A version of this was published in the Sky Hi News Feb 26 2018
"A conspiracy theory is an explanation of an event or situation that invokes an unwarranted conspiracy, generally one involving an illegal or harmful act carried out by government or other powerful actors. Wikipedia"
The danger is that promoting conspiracy theories unleashes
the demons among us and dwelling within us that harm our safety and well being. Spreading conspiracy theories on social media is a powerful weapon in underhanded propaganda political action.
Conspiracy theories are "where there is smoke or fears of fire, there is definitely fire". They connect circumstances and dots without evidence of the connections or they just make up a story to make a point. The danger is when unbalanced people act on the theories with harmful consequences or bad actors use conspiracy theories to justify and promote their own beliefs or a political or social cause that result in public opinion shifts.
Without policing social media, these theories are retweeted, reposted and shared to thousands and among some minds become gospel truth and all facts to the contrary are not considered..It is a powerful mind control tool used by both Russians and American extremists to shape public opinion for their own purposes. The general public has only been recently exposed to the megaphone of social media and if the posting fortifies an existing belief in the cause, they can swallow it hook line and sinker, and repost and retweet without much of a second thought or demanding proof.
The best defense is the old Missouri state slogan: "show me". Good old healthy skepticism and a greater dose of being media wise are the best antidotes to paranoia. Waiting for social media to police itself is unrealistic or too slow. Another defense is to consult independent fact checkers such as factcheck.org and Snopes.
Here are some example of the harmful result of promoting
unproved conspiracy theories.
From a Yahoo news report: Donald Trump Jr gave a thumbs up to a Facebook posting of a theory that claimed that 17 year old survivor of the Parkland massacre, David Hogg, had been coached to speak out against guns by his former FBI agent father to “cover” for the agency’s failure to prevent the Parkland shooting. The ruse was backed up by the “deep state media,” . His 14 year old sister, in an appeal to the First Lady said she was cyber bullied by "Nazis and white supremacists" and her mother reported "death threats to the family"....https://www.yahoo.com/news/parkland-survivor-melania-trump-stop-021214298.html?. David Hogg was accused of being a “crisis actor’ in part because his post shooting interviews were well spoken, but he is active in the highschool TV station , is their news anchor, and produced a video of the event. You Tube and Trending yanked the conspiracy postings and apologized. Fact checker Snopes did a thorough investigation of the conspiracy postings and debunked them.https://www.snopes.com/2018/02/20/right-wing-media-david-hogg/ as did Factcheck.org, https://www.factcheck.org/2018/02/school-shooting-spawns-conspiracy-theories/
He was not the only one. Other students have received hate postings and threats who dared to speak out.https://thinkprogress.org/parkland-shooting-survivor-forced-off-facebook-6fc397ab2b9f/
"At a town hall on Wednesday night, the survivors of the shooting in Parkland, Florida, made Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) squirm with a series of pointed questions about his support for the Second Amendment. One question that drew particularly loud cheers came from Cameron Kasky, when he asked Rubio, “Can you tell me right now that you will not accept a single donation from the NRA?”
But while the crowd at the town hall may have forcefully backed Kasky, the 17-year-old has been subject to a different reception online, where he says he’s encountered vicious smears and death threats."
The other example of what horrors irresponsible unleashing of conspiracy theories on social media can cause: A young man walked into a DC pizza parlor a few days before the 2016 election and shot up the place with an assault rifle (no one was hurt). He had believed the media spread conspiracy theory that Hillary Clinton and John Podesta ran a child sex ring in the parlor's basement. The pizza place did not even have a basement.
Not all off the wall conspiracy theories lead to death threats and AR-15 shooting, but Russians have used them to try to influence the 2016 election, as well as to seize on 2018 Parkland, Florida massacre.
The Russians immediately used the opportunity of the Parkland shooting to wreck some havoc in the American psyche by posting their own social media conspiracy theories by claiming this shooting was a Democratic party anti gun conspiracy and the bots promoted arming the teachers with guns. In 2016, the Russians also promoted false stories of wide spread voter fraud, per the very detailed, graphic indictment of thirteen Russians by the Special Counsel investigation. From the indictment text ". On or about August 4, 2016, Defendants and their co-conspirators began purchasing advertisements that promoted a post on the ORGANIZATION-controlled Facebook account “Stop A.I.” The post alleged that “Hillary Clinton has already committed voter fraud during the Democrat Iowa Caucus.” b. On or about August 11, 2016, Defendants and their co-conspirators posted that allegations of voter fraud were being investigated in North Carolina on the ORGANIZATION-controlled Twitter account @TEN_GOP. c. On or about November 2, 2016, Defendants and their co-conspirators used the same account to post allegations of “#VoterFraud by counting tens of thousands of ineligible mail in Hillary votes being reported in Broward County, Florida.” https://www.justice.gov/file/1035477 A special commission to prove voter fraud was disbanded in January.