IS THAT A FACT?
The mainstreaming of conspiracy theories
Season 1 Episode 8
About The Episode
Our guest this week is Cindy Otis, a former CIA analyst who is now the vice president for analysis for Alethea Group, where she leads disinformation investigations in the private sector. Our host spoke to Otis about why conspiracy theories have become more mainstream, what’s lending them such currency and what we can do to inoculate ourselves against them.
Otis spent 10 years at the CIA as a military analyst, intelligence briefer, and a manager in the directorate of intelligence in both Democratic and Republican administrations. She is also the author of the newly released True or False: A CiA Analyst’s Guide to Identifying and Fighting Fake News, published by Macmillan.
Coming up: Join us on November 18 at 5:30 p.m. EST for our final episode, which we’ll be recording live on Zoom. We’ll have a panel of experts offer insights about how mis-and dis-information impacted the election. For details, visit newslit.org.
Darragh Worland: Welcome back to, Is That a Fact? the all-new podcast brought to you by the nonprofit News Literacy Project. I’m your host Darragh Worland. Today for the eighth episode of our 10-part series, we talked to Cindy Otis about the rise of conspiracy theories in the U.S. Otis spent 10 years at the CIA as a military analyst, intelligence briefer and a manager in the directorate of intelligence in both Democratic and Republican administrations. Today, she is the vice president for analysis for Alethea Group, where she leads disinformation investigations in the private sector. Otis is also the author of the newly released, “True or False: A CIA Analyst’s Guide to Identifying and Fighting Fake News,” published by Macmillan. We wanted to talk to her about why conspiracy theories have become more mainstream, what’s lending them such currency, and what we can do to inoculate ourselves against them.
OK, so I want to just start out with some really basic questions, because we don’t want to assume that our listeners are well versed in conspiracy theories. How would you define a conspiracy theory?
Cindy Otis: So, a conspiracy theory is essentially this belief that there is some coordinated force out there with bad intentions conspiring.
Worland: Would you call it a form of misinformation or disinformation, or can it be both?
Otis: There are certainly a lot of connections between conspiracy theories and disinformation actors, but disinformation is false information that a person, group, government, et cetera, spreads with the intention to mislead or manipulate, knowing that it’s false, whereas conspiracy theorists really do believe in the conspiracy that they’re promoting. And so they are different things. It can be related to misinformation though, as well, because misinformation is false information that is spread with the individual group or government not knowing that it’s false, but disinformation actors who are knowingly spreading false information and intentionally spreading it, they absolutely play on conspiracy theories.
Worland: What are some of the prevailing conspiracy theories today?
Otis: There’s certainly been an evolution in conspiracy theories. So, before the world of QAnon starting in 2017, conspiracy theories were considered much more fringe, and they were things like the belief in chem trails, you know, the little white streak that airplanes leave behind them in the sky. Some conspiracy theorists believe that that is an attempt by a covert group or a government to depopulate the Earth, and what they’re really spraying toxin in that thing. You know, the conspiracy of the Earth being actually flat, that sort of thing, Area 51, that aliens are hidden in the Area 51. One of the Soviet conspiracy theories that they promulgated with the United States had created HIV/AIDS as a way of depopulating the Earth and particularly targeting the communities of color in the United States, as a you know, depopulation mechanism. But today what we’re seeing now is more mainstreaming of conspiracy theories. And one of the most prevalent is what I think probably a lot of listeners have started hearing about or reading about in the news, and that is of a group called QAnon.
Worland: Can you give a quick summary of QAnon?
Otis: It can be a bit complicated and that’s actually a really important point about the QAnon conspiracy theories. It is quite complicated. It really started in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, so the conspiracy was the prominent Democrats, including then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was part of a global effort to traffic children. Other pieces of this conspiracy resulted in the belief that all of these efforts were being conducted in the basement of a pizza parlor in Washington, D.C. And it gained a lot of traction, and it spread from there. Of course it was thoroughly, thoroughly debunked, but as it was being actively debunked, an individual who believed in this conspiracy was actually motivated to drive to Washington, D.C., armed with weapons, storm the pizza parlor, set off his guns and go searching for this in the supposed basement where he really did think children were being held against their will. And in fact, nothing was there of course. And in fact, there was no basement at all.
