, and almost always because it confirmed something I was hoping for.
We are blessed, here in the United States and much of the Western world: almost all of us have both the right to free speech, and the privilege of access to the internet, television, radio or newspapers. We should use every bit of that information to make us better informed and more sympathetic human beings, not just to elevate or reinforce the beliefs we already have.
At the very least, we should be sure the information we're sharing is accurate. We owe that to everyone — especially ourselves.
Cover photo: Fer Gregory / Shutterstock
You can follow Isaac Saul on Twitter at @Ike_Saul