Tech News: Conspiracy theories and technological radicalisation, Newsline

By Louis Fourie

CAPE TOWN – In the year 331 BC or the Year of the Consulship of Potitus and Marcellus, numerous eminent men of the Roman Republic were falling ill and died from a mysterious disease. After a female Roman slave told Quintus Fabius Maximus, one of the curule aediles (“magistrates”) that the illness is caused by poison, which had been prepared by upper-class women, twenty women were dragged to the Forum (the central square). After two aristocratic leaders, Cornelia and Sergia, claimed that the preparations were medicinal, the twenty women were asked to drink their own “medicine” to prove that it is beneficial. All twenty women died after drinking their own concoctions. A further 170 matrons were arrested and found guilty.

An ancient conspiracy theory

Or, at least, this is the version of events recorded by the esteemed Roman historian, Titus Livius (or Livy), who was born almost three centuries later. But he was not persuaded that the upper-class women and poison were really responsible for the deaths, and neither are current experts. A more rational explanation would possibly be that that Rome was in the grip of an unknown epidemic and that the women were really preparing medicines. Mass poisonings in the classical world were unheard of. The infamous poisonings of 331 BC thus seem to be a heavily embellished or fabricated story woven into a conspiracy theory to explain the deaths that had a “natural” cause. As is the case with most conspiracy theories, the 331 BC conspiracy theory reveals the deep socioeconomic tensions in the ancient Roman Republic.

Does the ancient Roman story sound oddly familiar amid the current COVID-19 pandemic? Indeed, the pandemic has not only killed almost a million people, decimated most economies, but also fuelled several conspiracy theories. In the UK alone 77 phone masts have been vandalised and 40 telecommunication engineers have been attacked because people believed the conspiracy theory that COVID-19 is spread through 5G technology by cogent forces in the global telecommunications industry.

The stolen horse and the microchip conspiracy

In 1984, a treasured horse owned by the CEO of Destron Fearing, a Minnesota-based animal identification company, was stolen. Exasperated by the theft, the CEO came up with a solution: an implantable chip that could help identify and recover stolen animals. After its launch in the 1990s, the chip became a huge success and more than ten billion versions of the chip were used globally in 2018 alone. The Destron Fearing identification chip can be found in everything from pets to subway cards, electronic tolls, and clothing tags to prevent shoplifting.

The theft of the horse thus set into motion a series of events that would eventually in 2020 lead to Bill Gates being accused nonsensically of orchestrating the implantation of microchips containing the mark of the beast in millions of unsuspecting Americans. Kent Hovind and Katherine Albrecht both wrote books to promote the conspiracy theory that soon world governments will use the identification chip to track every person without their permission. Many proponents link the chip to the “Mark of the Beast” in the Book of Revelation in the Bible that would prevent Christians from buying or selling goods and participating in society.

Suddenly in 2020 the chip conspiracy theory spiralled into a new edition that a group of billionaires such as Bill Gates are using the COVID-19 pandemic, and an eventual vaccine, as a cover to implant millions of chips containing the mark of the beast into unsuspecting people.

Although the above beliefs are pseudoscience often used to radicalise people, a Yahoo News/YouGov poll conducted in May 2020 found that 44 percent of Republicans in the USA, 25% of Independents, and 20% of Democrats believe the Gates-microchip conspiracy to be true.

Technological radicalisation

Unfortunately, social media has become a powerful tool in the propagation of conspiracy theories. Although conspiracy theories often originate on extremist websites, they are distributed to the masses via social media such as Facebook. QAnon groups, for example, experienced record growth since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, especially after their video known as “Plandemic” featured a discredited scientist spreading a baseless conspiracy theory about the coronavirus.

The pervasiveness of social media indoctrination is evident from the fact that Facebook removed hundreds of Boogaloo (a militant online movement) accounts towards the end of June, while Twitter closed thousands of QAnon accounts in July 2020 and is also blocking certain trends and key phrases. During August, Facebook removed 790 QAnon groups and restricted another 1950 groups, 450 pages, and more than 10 000 Instagram accounts in an effort to curtail the growth of the QAnon conspiracy group. Reddit banned QAnon content from its forums and the video App TikTok banned several QAnon-related hashtags, while YouTube took down QAnon content and thousands of Q-related videos and terminated hundreds of Q-related channels.