Worland: What you’re referring in 2016 was what came to be known as Pizzagate, or was that in 2017?
Otis: Right. That was 2016.
Otis: And so that should have been end of that conspiracy, one would think, but what actually happened was after the 2016 election, it morphed, and in the beginning of 2017, this individual going under the name of Q appeared and started to post on a fringe forum that tends to attract conspiracy theorists, and also white supremacists, and claimed to be a government insider who had access to the country’s most sensitive intelligence. And that they had all of this classified information about claiming that these prominent Democrats were guilty of sex trafficking and were about to be imminently arrested. There were also claims of, you know, not only are they trafficking these children, but they’re sacrificing them and drinking their blood and all sorts of… I mean, it gets very, very dark. And so the group has really grown from those early days in 2016, and then the evolution of the conspiracy that resulted in this person coming forward, claiming to have this insider information.
Worland: How has it gotten so big? I understand that it’s moved off of these fringe groups into more of the mainstream, but how did this happen?
Otis: There’s been a very concerted effort by the people promoting this conspiracy to build a very vast network across social media platforms, both the fringe and the mainstream, to push this narrative and this conspiratorial claim over and over again. The claim is that there is this cabal, and so it’s not just prominent Democrats, it’s also celebrities, influencers that they claim is part of this cabal. It’s spread because of this large network that they’ve built on social media, before social media platforms even woke up to the fact that this was an issue and it was growing. QAnon types had already built very large infrastructures of groups and pages on Facebook accounts, on Twitter, videos on YouTube, Instagram accounts, et cetera, just pushing this claim over and over and over again, and amassing large amounts of followers and subscribers to these claims.
And then on top of that, their messaging, in a way, it was pretty savvy. I mean, we hear the claims that they’re making, and I think initially for a lot of us, the thought is rolling our eyes, but it came at a really particularly good timing for this kind of conspiracy. So since the coronavirus pandemic, we’ve seen the number of QAnon followers globally really spike, and it goes back to that timing. So what was particularly perfect for these individuals pushing this conspiracy is that, in recent years, particularly in the United States, there’s been massive political division. The temperature in the United States is just constantly running high. There are scandals week after week in significant elements of our society, such as government.
And then with the pandemic, it’s created a lot of uncertainty about health and the state of the country. And you have just a lot of people looking for answers, trying to figure out, “OK, why are bad things happening? How do I explain what I’m seeing around me?” And QAnon and the conspiracy that they provide is an easy answer to a lot of those questions that people have of, “You want to know why bad things are happening in your life and happening in the world? Well, here you go. There’s this global cabal that’s doing terrible things and plotting against you and trying to make your life miserable and stealing children. How’s that for an answer?” You know? So they’re, they’ve been able to take advantage.
Worland: Yeah, and I was really surprised to see that according to a recent study, over half of Americans believe in at least one conspiracy theory. Is that accurate and have they become more mainstream, would you say?
Otis: I do think that they’ve become more mainstream. I mean, we have people running for Congress who openly advocate and promote these massive conspiracy theories. I think part of it is that particular statistic that you read, is that people who believe these things don’t think of them necessarily as conspiracy theories, they think of them as reality. You will always be able to find a person who says something. The way that I think about it is, if you talk to 100 different people and say, “OK, categorize Cindy Otis,” 99 people are going to say out of that 100, “Cindy Otis is a woman.” And you might find one person who’s willing to say, “No, no, Cindy Otis is a unicorn.” And I think the thing with conspiracy theories is that they draw on that one person. They look at that one person, they say, “Ah, that person secretly knows the truth. They know what’s really happening.” And it outweighs, in their minds, the other 99 people who got it right.
Worland: So you’re saying some conspiracy theories can cause real-world harm. What about with the fact that we’re in the middle of a pandemic, and there are conspiracy theories circulating about COVID? Can you talk a little bit about that?
