OSINT Vs. Conspiracy Theories

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.