Fake news, real coverage: How conspiracy theories spread through media and politics

By Meghan Chua


Half of the American public believes in a popular conspiracy theory. Take the idea that compact fluorescent light bulbs are a form of mind control, the U.S. government was behind the terrorist attack on 9/11, or any number of theories connected to big political names, and someone believes it.

While there’s a stereotype attached to people who believe in conspiracy theories, the reality is much different.

“Often what you find is a bunch of regular people who face circumstances in their lives that put them in a situation where they’re seeking out answers to [difficult] questions. It’s harder to say, ‘I have no idea what’s going on’ than it is to say, ‘I have a specific idea that these people are the problem’,” said graduate student Jordan Foley.

PhD candidate Jordan Foley

Foley’s background in mass communication and rhetoric, combined with experience on the debate team at Wake Forest University where he received his master’s degree, gives him a good idea of how a particular idea can become convincing. Now, as a doctoral candidate in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication (SJMC) at UW–Madison, Foley’s focus has turned to the ways that information spreads throughout online and mainstream media, winding up in the minds and hearts of people in the U.S. Examining this idea provides more understanding into how people came to know about conspiracy theories, believe them, and spread them.

For his dissertation, Foley investigates how conspiracy theories circulate after mass shootings. Existing research identifies the type of people that tend to believe conspiracy theories, such as those who already experience more stress and anxiety, or who tend to be more skeptical of official narratives. Others are affected by a traumatic life event – such as losing a loved one in a terrorist attack – and then find conspiracy theories credible in their search for answers.

However, Foley said there was little focus on how these ideas are transmitted in the first place.

“A mass shooting shifts news coverage for, almost, weeks,” Foley said. “With that media attention, there’s a lot more opportunity for groups and organizations and voices to make their way into that conversation.”

Using machine learning algorithms to sift through internet posts, news articles, and other text around different mass shootings, Foley plans to analyze how today’s media ecology contributes to spreading conspiracy narratives.

Recently, Foley and colleagues at SJMC including graduate students Yini Zhang, Aman Abhishek, Josephine Lukito, Jiyoun Suk, Sang Jung Kim, and Zhongkai Sun published a paper using similar machine learning techniques to see how social media conversations changed after a mass shooting. They found that mass shootings with certain features – such as a higher number of casualties or children as victims – got more attention on Twitter. While gun control sentiments were more common after these shootings, the gun rights discourse stayed constant whether or not conversations about shootings were active on the social platform. Additionally they found that shootings with a higher percentage of African American victims got less attention than those with lower percentages, Foley said.

With his dissertation, Foley will track conspiratorial claims such as that certain mass shootings were staged. After the Sandy Hook school shooting, conspiracy theories that the victims were paid actors circulated on social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit. Foley noted that media reporting errors – such as incorrectly identifying the shooter because he was carrying his brother’s ID card – gave fodder to those who were spreading these narratives.

It’s a timely topic, as the U.S. grapples with the proliferation of fake news and misinformation. The constant developments in the conversation around misinformation also make Foley’s research challenging. Recently, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram banned conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, among whose many claims was that Sandy Hook shooting victims were child actors. This development means that Foley has to search a lot harder to find that research material online.

“When you have these tech companies that scrub their servers of all of this content, it actually becomes kind of hard,” Foley said. “So much of the content that’s been up has been taken down.”

In addition to percolating through social media, conspiracy narratives can be spread by political and cultural elites who amplify that message with their platform. For example, a conspiracy theory about the death of Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich stayed in the news cycle for weeks when political commentator Sean Hannity continued to talk about it on his Fox News show. Often, these individuals or media organizations have economic and political incentives for spreading these narratives.

“There is a class of people that does have incentives to insinuate or even outright make these claims,” he said. “That group, we have to think about differently than the everyday person who may just believe these things.”

Foley noted that narratives about conspiracies often have certain characters that make them more credible and more likely to gain additional media coverage. There’s the hero scientist who makes an amazing discovery but is persecuted for it; their scientific background lends them academic credibility.

Then, there are real people who are affected by the issues and are pulled into the narrative. In general, these individuals are more likely to seek out information via media, Foley said. Take for example the families of 9/11 victims “They’re the person who is the material embodiment of the negative effects of this broad conspiracy that’s happening,” Foley said.

Further studying how conspiracy narratives travel across media and society helped reposition the question about people who believe in them away from only asking why someone believes in a conspiracy. Rather, the question becomes how is that theory talked about, and how does it make its way around the political and media system.

Foley is interested in continuing to research the interaction between journalism and politics beyond his dissertation project. He said SJMC does a great job of starting students with important foundational theories, which helped him get started as a researcher.

“This project crystallized probably two years into the program, and it was very much a result of the seminars I was taking, the professors I was working with and the research groups I was part of, and then bringing in the rhetoric side of things,” he said.