The Secret Economy of Conspiracy Theories

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Why do so many people love conspiracy theories and who’s profiting from spreading them? A special collaboration with Common Sense Education.

TEACHERS: Get your students in the discussion on KQED Learn, a safe place for middle and high school students to investigate controversial topics and share their voices. Click to see this video and lesson plan on KQED Learn.

What is a conspiracy theory?

Conspiracy theories are often defined as a belief that a group of people have a secret plot and are responsible for something happening. The theory part is that it’s unproven. Actual conspiracies are proven to be true with documented proof. And actual conspiracies exist, such as the FBI spying on Martin Luther King. There are FBI documents that prove this. Conspiracy theories don't have actual proof; believers often point to misinformation as proof, or use the lack of proof as evidence of how good the coverup for the conspiracy is. Conspiracy theories can range from mostly harmless to harmful ones that promote hate or deny some form of reality.

Why do people love conspiracy theories?


Conspiracy theories can provide our brains with easy answers that jive with our preconceived notions and biases. They tend to appeal to “System One” thinking: our emotions, intuition, and gut reactions. According to psychologists, conspiracy theories play into some of our innate human desires, like the desire for certainty, security, and belonging. They tend to pop up in times of crisis.

Who’s profiting from conspiracy theories?

Conspiracy theories make the perfect clickbait. They can go wild on social media–making big profits for social media companies and media creators.  A lot of that money comes from ad revenue. And media creators can use their views and popularity to sell other merch and products too–profiting even more off the conspiracy theories they are pushing.  And when it comes to politics, politicians can push conspiracy theories to stoke fear and gain popularity. This has been happening for a long time in the U.S. In the past, it’s usually been a leader of a majority group claiming that some minority group is plotting against them.  More recently, a lot of the conspiracy theories pushed by politicians are about the U.S. government and opposing political parties.

How can you prevent yourself from falling for conspiracy theories?

One way could be to just stop and think more deeply about a theory that you’ve come across, before liking or sharing. Cognitive reflection is your ability to override your emotions and gut reactions by stopping and thinking more carefully about something. Research shows that people who score high in cognitive reflection are less prone to falling for conspiracy theories on social media.


The Internet Fuels Conspiracy Theories… (The Conversation)

Why People Fall for Conspiracy Theories (FiveThirtyEight)

Why Some People Are Susceptible to Conspiracy Theories (Washington Post)

The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories (Current Directions in Psychological Sciences)

Thinking Preferences and Conspiracy Belief (Front Psychiatry)

The Anti-Vaxx Industry (Center for Countering Digital Hate)

The Conspiracy and Disinformation Challenge on e-Commerce Platforms (Brookings Institution)

Social Media, Cognitive Reflection and Conspiracy Beliefs (Frontiers in Political Science)