From myths about vaccines to the origins of Covid-19, there has been no shortage of wild and even outlandish conspiracy theories. Yet, many people view these posts not as outlandish theories but rather facts that the mainstream media won’t report on, which itself is really just another conspiracy theory that continues to make the rounds.
There are numerous reasons why these theories live on – but the biggest is that the majority of Americans have continued to use social media for pandemic news. According to a recent study conducted by SmithGeiger, and commissioned by Futrui, the social platforms including Facebook, YouTube and TikTok have outperformed reputable news sources when it comes to Covid-related news. This underscores the continued distrust in the media, and highlights how these online social platforms have become such a breeding ground for the wildest theories.
“There has been a tectonic shift in news consumption as Americans are now turning to social media platforms for pandemic-related updates and information, more than traditional news outlets,” said Daniel Anstandig, CEO of Futuri Media via an email.
“Futuri’s Future of Audience and Revenue study showed 64% of Americans turned to Facebook, with 61% turning to YouTube, as well,” said Anstandig. “For comparison, the major news organizations included in the study scored from 52 – 31%. The message is clear: audiences have pulled social media to the forefront of the news cycle and traditional platforms need to adapt in their usage of social media to engage audiences, or get left behind.”
Social Media And Misinformation
The spread of misinformation and even disinformation via social media isn’t limited to Covid-19, and for years the platforms have been used as a way to share and disseminate all sorts of information – much of it wrong or in other times misleading. One factor has been the lack of oversight that includes editors and fact checkers in the traditional media.
With social media “news” is shared instead of reported.
Another factor remains that it is information shared among friends and colleagues, which also lowers the barrier to trust. Even “news feeds” aren’t managed, and instead it is about pushing content that gets clicks.
“Social media curates the ‘news,’ so you are more likely to see a story that agrees with your worldview and motivates you to take a path that is more consistent with that worldview,” explained Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group.
“So it helps you see the world the way you’d like it to be rather than the world as it is,” Enderle added. “This approach is pretty much how a con artist works; they use your perceptions against you to act against your self-interest. If you believe the world is flat, you get a ton of support for that belief; you don’t trust the government. Social media supports that as well; it pushes you down the path you are already on aggressively while avoiding the pain of questioning if your path is the right one.”
A misconception is that the spread of misinformation – including content related to the novel coronavirus – is sent for nefarious purposes. That isn’t actually the case, and some people feel their sharing of information – even if wrong – is an attempt to spread the word that the media isn’t covering.
However, information in itself doesn’t really take sides. It is what people do with it that is the concern.
“It isn’t inherently good or evil, but it does not care for the distinction, treating each path equally,” said Enderle. “Argumentative Theory suggests we are programmed to want to appear right even if we aren’t, and Facebook builds on that, providing support for the most unsupportable positions. In short, it places making you feel good over accuracy, and people like to feel good and appear to be less concerned with accuracy.”