Where do Conspiracy Theories come from? and why?
Conspiracy theories are not a new phenomenon. Most major world events have inspired various conspiracy theories (CTs) that evolve over time. Historic examples such as the JFK assassination, the 9/11 attacks, the Moon landings, the first vaccinations against Smallpox in the early 1800’s, and many other significant world events, all have their fair share of “alternative explanations” or revisionist history efforts around them, which are commonly labeled conspiracy theories. They are contrary to the widely accepted and in most cases, factual accounts of what happened, when and why. They also are marked by the belief that a covert, yet powerful organization is responsible for the event or circumstance.
Basic psychological explanations as to why people believe in CTs range from the need to make sense out of complicated, traumatic and life-changing events; to more ego-centric explanations which suggest the draw is the desire to know “more” than the next person, i.e., a knowledge that is secret, superior, or exclusive in some way. It is also human nature to want to identify a cause when stressful and destabilizing events happen. To want to know the “why” behind things that not only disrupt our lives but can also be tragic, is understandable to most. Another reason is that all people have a basic need to belong and feel connected to someone or something. To that end, we usually seek out people, groups and organizations that align with various biases to bolster that feeling of belonging. CTs can fulfill this psychological need and provide the believer with that sense of fitting in.
What’s different about the current landscape?
What is new and notable is the collision of various conspiracy theories with our instant and unlimited access to vast amounts of digital information via the internet, 24/7. Social media platforms, non-stop TV news channels, web applications and communication devices facilitate our constant connection to information. Added to this are dynamic and life-altering global events such as climate change, pandemics, wars, forced migration, economic disparities, and geopolitical events just to name a few. These (seemingly) endless global crises coupled with our digital landscape have provided an optimal breeding ground for a) more conspiracy theories; and b) their rapid dissemination across digital platforms. In other words, increased volume plus high pace. Ideas are transferred, borrowed, and exchanged among groups, platforms, and people. Collaboration online, conversations across geographical boundaries, coupled with technological advances are fantastic in advancing innovation and problem-solving. However, the dark side of this digital information abundance can be seen clearly reflected in the Covid-19 pandemic and the proliferation of CTs that have since swirled around it.
Why does it matter?
If conspiracy theories are not new and they probably are not going to go away anytime soon, why does it matter that so many seem to believe in them? What are the consequences in this uptick of CTs and their believers?
In looking at the Covid-19 related CTs, we can see that these are consumed, exchanged, commented on and shared across the internet at rapid speed. There are links, meme’s, comments, blogs, editorials, tweets, videos, reels, fake news websites; it is impossible to avoid any of these CTs if you spend time online. It is essentially a massive game of “Digital Telephone…” Except, this is not a game. The adage of repeat something enough times and it becomes fact has never been truer. However, these are not facts. They are harmful rumors, opinions, and conjecture. Further, these CTs are “informing” and swaying opinions concerning the vaccines and consequently many people that have access to the vaccine have chosen not to take it. Due to this, vaccine rates will not hit the numbers needed to contain the spread of Covid-19; namely, because there are now too many people that are vaccine-hesitant.
As referenced, there are many different conspiracy theories related to Covid-19 – too many to list. Many CTs overlap and bleed and blend into each other.
What would usually be considered a fact, becomes to someone else an opinion; and vice versa. Resulting in Misinformation and Disinformation that is spread online both wittingly and unwittingly. It is helpful in this context to understand the difference between Misinformation and Disinformation as it provides insight as to where these come from and what can be done about them. The difference comes down to intentionality. In general, if a party knowingly spreads false information; this is Disinformation. If, on the other hand, information spread is without the intention to deceive, then this is Misinformation. One is deliberate, one is not. What starts as Disinformation, can then be spread as Misinformation even though it is the same information at its core. In this case, the mass of dis and misinformation leads to more people choosing to be unvaccinated, which causes Covid-19 cases to rise, be transmitted to vulnerable populations and increases the chance of virus mutations such as the variants that are now emerging. The variants are stronger than the original virus and may not respond to the current vaccines available. Thus, the pandemic continues and ultimately causes more needless sickness and deaths. If there is any chance of getting Covid-19 under control, more people must take the vaccine and that means: a) tackling disinformation and its sources; b) providing accurate information in its place; and c) teaching basic digital literacy far and wide.
Why do people spread Disinformation?