Otis: I think that’s something that a lot of us who’ve been in this space for a while have been warning about for quite a long time, and that you can’t look at this issue as just some people posting memes or making claims that don’t lead to anything. We’re actually seeing real-world harms come from these information campaigns. When it comes to coronavirus, you have instances in which people are spreading dangerous conspiracy theories about the virus, to the extent of saying, “It’s a hoax, it was pre-planned, it came from,” fill in the blank, a nefarious actor, “It’s a weapon,” and all of that. And you have people making decisions about their health and their community’s health. People saying, “Well, I’m not going to wear a mask because it’s a hoax. I’m not going to follow this particular public health guidance because,” fill in the blank, conspiracy theory. So it’s incredibly dangerous. And I think this is one of the instances in which social media platforms have actually taken pretty swift action from the beginning of the pandemic really, to try to limit some of that content. You know, they do see the potentially harmful effects of people making life-or-death decisions in a lot of cases about health because of false information, because of conspiracy theories.
Worland: Well, how has the internet and social media contributed overall to the spread of conspiracy theories? You mentioned this earlier, but I wonder if you could just dive into that a bit more?
Otis: I wrote a book about the ways in which false information has been used throughout history, including conspiracy theories, as a way of spreading particular false narratives intentionally, and again, conspiracy theories are part of that. But the main difference between a lot of those historical case studies that I looked at and today, is the technology, is social media, is the internet. Broadly speaking, false information can travel faster and reach more corners of the Earth now than ever before. And conspiracy theories are absolutely a part of it. So I think part of the mainstreaming that I’ve seen of conspiracies is the result of the internet and social media that allows it to reach people in ways that wouldn’t have been able to if that were traveling via paper or word of mouth previously.
Otis: So, conspiracy theorists have taken advantage of that, and they’ve used social media extremely effectively to get their claims and their messages to promote, using scare tactics, they’ve built large networks on mainstream and fringe social media platforms. They have been very carefully watching, and adjusting, based on how the social media platforms respond. So when social media platforms have taken action against particular content or accounts, they simply pivot, right? They’re very, very flexible in terms of how they get information out there, and so when accounts are taken down, they simply create new ones, or they use different hashtags that they know aren’t being watched yet by social media platforms. So they’re very adaptable.
Worland: The way you describe the purveyors of conspiracy theories spreading the conspiracy theories almost sounds more like the spread of disinformation, but you earlier said that these are people who truly believe the conspiracy theory. So are they bad actors, or is it just people who are innocently trying to, you know, shed light on something they consider a dark conspiracy? Because it sounds very nefarious the way you describe it.
Otis: So every group attracts all. So you certainly have the people who completely believe it and they’re sharing it because they think they have a duty to warn and inform on what they think is true. You do also have a subsection of this group, and QAnon is a good example of people who take advantage of that. You know, they might think it’s harmless, they might think it’s harmful, they might know that it’s false, but again, they get something out of it. And so I’ve done a lot of work with my company, Alethea Group, tracking individuals who are taking advantage of QAnon believers in particular, in order to financially profit, creating businesses under the QAnon brand as a way of making money. And there are quite a lot of individuals who have attempted to, essentially take advantage of believers and sell them.
Worland: What are these businesses? QAnon t-shirts that you might see at a rally?
Otis: Yeah. T-shirts, flags, mugs, branded coffee, books, all sorts of things. And you have people who really are trying to create a straight-up just Q marketplace, where believers who legitimately believe in this conspiracy go to these people for every need that they have, as a way of financially profiting. And they’ve been very successful in doing so, and then you also have people who are monetizing their social media accounts. So YouTube channels, creating quote, unquote, “independent news networks” and things like that, where they get money from digital ads. And for them, it’s very much in their interest to say, “You can’t trust anyone. You can only trust you know, the QAnon world, therefore patron me. Give me donations through my Patreon, buy my QAnon coffee, pay for my book, get your QAnon flag here.” And that sort of thing.
Worland: Well, you wrote that the FBI has labeled QAnon a domestic terrorism threat. I think this was just last year that the FBI did that.
Otis: So the FBI put out a bulletin in 2019 that labeled them a domestic terrorist threat. That comes from multiple instances. And again, you have to remember that QAnon has really only been a thing since 2017. So we’re talking a little more than three years of this rapid rise of this group of believers. And within that three years, there have been several instances of acts of violence being committed by believers who are committing those violent acts because of their beliefs. So it’s not just they happened to be a believer and they did something. They committed the violence because they are believers. One of the interesting, or I guess worrisome, pieces of that is that that label came in mid-2019. It really wasn’t until a couple of weeks ago that social media platforms actually started to crack down on QAnon-related content.
