Media Literacy & Misinformation: How it Spreads - Social Media & Conspiracy Theories

Learn how to recognize and prevent misinformation and discover where your news comes from.

Misinformation can spread rapidly and on multiple platforms. Bots, trolls, social media and message boards - even word of mouth - can spread misinformation, disinformation and propaganda. This page explores the increasing danger of the conspiracy theories that can result, and what we can do to protect ourselves.

The Power of Relational Organizing

Researchers have found that trusted messengers and grassroots organizing are critical to halting the spread of misinformation and fostering community engagement, especially in communities that have limited access to internet, wi-fi and library resources. Marginalized communities in particular can benefit from investments in "human networks and local infrastructures that can offer reliable information and support democratic participation." In addition, new research related to COVID-19 misinformation suggests the power of this type of outreach to counter conspiracy theories.

Conference Presentation/Discussion, INFORMED 2024/The Knight Foundation. View sessions from INFORMED 2024 here; previous conference sessions are also available.
Lalani, H. S., DiResta, R., Baron, R. J., & Scales, D. (2023). Addressing viral medical rumors and false or misleading informationAnnals of Internal Medicine.

Buzz Aldrin on the Moon, July 1969

Color photo of astronaut Buzz Aldrin standing on the moon in front of American flag on a pole.

Source: Getty Images

Academia Weighs In

The Conspiracy Theory Handbook

The human tendency to formulate and propagate conspiracy theories is not new, but modern communication has made the spread of such theories exponentially faster and easier. In March 2020, cognitive behavior scientists Stephen Lewandowsky and John Cook published The Conspiracy Theory Handbook, which offers strategies for identification and response.

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Domestic Terror Threat per FBI

A 2019 report from the FBI cites conspiracy theories as "a new domestic terror threat."  Per the report, “The FBI assesses these conspiracy theories very likely will emerge, spread, and evolve in the modern information marketplace, occasionally driving both groups and individual extremists to carry out criminal or violent acts.” 

Photo of an open magazine showing article with headline "Conspiracy erases the truth."

Why They're a Threat

It is now easier than ever to rapidly consume and distribute conspiracy theories. And as we have seen with the 2016 #Pizzagate incident, these theories can have dangerous real world ramifications: 

  • Mass manipulation of public opinion.  
  • Increase in radicalized and extremist or violent behavior.  
  • Encourage targeting of specific people, places & organizations.
  • Mainstreaming of fringe & debunked ideas & “junk science.”
  • Contribute to polarization of society.
  • Undermine confidence in public leaders & institutions.

Sources: 2019 FBI report, Douglas & Uscinski study 2019Culture Wars in America

Explore Further

Click the image below to view Conspiratorial Thinking, a great tutorial on conspiracy theories - what they are, how they operate in our culture, how to fight them - created by the News Literacy Project as part of the Project's Checkology instruction materials.The tutorial features Renee DiResta, Research Manager at the Stanford Internet Observatory, which is conducting groundbreaking research on the study of the internet and society.

Graphic showing the logo for the Conspiratorial Thinking game, Red or white letters on black background.

Social Media Influencers

Per a Sep. 2022 report by the Washington Post, social media influencers have had a profound and dangerous effect on public opinion surrounding the security of U.S. elections and are now also driving promotion of other conspiracy theories. Further, these influencers have faced little interference from social media platforms despite their professed policies on disinformation on their platforms.

A 2022 Monmouth poll found that 29% of Americans believed that the 2020 presidential election result was fraudulent.

Source: Washington Post. Click graphic to view article.

What Can We Do?


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Per Sunstein & Vermeule (2009), governments can minimize the effects of conspiracy theories by aggressively rebutting as many of them as possible – preferably with the help of independent organizations – and by employing both public and private persuasion using countervailing facts.The resources contained within this guide - real time fact checking tools like apps and browser extensions and trusted organizations like Snopes, Politifact and - are essential to this ongoing effort.
And individuals can help as well -- studies on relational organizing have shown that one-on-one conversations can be significant in combating misinformation because people are more likely to value the voice of a trusted friend or relative. 

Conspiracy Theories of Note

Further Reading

COVID-19 Conspiracy Theories Alive & Well in 2023

Despite ongoing efforts of the science/medical community, a 2023 Annenberg Policy Center survey concluded that more Americans than ever believe that COVID-19 vaccines have killed large numbers of people. Disinformation and conspiracy theories surrounding the vaccines continue to be spread by television, podcasts, and print journalism, where they are often received as credible information by news consumers, despite widespread consensus that vaccines are both safe and effective.