Earth is flat, Tupac is still alive, climate change is a lie, the reptilian elite rules our world, and the COVID-19 is a biological weapon. While conspiracy theories have several forms, each has something in common: a disregard of a generally accepted conclusion based on the available factual data (1).
We have all seen them. Those posts shared by friends of friends of friends on Facebook, that jaw-dropping tweet you can scarcely believe. Besides social distancing and Zoom meetings, it appears that one inescapable symptom of the coronavirus pandemic is the rise of conspiracy theories on social media platforms.
Notably, conspiracy theories are different from falsehood and misinformation (2). They are ways for us to make sense of the complex and often disturbing world around us.
As per Alfred Moore, a political theorist (3), “conspiracy theories are means of explaining phenomena or events in a way that are implausible, unwarranted, or even dangerous, invoking deeper conspiracies and discounting all contradictory evidence.”
We have seen the rise of distinct kinds of conspiracy theories over the past several years, driven by structural changes in our culture, politics, economics, and society.
As per Karolina Wigura and Jaroslaw Kuisz, it is “populistainment,” a combination of politics, entertainment, and populism, when the media turns into a theater for a running performance to capture and keep the attention of the audience.
“If offering dopamine is the only method to capture the attention of a bored person, it doesn’t come as a surprise that several politicians adopt it. Like markets, where there is a demand, supply follows.”
– Karolina Wigura (4).
In that case, it does not matter much if what sells is false information. The content is merely a product with a supply chain, distribution network, and selling platform.
Profiting From Conspiracy Theories
Big Techs and 9/11 Conspiracy Theories
Even after about two decades of 9/11, tech giants are still profiting from widely-debunked conspiracy theories about the terror attack distressing the victims’ families and survivors.
Companies such as Apple, Google, and YouTube were letting people purchase or rent conspiracy theory films similar to Loose Change on their platforms until earlier this year despite the warning from survivors, experts, and government officials that it hinders proper education about the reality.
However, the last year was a wreck for the US-based tech companies. The de facto roles of Facebook, Google, Twitter, and Amazon as the judges of the country’s discourse are under increasing scrutiny by the politicians, media, and voters.
It is mainly driven by concerns around the continued dissemination of “misinformation,” “fake news,” and “conspiracy theories” on their platforms (5).
Several conspiracy theories around 9/11 suggest that perhaps the US government destroyed the buildings intentionally as a false flag operation to explain the subsequent war on terror.
While the movie is not available on any of these platforms today, including Amazon Prime Video, many other conspiracy theory books, videos, films, and podcasts are available.
As per Newsweek (6), citing a source, these 9/11 conspiracy documentaries are still visible on the online portal of Amazon for customer entertainment.
Vaccine Conspiracies and Media Startups
There are people like Charlene Bollinger, and her husband Ty Bollinger, part of for-profit businesses, non-profit groups, YouTube, and other social media platforms that stoke distrust and fear of COVID-19 vaccines, resorting to medical experts’ statements that are often false information and misleading.
According to an evaluation by The Associated Press (7), the couple works closely with others leading in the anti-vaccine movement, including Robert Kennedy Jr., to drive sales via affiliate marketing relationships.
According to the couple, big money is involved with the movement. They stated that they have sold tens of millions of dollars of products via several ventures and paid out 12 million USD to affiliates. They further added that tens of thousands of people purchased their vaccine video series.
“It is a disinformation industry,” says Dorit Reiss, a professor specialized in vaccine policy from the University of California Hastings. As per Reiss, unlike other marketing businesses, where products are sold via low-level sub-sellers, the anti-vaccination industry is sustained via grassroots activists.
“They have several passionate believers serving as salespeople of misinformation on the ground; for the top, it is a product. For the people below, they sincerely and passionately believe it,”
Some of them, including Bollingers, were already in the business of selling disinformation about vaccines before the pandemic. However, it presented the couple and others with a massive opportunity to expand their reach.
While we have no proof of how much money the Bollingers, who describe themselves as “advocates,” have made with their vaccine-related marketing activities or from their business overall. However, there are some hints.
The Bollinger company, TTAC Publishing LLC, filed a trademark infringement lawsuit the previous year, stating that TTAC had secured over 25 million USD in customer transactions since 2014 (8). The lawsuit, which called the company “an industry leader with specialization in marketing healthcare-related information,” didn’t say how much of it was profit.
Dun Bradstreet, a company that offers estimates for company revenues, has two listings for TTAC Publishing. The first, with its former address in Nevada, estimated revenue at 2.9 million USD last year. Under TTAC’s present address in Tennessee, the other list estimated 76k USD sales in 2020.
According to Experian’s report, the company had 179k USD in sales in its Nevada corporate address. In February, Experian reported that TTAC has 202k USD in revenue.
According to experts, financial connections among anti-vaccination activists are largely unknown to many, especially their consumers and people looking for information and ending up in a rabbit hole of misinformation.
As per Erica DeWald, a member of the advocacy group vaccinateyourfamily.org, “many of the people who drive vaccine disinformation emphasize that people should not trust pharmaceutical companies since they are making big money from vaccines. However, those purveyors of disinformation are also profiting.”
“I believe people are being misled. They believe that these activists are doing it out of the goodness of their hearts. I think there is an assumption that they are making money. Well, if you are selling products, of course, you are making money. However, I believe that people haven’t realized how much money they are making,” said DeWald.
The 5G Conspiracy Theory and COVID-19 Pandemic
If you have been following social media, especially amid the pandemic, then you must have come across the conspiracy theory about 5G technology and the pandemic.
The consensus about the coronavirus is that it leaped to humans from animals like a bat or pangolin. However, conspiracy theorists are not content.
