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As conspiracy theories gain traction with young people, is the media to blame?

By Kia Pound, Research Assistant, Media

Savanta

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June 7, 2024 | 6 min read

Savanta’s research has found that gen Zs are far more likely to be exposed to conspiracy theories online. Here, Kia Pound takes a look at the pipeline from true crime, celeb speculation and generative AI to flat-out conspiracism.

A tin foil hat

Young people are being exposed to conspiracy theories online in droves. How did we get here? / Tom Radetzki via Unsplash

The internet is a breeding ground for conspiracy theories, often driven by the curious minds of young people.

The theories themselves, of course, are often farfetched and sometimes dangerous. But understanding those theories and how so many people become exposed to them can help us to understand the minds of young consumers.

Data from Savanta’s Youth Omnibus, for example, found that a quarter of those over the age of 25 recall seeing conspiracy theories online in the past year. This increases to 60% among gen Z.

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The conspiracy pipeline

When we dig into the data, there is not as clear a divide between ‘mainstream’ media and online conspiracism as we might like to thing.

When questioned for our study, most respondents referenced the media frenzy earlier this year surrounding the Princess of Wales, Kate Middleton’s absence from the public eye. Speculation was rife, with claims of her recovering from major plastic surgery to scandalous allegations of infidelity. #WheresKate? trended across multiple platforms throughout March, until Middleton revealed the shocking truth about her ongoing cancer battle. You would expect such sensitive news to put a pin in the online chatter, but it didn’t stop there. A new conspiracy was born: the video was made with AI.

Conspiracy theories have become so farfetched that some are arguing that the recent collapse of the Baltimore Bridge was orchestrated by Barack Obama. Why? Because he was a producer of a Netflix film Leave the World Behind, in which a container ship crashes on a beach in a way that was ever-so-slightly similar to the incident on March 26 – and therefore the former president must be behind the container ship losing power.

True crime, false beliefs?

Getting sucked down a rabbit hole of exploring your favourite celebrity or uncovering supposed ‘top-secret’ information about our government has never been easier (nor more entertaining).

Netflix has arguably been feeding this curiosity for years. Just look at The Disappearance of Madeline Mcann (2019), and MH370: The Plane that Disappeared (2023): two examples of numerous shows that dive into conspiracy theories in lengthy detail, often garnering great reviews online.

Some individuals have been able monetize the conspiracy craze. Over on TikTok, @TytheCrazyGuy boasts 3.4 million followers and 100m likes, largely thanks to the wildly successful ‘cospiractea’ series. Ty ‘exposes’ celebrities, brands, and the government.

Whom do we trust?

According to data from State of the Youth Nation, we’re seeing an increase in young people confirming they trust ‘people online’ to deliver news. This is not surprising considering the general shift away from traditional media among this demographic. But, by nature, conspiracy theories are founded on speculation and online consensus. So how harmless is it really? And how safe is it for young people to access their news from unreputable sources?

Social media allows people to say what they want, when they want. With such a wealth of opinions available at their fingertips, young people love to revel in these conspiracies. Plus, the growing accessibility of AI means people can manipulate images to validate their claims, blurring the line between speculation and fact even further.

Researchers at the UK’s Centre for Countering Digital Hate instructed image-generator platforms such as ChatGPT to respond to prompts related to the 2024 presidential election, and found they churned out 41% disinformation, including creating convincing images for the prompts ‘Donald Trump in jail’.

The combined impacts of conspiracist thinking, false information, and digital fakes can be severe. Police forces have warned that conspiracies are a danger to real life investigations, inundating officers with fake information and doctored images, and ultimately hindering ongoing cases. Further data from Savanta’s Youth Omnibus finds 63% of people feel concerned about the impact of these AI generated images.

Ultimately, conspiracy theories captivate and mislead – especially among younger people. As risks to perception and public safety grow, it's imperative to delve into comprehensive youth insights to navigate this complex landscape responsibly.

Gen Z #research #marketresearch

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