Worland: Well, I guess there’s probably always that conflict between free speech and our First Amendment, and then actual acts of violence, which are committing crimes. So these conspiracy theories can continue to spread, they’re protected by First Amendment rights, you know, to a certain extent, but then once it escalates, you know, then it can become a crime and a genuine threat.
Otis: It has absolutely been a problem for social media companies to figure out, “OK, they say it’s a personal political opinion, but is there some potential for real-world harm and as a result, what is our obligation as the platform hosting this content?” So I think that has been what they’ve been grappling with for the last three years, and ultimately within the last couple of weeks, they’ve made the determination that there was enough evidence. And I think that’s because something can be a personal political opinion, but if that something is encouraging violence and real-world action, and then there are actual acts of violence committed, is that a personal opinion or a political belief that should be on the platform?
Worland: Right. And I mean, the social media platforms have also been wrestling with what their role is in policing content more generally, but you’ve written pretty extensively about what Facebook in particular should do to curb the spread of conspiracy theories. Can you talk a little bit about other things that Facebook should be doing or could be doing?
Otis: My general philosophy on all the social media platforms, and I think Facebook does get a lot of attention, but I have this advice for YouTube just as much as I have it for Facebook, and that is, there have to be some red lines. And the red lines, I think are, one – transparency should be the goal. Users on the platform should not have to be disinformation investigators to be able to figure out where their content is coming from, when, for example, a person or a group is creating 50 pages or groups, all pushing the same content to drive clicks to their website. It shouldn’t take a disinformation investigator to find all of those 50 separate pages. You should be able to see, here is a list of pages that this group is running.
Worland: You’d have to know though, as like a social media user, that that’s a signal that it could be bad actors who are ultimately trying to gain influence.
Otis: Yeah, absolutely. I think also social media companies have to address the fact that their algorithms have been actively driving people to these conspiratorial ideas for years at this point. The algorithms are set up to show us the content they think we’re most likely to click on, and so it just reinforces our biases. It says, “Hey, you clicked on this one page, let me show you all of these other pages that are exactly like this.” And that’s resulted in not just conspiracy theories, but white supremacist content as well. People being actively pushed to these harmful areas because they once clicked on something that was remotely similar. So, the social media platforms have taken additional steps, particularly in recent months to address that, but you are still actively recommended to places where there is some pretty harmful content, like white supremacist groups.
Worland: Right, so if you join one white supremacist group, then Facebook is going to recommend multitudes of other similar groups, and then you’re just going to get further and further funneled into this echo chamber of groups repeating a lot of the same messages.
Otis: Yeah, absolutely. And I think the other piece that I would raise for social media platforms as well is that you really have to look at, in terms of creating red lines, the tactics that individuals, groups and governments use on the platform. So we’re not exactly asking you to police the truth, but if a government, a group, or even a domestic group is creating large networks of pages using fake accounts, for example, spamming videos and creating massive amounts of channels on YouTube, those are the same tactics that you would say are unacceptable for a foreign government to use on your platform, so why would you let it for domestic groups?
Worland: It seems to me like people who are spreading these conspiracy theories are pretty savvy about the platforms.
Otis: Oh, definitely, yeah. They’re watching every move the social media platforms are making and adapting very quickly. They also see that there’s a lot of gray space in terms of policies that these social media companies have, and they know how to play in that gray space. They know how to get right just to the edge of the red line, but not cross it.
Worland: So there is a lot that social media companies could do to mitigate the damage, but they’re not quite doing it yet.
Otis: Yeah. I mean, it’s important to remember that the social media companies aren’t equal in terms of the capabilities that they’ve devoted to addressing conspiracy theories, and just information on their platforms. So Facebook has actually devoted a lot of capability to internal investigations of the platform, whereas other social media companies haven’t invested that kind of capability at that level, but they might have stronger policies on particular issues.
Worland: Right, so they’re all taking different approaches. So I want to talk more generally about conspiracy theories and you know, why they might be appealing. Can you talk about the common characteristics that there might be in conspiracy theories? Because I do think that being able to see these common characteristics can help us identify when what we’re encountering is actually a conspiracy theory.