QAnon was founded only four years ago and consisted mostly of people who believed that the world is run by a cabal of Satan-worshipping paedophiles operating a global child sex-trafficking ring. However, recently the group absorbed other conspiracy groups, became more politically involved and started to resort to violence.

Despite the efforts by the social media companies, many conspiracy pages still remain since they are difficult to detect. Simultaneously, conspiracy theory and extremist groups are moving out of the public eye, to closed groups such as WhatsApp and Telegram.

Algorithmic radicalisation

Social media algorithms are primarily designed to channel viewers in a certain direction by constantly feeding them preferred content in order to retain their attention and engagement. So just as the algorithms steer users to jewellery or sportscars, it can also constantly channel them toward conspiracy theories by preying on people’s bias toward self-affirming content. Researchers found in May 2020 that nearly half of all Twitter accounts tweeting about COVID-19 are mostly bots.

Drivers of conspiracy theories

Due to social media conspiracy theories are flourishing – there is even a conspiracy theory about how conspiracy theories were invented. Research has indicated that there are a few aspects that make conspiracy theories appealing to the masses and thus promote their spreading:

Convincing culprits – successful conspiracy theories always have the right villain such as the upper-class women found threatening by the powerful male elite in the Roman poisoning conspiracy of 331 BC.

Collective anxieties – successful conspiracy theories usually tap into anxieties and obsessions of society. In Romania, despite a high fatality rate of cancer, 97.5% of women declined to have their daughters vaccinated against the human papillomavirus due to the conspiracy theory that it is an attempt by the rich (e.g. Bill Gates) to control the world’s population by making women infertile. Research has shown that people who have a social identity centred around victimhood are more susceptible to conspiracy theories.

Tribalism – popular conspiracies make us feel good about our own social group.

Uncertainty – research has shown that people often turn to conspiracy theories during crisis situations such as COVID-19. The theory that mobile phone networks are detrimental to our health has been around for about thirty years. It was falsely accused of causing autism, infertility and cancer. However, with the emergence of the mysterious new coronavirus in December 2019, the conspiracy theory received a new version. On 22 January 2020 when the virus had infected only 314 people and six people died, an interview with an obscure family doctor was published in a Belgian newspaper under the title “5G is life-threatening, and no one knows it”. It linked the dangers of 5G to the new coronavirus even though there is insufficient evidence to support the claim. The 5G theory involves several of humanity’s greatest fears, such as the perennial fear of new or invisible technology and an undercurrent of anxiety about the emergence of China as a global superpower. A recent analysis of Tweets that mention 5G and Covid-19 found that 34.8% included a suggestion that the two are linked. Conspiracy theories with events shaped by human hands somehow help us to feel more in control.

Knowledge gaps – conspiracy theories often address some kind of mystery, from unexplained disasters and plane crashes to sudden celebrity deaths. Where authorities are not transparent in their communication, these knowledge gaps combine with general mistrust, driving the public to conspiracy theories that claim to have the answers.

Ulterior motives – Since the Covid-19 pandemic several world leaders have proclaimed their support for related conspiracy theories, which often align extremely well with their own agendas. Although denied by his intelligence agencies, President Donald Trump suggested he has seen evidence that the coronavirus originated in a Chinese lab.

The real enemy

The real enemy is neither the powerful social media, nor the uncommunicative and untrusted government, but often those among us who are making conspiracy theories and extremist ideologies commonplace. The enemy is thus from within and we will thus see many new waves of wild ideas and conspiracy theories promoted via social media. Many researchers believe that we are living in an age of conspiracy, but there is no real evidence for that. Who knows, perhaps that is also a conspiracy and so is this article…

Prof Louis C H Fourie | Futurist and Technology Strategist