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Conspiracy Theories: When Healthy Skepticism Turns into Denial of Reality

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at UFL chapter.

If you have ever delved into the deep realms of the internet you have likely stumbled across conspiracy theories. A conspiracy theory is “a proposed plot by powerful people or organizations working together in secret to accomplish some (usually sinister) goal,” according to Michael J. Wood, Karen M. Douglas, and Robbie M. Sutton, three University of Kent psychologists.

Some popular conspiracy theories include that NASA faked the 1969 moon landing, that the U.S. government orchestrated the 9/11 terrorist attacks and that the CIA was involved in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Personally, I have always found conspiracy theories to be interesting, as I’m an all-around skeptical person. It’s easy for me to question societal norms and the government itself. Therefore, conspiracy theories have been a means for me to find possible answers to unknown or questionable circumstances. However, it wasn’t until I was a little older that I realized that conspiracy theories can just be interesting speculation, they can actually be dangerous.

Harmful conspiracy theories

One theory that I would classify as a harmful conspiracy theory is the one surrounding the Sandy Hook School shooting. This shooting occurred December 14, 2012, in Newtown, Connecticut, when 20-year-old Adam Lanza shot and killed 20 children and sex staff members in the elementary school, before turning the gun on himself. There are a number of conspiracy theories surrounding the incident. One being that the U.S. government orchestrated the shooting as a means to pass stricter gun control laws. Another theory is that the shooting was completely faked and never even happened. The latter was supported by radio show host Alex Jones. Several parents of children killed in the Sandy Hook shooting sued Alex Jones for defamation.

Theories like the denial of the Sandy Hook shooting differ from your typical conspiracy theories because they completely deny reality. Many conspiracy theories won’t deny that a public witnessed event occurred but rather argue different motives behind the event. Denying the facts of reality is dangerous, and it feeds into the realm of “fake news.”

The rise of fake news

I believe there to be some correlation between the popularity of conspiracy theories and the rise of fake news. Fake news is one of the greatest threats to democracy. It preys on the gullible. Fake news wasn’t something of concern a few years ago, but with the role it played in the 2016 election, its impact is undeniable.

Fake news articles are often spread online, on Facebook and on Twitter. One such fake news story/conspiracy theory is the Pizzagate scandal. This scandal is very complicated and multifaceted but to summarize, Pizzagate is a far-right conspiracy involving Hillary Clinton and other prominent Democrats. When Clinton’s emails were leaked to the public conspiracy theorists reported that the emails contained coded messages about a human trafficking ring involving Democratic officials and the pizza restaurant Comet Ping Pong.

While this theory has been thoroughly debunked, it didn’t stop Edgar Maddison Welch from firing three shots with an AR-15 rifle into the restaurant on December 4, 2016. While no one was injured, the possibility of a fatality still loomed.

This theory originated from social media. First through a Facebook post, which then spread to Twitter and then was picked up by platforms like Breitbart and Infowars. This is even more alarming, as Breitbart and Infowars label themselves legitimate news sites.

Furthermore, conspiracy theories may encourage gullible people to begin denying what they see and hear with their own eyes and ears. This allows room for people to disagree with blatant facts.

This may seem like an improbable and exaggerated society. However, there have already been events proving that we are converging into a post-fact era. For example, in early 2019 President Donald Trump told reporters, “When, during the campaign, I would say Mexico is going to pay for it, obviously I never said this and I never meant they are going to write out a check.” If you followed any of the 2016 presidential campaign news coverage you know this is a blatant lie, and that on numerous occasions Trump said Mexico would pay for the wall. One instance was during a February 2016 town hall-style meeting, when he said, “All I have to do is start playing with that trade deficit, and believe me, they’re going to pay for the wall.”

Ultimately, there are more and more cases of people denying facts and reality in some capacity. Whether it’s the president of the United States, far-right news outlets or conspiracy theorists. The problem is that many of the people who believe in these outlandish conspiracy theories think that they are enlightened because of it, and with the widening use of the internet, conspiracy theories are only bound to spread even more. So, next time you happen upon a conspiracy theory, remember the facts and don’t succumb to fear.

Cassidy Hopson is a junior at the University of Florida majoring in journalism. Follow her on Twitter @CassidyHopson.
Darcy Schild is a University of Florida junior majoring in journalism. She's the Editor-in-Chief of Her Campus UFL and was previously a Her Campus national section editor. She spent Summer 2017 as an Editorial Intern at HC headquarters in Boston, where she oversaw the "How She Got There" section and wrote and edited feature articles and news blogs. She also helped create the weekly Her Campus Instagram Story series, Informed AF. Follow her on Twitter and on her blog, The Darcy Diaries.