There may be many reasons why disinformation is spread, but here are four of the top causes.
1. Unintentional spread
Some people may not even realize that they are spreading disinformation. (Hence the distinction between mis and dis information.) There is much confusion around what can be considered a credible news source and technology moves faster than the rate at which society is able to teach basic digital literacy and regulate internet platforms. Studies show that most online users have at some point interacted with or believed something which was a fake news story/content of dubious origin. It can be very difficult to tell the difference and with so much “digital noise” competing for a user’s attention, it is bound to happen. A focus on teaching digital literacy, credible news vs. noncredible news sources, verification of information and how to consume online materials safely will take time to organize and reach users. In the future regulation of various platforms in the same way that journalism and news outlets are regulated now would provide safeguards against disinformation proliferation, however, that seems a way off.
In the case of the Covid-19 pandemic, there are many that profit from the dissemination of both anti-vax narratives and Covid-19 CT’s. In July 2021, the US government cited disinformation as one of the biggest threats to public health. In conjunction with the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) a paper was published containing details on a group of 12 people responsible for spreading 60% of disinformation online. They are labeled the “Disinformation Dozen.” The paper reports on these 12 as examples of conspiracy theory entrepreneurs:
"…And yet, as the world responded to this threat (covid-19), a subversive, established industry of anti-vaxxers has seen an opportunity to enrich themselves at the expense of public health."
The paper argues that the disinformation dozen are entrepreneurs and are selling alternative products such as vitamins, supplements, and health foods. To do this they use scare tactics around both Covid-19 and vaccines to push alternative products that are usually marketed as natural, wholesome, holistic, healing and healthy. Whether they are these things is not the point and in most cases is unproven. The use of disinformation leads to the sale of these alternatives in their place, and thus profits the person selling them.
Political Power: Anti-Vax disinformation and Covid-19 conspiracy theories have been used as a political weapon both domestically and internationally.
3. Domestic Political Power
Within nations, political leaders and parties have exploited false narratives to appeal to certain demographics within a population. An example of this is the US Republican Party. At the emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic (then) President Trump quickly and publicly played down the threat posed by the virus. In addition, the government and its political leaders chose to promote individual freedom over public protection by advocating for shorter lock down periods, no mask mandates, and businesses to remain open. This was while medical professionals and scientists were recommending the opposite. By doing this they entrenched many who supported Trump / The Republican Party in the same belief system. Republican voters were likely to resist containment measures such as mask-wearing and lockdowns. This divided the US Covid-19 response into those that supported public health measures - staying home, closing businesses, social distancing and mask-wearing - and those who did not. Broadly speaking this divide fell along political lines within the US. This continued into 2021 with the (now) vaccine-hesitant people more likely to be those who at the start denied the level of threat posed by Covid-19. Another Republican Politician, Rand Paul, a Senator for Kentucky, has been vocal in his support of the Gain of Function / Dr. Fauci / Wuhan Virology Lab Conspiracy Theory outlined above. This clip is an exchange between the two during a Congressional hearing. This exchange has been viewed millions of times on various new networks and online platforms. The exchange fuels distrust in public health and Dr. Fauci and therefore the public health guidelines. Senator Rand Paul has gained publicity and support from the voting demographic that these ideas appeal to.
In Brazil, a similar scenario has played out, as the country’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, denied and publicly played down the severity of Covid-19. Consequently, the country has seen one of the highest rates of infection transmission and deaths globally. Bolsonaro himself was one of the first heads of state to test positive for the virus in March 2020. However, he referred to it as a “measly cold. Due to his denial and his government’s lack of reaction, Brazil has suffered 20.3 million cases and 567K deaths, (as of August 11th, 2021) which puts it 3rd in the global rankings.