Otis: Conspiracy theories often offer very simple solutions to what are actually very complex problems. People have questions about why bad things are happening in their lives, why it seems like everybody is getting ahead, but then a conspiracy theorist just swoops in, “I’ve got a simple answer and it’s this enemy,” or something like that. Also conspiracy theories play to our ignorance, so a lot of conspiracy theories are related to science. So I mentioned earlier chem trails, explanation for why a plane leaves that white streak in the sky after it. And instead of doing the research and understanding the science behind what is actually happening in the air, a conspiracy theory comes forward and says, “Well, it’s actually this massive plot by the government to depopulate the Earth.”
And then they also, they play on our fears, so we see these bad things happening around us, and we’re afraid of the things that we see in the world and conspiracy theories play on that fear. “You have every right to be afraid, there are terrible people and groups out there doing terrible things to you. Here they are.” And in general, conspiracy theories also essentially show patterns in things that actually have nothing to do with each other – these very separate things are totally related and it’s a plot. As an example with QAnon, that’s what the movement really thrives on, is that idea that all of these completely unrelated events are actually part of a pattern. And a lot of QAnon posts say, “Here are these different things, go find the truth.” And they set these followers off on these wild goose chases around the internet to find quote, unquote “evidence.” It is a bit of a choose your own adventure, and it creates this ideology or belief system that is ever-changing, is very flexible, and can expand and evolve. And then it also gives believers a sense of like, ownership and community, because they’re part of the hunt. They’re part of the truth. It’s a very interesting dynamic. Yeah, there’s a role for everybody.
Worland: What are some of the cognitive tendencies that lead people to believe in conspiracy theories?
Otis: So there are a couple of things that our brains are naturally wired to do that we’re not always aware are actually happening. So as information consumers, as human beings, we don’t like to be wrong. And then on top of that, we tend to make very quick snap judgements about our beliefs and our opinions, and then as a result, it’s very hard for us to move on that, even when confronted with new information. And so our brains are constantly, naturally even, actively looking for information that confirms what we already believe, and what opinions we already have. So when we’re confronted with new information, we’re faster to discount it rather than, you know, take a step back and think to ourselves, “OK, does this change anything about what I thought?” And then, as I mentioned before, we’re also very sure of ourselves and very quick to make those judgements, even when we don’t necessarily have the expertise that we need to actually have an opinion, or come to an analytic conclusion.
So it’s very important to be aware of those sorts of biases, and then also the fact that we all have information lenses. So my background as a white disabled woman from the national security side, that absolutely affects the way in which I look at information. It affects the kinds of information that I even click on to begin with, the kinds of stories that I’m interested in. And so we really need to take the time to peel back each of our individual lenses, to see how our backgrounds, experiences, et cetera, affects how we’re looking at information, what information we’re looking at, and how we process it.
And the other piece of this is motivated reasoning, so it’s the idea that humans in general are very emotional, and we end up naturally producing justifications or making decisions based on what outcomes we want, rather than the actual evidence around us. We’re just very uncomfortable as human beings with being wrong, and so we’re actively looking always to prove ourselves right.
Worland: So a lot of conspiracy theories are really dark. Does cynicism play into one’s tendency to believe in conspiracy theories?
Otis: Yeah, I think so. I mean, conspiracy theories, one of the reasons why we’re seeing it go mainstream right now is that because people are losing trust, in the United States at least. You know, people are increasingly feeling like, “Well, I can’t trust what the government says,” or, “I can’t trust what the media says.” And as a result of that cynicism or that skepticism, they’re drawn to these more fringe ideas. And interestingly, these fringe ideas that are propagated primarily by people who have way less credibility, way less expertise than the people or institutions that they have been turned away from, or turned off from, rather.
Worland: It’s very ironic. Are conspiracy theories a bigger issue in the mainstream in the U.S. right now, or is this like a global phenomenon? Because the internet obviously is global, but is it that Americans are a little bit more susceptible, or interested in conspiracy theories? Or are we seeing this everywhere?
Otis: We’re starting to see it spread everywhere. QAnon was sort of birthed, I guess, is how I would call it, in the United States, but it certainly has gained a foothold around the world at this point.
Worland: Heading into the election, are there any particular conspiracy theories that might thwart the democratic process that’s supposed to be happening on Tuesday?