One of the prominent pervasive conspiracy theories is that the coronavirus pandemic is linked to 5G technology. According to the theory, while we are all in lockdown, new 5G towers are installed while we are not looking. Another aspect of it is that 5G technology is spreading the virus globally (9).
Can technology do it? Well, as per the theory, there is no virus. The people dying in hospitals are a part of one big hoax; it is the 5G internet technology causing the symptoms.
Another similar theory asserts that 5G radiation can weaken our immune system to a point where the coronavirus more easily infects us.
It is hard to believe that all the medics, governments, and scientists collude in an elaborate illusion to ensure that we believe that people are ill or dying because of a virus. However, these theories are based on a rather basic principle. Since the virus started in China like the 5G launch, 5G is the real source of the pandemic.
Some of the conspiracy theorists even attempted to build timelines connecting the rise of radio waves in 1916 as the precursor of the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918 and connect the rollout of 3G technology with SARS and 4G technology with swine flu.
Even some news broadcasters started pandering to the idea, showing maps of 5G tower installations claiming more coronavirus cases in these areas. But, it doesn’t support 5G being the cause. They could see several other factors leading to the number of infections, including population density and socio-economics.
However, it has not stopped people from vandalizing 5G towers and attacking telecoms workers in the UK and elsewhere. According to Bruce Lee of Forbes (10), “These 5G COVID-19 conspiracy theories have become so rampant that the officials of the US government had to take time to discredit such conspiracy theories, an excellent use of time during a public health crisis.”
Of course, theorists benefited from the conspiracy. As per Buzzfeed’s Ryan Broderick (11), people pay over 350 USD for a USB stick with a “BioShield” against 5G. Jacques Bauer, the vendor, “falsely claims to protect people from 5G radiation by converting them into good radiation.”
While people have died and are dying in the hundreds of thousands globally, it is utterly disgraceful to capitalize on people’s fear. And did we mention, a lot of 5G conspiracists belong to an anti-vaccination camp too. It is best if we ignore them.
Conspiracies and Entrepreneurs
People like Alex Jones, the late Russ Limbaugh, and Glen Beck are, as per Sherman, “ideological entrepreneurs,” televangelists for the internet era.
At the peak of his popularity, in 2017-2018, Jones had lured over 2 million weekly listeners to his radio show. His website, inforwars.com, had more than 20 million monthly visits (12).
Jones’ business model appears to be mainly based on monetizing fear it itself builds. For instance, when the FDA, Food and Drug Administration warned Jones that products sold on infowars.com, like SuperSilver Whitening Toothpaste, which had claimed to boost immunity against coronavirus with no scientific foundation, it was not a coincidence that Jones had to spend the last months promoting that authorized vaccination is a fraud of “liberal elites.”
Since 2013, Jones’s business model has been mostly based on revenue through sales of Infowars. com-branded products.
As per Hilde Van Bulck from Drexel University, Philadelphia, “Jones is a media-savvy, politically alert opportunist, and a smart businessman. He will exploit all and any opportunities to gain attention and make money.”
Aaron Hyzen from the University of Antwerp, who has studied the Jones phenomenon for years, says that he even cultivated a relationship with former US President Doland Trump to increase sales.
“As alternative influences, operating in the digital-attention economy, their identities are expansions of the sold commodities.”
Conspiracies and Opportunistic Brands
According to Clair Birchall, an academic from King’s College London (12), “there are brands who quickly adapt to rising conspiracies and start creating complex conspiracy cosmologies. And, on the back it, they sell merchandise, books, and services.” Others agree.
As per Hyzen, “there is always someone profiting off of conspiracies. In the case of platforms like 4Chan, 8CHan, 8Kun, they use free speech alleged championing to spread and thrive wild conspiracy theories on their platforms as it generates traffic which would see ads for the platform owner’s book firm.”
Conspiracists are also into political donations, a big business in parts of the world, where big corporate donors and small donors make most of the money for political campaigning.
Social Media Platforms
Social media platforms are the turbocharge that accelerated the conspiracy theories commodity and pushed them from whacky extremists into the mainstream. However, there has been rapid democratization of broadcasting and digital production.
“It is about the opportunities for self-promotion, which social media platforms offer, new monetization ways online, with an emboldened populist politics which encourages conspiracy theorists’ subjective affirmed via consumption forms.”
Social media platforms, data brokers, search engines, and any other companies whose business model includes data extraction infrastructure gains the most financially in today’s era. Van Bulck agrees, “by the time social media started banning Jones, from mid-2018 and QAnon, from late-2020 (13), and related profiles, they had achieved their aim of bringing fringe ideas to the mainstream.”
Social media sites such as YouTube, Twitter (14), and Facebook (15) started taking down Jones’ and related accounts from August 2020. Meanwhile, Apple removed Jones podcasts from iTunes, and PayPal withdrew its services from the onsite store in infowars.com.
Even though social media platforms didn’t come up with conspiracy theorists, nor can we blame them for people deciding to believe in a conspiracy than a fact, the internet, and especially social media platforms offer community branding, meeting ground, an “information” resource, and as a megaphone.
Additionally, after Twitter banned Jones’s account in October 2018, his syndicated radio show was received by a conservative radio network. His celebrity status also made the mainstream media fixate on him. Its disquiet was also generating clicks, in turn, revenues for Jones and others.
While social media companies are analyzing rivers of data and removing tons of misinformation from their platforms, as per multiple disinformation researchers, we will need new regulations to govern the web, big techs, and the content that their users post online.
We need to conduct a comprehensive review of social media, including algorithms driving search and recommendation engines. We also need to analyze the ways tech companies have profited from spreading conspiracies and disinformation.
Decades ago, the power of gatekeeping was with the mass media. However, it has now moved to tech giants. We need them to be more straightforward about their operations and comprehensive regulations, so social giants remain aware of guardrails.