4 Geo-Political Power
Aside from domestic examples of disinformation spread for political gain, other spread is attributed to nefarious actors and organizations working for foreign interests and (usually) non-westernized nations. Canada’s Security and Intelligence Service agency (CSIS) has stated that foreign national interests have much to gain by organized online disinformation campaigns. By disseminating such CT’s and encouraging more people to remain unvaccinated they seek to undermine governments, disrupt other nations and divide populations and democracies. A recent paper by King’s College, University of London, Department of War Studies outlines why an organization may pursue this action. They argue that disinformation can be seen as a new and fifth phase of global biological warfare. This so-called “cyber-bio” stage follows the first four eras - 1) pre-germ theory, 2) applied microbiology, 3) industrial microbiology, and 4) molecular biology/biotechnology. These first four stages were focused on the manufacture and creation of pathogens and then their physical deployment against adversaries. This fifth phase is distinguished by the deployment of disinformation around a naturally occurring pathogen, without the need to directly create it first. They argue that it is far more cost-effective, less labor-intensive and easy to weaponize a naturally occurring outbreak by virtually escalating, confusing and sowing discord in nations. The paper notes that
"In particular, during the COVID-19 outbreak, US intelligence agencies and EU officials have attributed disinformation, including sustained social media posts claiming that the outbreak was caused by the United States, to Russian and Chinese disinformation campaigns."
The argument can be summarized as - why go to all the trouble and risk (to their own populations) of manufacturing a pathogen, when all is needed is to wait for a pandemic to come along (as we know they are going to happen) and use disinformation to achieve the same intended results. Disinformation has always been a well-established strategic warfare tactic. The paper argues that the current disinformation around covid-19 has all the hallmarks of this warfare strategy, namely:
“1) the weaponization of online fake news campaigns, with wide reach; 2) the potential impact of these campaigns to have a significant negative impact on public health; 3) the exacerbating effect of social media misinformation and disinformation during an epidemic; and 4) the delegitimization of science and mistrust of officials.”
What can be done about Disinformation and can OSINT help?
As social media has become a prevalent source for information and news, there needs to be more focus on how to use these platforms responsibly and with greater care concerning the spread of false information. OSINT has a significant role to play in both the advancement of educational efforts around the safe consumption of social media, as well as more practical and technical ways of helping stem disinformation. Depending on the scale of the data, manual and/or automated monitoring, collection, analysis, and reporting:
Content: False information can be detected/flagged and disproved. OSINT practitioners can assist in tracking and tracing false information back to its source. OSINT techniques can find, highlight, source and verify where false information is coming from so that its sources can be identified and appropriate action taken. For example, when content goes viral, it is not always clear when and where something emerged or who was responsible for its creation and initial dissemination. As the content gets shared across the internet, tracing back can be a time-consuming and arduous process. OSINT techniques such as file meta-data analysis, reverse image search, and source code analysis can all help trace the origins of various media content. This is important because it is difficult to act on disinformation if you cannot identify the original source.
Sources can be identified and investigated. OSINT practitioners can compile evidence of false information at scale by scrapping online content using code to capture the data from known disinformation sources, which can then be analyzed and reported back to organizations that will act - such as government, law enforcement agencies and media. This can be done on both a small and large scale and will cut down on the time that government organizations or other law enforcement need to spend looking for disinformation, and instead spend their time addressing the source of disinformation directly using legal channels. An example of this is the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sending Infowars.com a cease and desist letter in March 2020 around products that were being sold as an alternative, natural defenses against Covid-19. In addition, automation can be used more widely to monitor the open web and social media sources for false information and provide timely alerts.
Consumers can be alerted to any content/sources that contain or spread falsehoods, and educated about disinformation and how to verify information before sharing. Public awareness will largely come about as a result of the reporting done by the OSINT community, such as the above-mentioned report by the Center for Countering Digital Hate. The paper was informative, relatively short, and punchy enough to be able to break through the media noise. Therefore, it gained headlines and raised awareness across multiple news and social networks. By naming those that deliberately choose to spread disinformation and explaining the extent of their influence, reach, platforms as well as the tactics used, consumers become more aware of what is false information. The paper explained in clear language why these 12 people/organizations are spreading false information and resources to counteract this spread. It is likely that the most fervent believers of Anti-Vax CTs may not pay attention, but if it helps to educate and inform anyone who has been victimized by anti-vax disinformation, this helps everyone. This prime-time news report appeared on KGW news and is a good example of media using the CCDH’s paper as an intro to a story on disinformation.
In short, OSINT can be used in a range of applications to help a collective effort to understand disinformation, who spreads it and why. In tracking, tracing, evidence compilation and contribution to educational resources, OSINT has a huge role to play. Raising awareness about mis- and disinformation and the overall information pandemic will allow for more public discourse, better policy creation and, ultimately, regulation and laws that protect us all.
Suzannah P. is a recent student of McMaster University / TRADECRAFT'S OSINT courses. Having spent 20 years in corporate enterprise as a project manager, she is making a career transition into OSINT.