Otis: I’m gearing up for a couple of weeks — a lot of false information circulating about election results in terms of conspiracy theories. One that has been promoted by even our elected leaders is this false idea that the election is rigged and that the results can’t be trusted. And I think we will see elements fan the flames of that particular conspiracy. I think we will see things like pictures taken out of context, quote, unquote “personal stories” of voting problems that people claim to have witnessed, and that sort of thing that help amplify the false narrative that the election wasn’t legitimate.
Worland: So how can we inoculate ourselves against conspiracy theories? Do you think that news literacy can help? Are there other things we can do?
Otis: News Literacy can absolutely help. That’s why I’m such a strong supporter of all of the work that the News Literacy Project is doing. I think it is absolutely crucial to help communities access the tools and resources that they need to make sense of the information that they are seeing on a daily basis. And that means giving people some tools and tactics that they can employ when looking at their own social media feeds and looking at content online that help them do a little bit of verification and understand what they’re seeing. It’s not about burdening people with, “Well, now you have to become a digital investigator. Now you need to go be a disinformation expert,” but it’s really just about helping people learn what questions they should ask themselves when they’re viewing content.
So if you look at, as an example, some of the things that I raised on election day and afterwards, we’re likely to see people making personal claims of vote tampering or something like that, those are great opportunities for people to stop, pause, look at, “OK, who’s sharing this story? Can I verify it? Has local media outlets been able to verify it? Who’s posting it? Do I know this person? Are there sources that they’re citing?” And if we can’t do those simple verification methods, it’s better not to share. And just by employing some of those really basic tactics, I think it helps people stay engaged because, again, conspiracy theories really thrive in environments where people feel disenfranchised with traditional sources of information, and so they ended up gravitating towards the fringe, and the simple explanations that often are very conspiratorial. So helping people stay engaged in verifying their content, I think, is a way of doing a bit of that inoculation.
Worland: Would you go so far as to say that conspiracy theories can be a legitimate threat to democracy, and the proper functioning of our democracy?
Otis: Oh, absolutely. Because you have instances where, again, people are withdrawing from their communities. They’re withdrawing from, in some cases, the democratic process, because they see it as all rigged anyways. They’re not trusting fair and balanced sources of information. Instead they’re moving towards more fringe explanations and we need everybody. We need everybody engaged in our communities and participating in the democratic processes, ensuring that our government is held accountable. And so [the] more the people are believing in these conspiratorial explanations for what they’re seeing, the greater threat to our democracy.
Worland: It seems like one of the most important things we could do is help people regain trust in institutions that are fact-based, but how would you suggest we do that?
Otis: I think there’s a role for everybody. My approach is very much – it’s going to take all of us. So government has a role. That is, making sure that elected representatives are held accountable for their actions, that they are not playing into conspiracy theories, that they are themselves putting forward accurate sources of information, that they’re not promoting, you know, dangerous and harmful ideas.
Worland: We have elected members of Congress who are QAnon adherents.
Otis: Yeah. So obviously a huge worry. They have a role in this. They have a role in funding efforts to promote digital media literacy that nonprofit organizations like the News Literacy Project are doing, that are so incredibly important to educating our public, and creating a resilient next generation of information consumers. And then media has a role as well in making sure that their content is accessible, that it’s fair and balanced, that they’re, you know, using their own standards-based processes and that sort of thing.
Worland: Thanks for listening. We’ve been talking to Cindy Otis about the rise of conspiracy theories, and their impact on American democracy. Next week for our penultimate episode, we’ll talk about truth decay with Jennifer Kavanagh, a director and senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation. Then join us on November 18th at 5:30 p.m. Eastern for our final episode, which we’ll be recording live on Zoom. We’ll have a panel of experts offer insights about how mis- and disinformation impacted the election. For details, visit our website, newslit.org.
Is That a Fact? is a production of the News Literacy Project, a nonpartisan education nonprofit, helping educators, students and the general public become news literate, so they can be active consumers of news and information, and equal and engaged participants in a democracy. Alan Miller is our founder and CEO. I’m your host Darragh Worland. Our executive producer is Mike Webb. Our editor is Timothy Kramer and our theme music is by Erin Busch. To learn more about the News Literacy Project, go to newslit.org.