The 7 C's of Internet Popularity, Part 1, Conspiracy Theories

Cara Bowles    By under Brand Messaging.

Last month, I described a problem with the internet that I coined "the Novelty Bubble."

I argued that three factors have combined to create a perfect storm of misinformation on the internet:

  • The innate human tendency to latch onto and share information that is new and emotionally intense
  • The ease of sharing information, without even necessarily fully consuming it, on the internet
  • The introduction of algorithms meant to predict what is most likely to get shared

I've argued that this is, in some ways, the opposite of what Eli Pariser calls "the filter bubble." Rather than giving us tunnel vision and forcing us down a path of narrow-minded extremism, what little science we have on recommendation engines actually suggests that they have the positive effect of causing us to have more diverse views and more open minds. (We wouldn't guess that from YouTube comments, but that's a topic for another day.)

The problem is that this open-mindedness comes with a cost: accuracy. Hoaxes, conspiracy theories, and poorly researched information spread and take hold faster than they ever have before. We've yet to see how bad this problem might get, or just how society might adapt.

I do urge you to take the misinformation problem seriously, lest you damage your long term credibility. Unfortunately, I have to confess: I have no idea how to solve the misinformation problem on a societal scale. So, today, I'm not going to do that. Instead, I'm going to talk about how you can capitalize on the Novelty Bubble, hopefully to share information that's actually true.

I'm going to do that by talking about what I called "The 7 C's of Internet Popularity" in "The Novelty Bubble." And I'm going to start with everybody's favorite tin-foil-hat-wearing narrative, the conspiracy theory.

Conspiracy Theories: Not About Extremism

At first sight, the conspiracy theory seems like evidence of the extremism Eli Pariser would predict as a result of "the filter bubble." In reality, conspiracy theories don't have as much to do with political extremism as you might think.

In fact, conspiracy theories "cut across gender, age, race, income, political affiliation, educational level, and occupational status," and "The best predictor of belief in a conspiracy theory is belief in other conspiracy theories." In fact, half of Americans believe in at least one conspiracy theory. If the internet does contribute to extremism, it's because of "the backfire effect," the tendency to hold onto a strong belief even more if you are faced with contradictory evidence.

If anything, overexposure to your own political beliefs is more likely to make you a moderate than an extremist, due to sheer boredom.

And this really gets at the heart of why conspiracy theories thrive on the internet. They earn attention because they say something that challenges the common narrative, the one we're overexposed to. They fire on all cylinders for a wide variety of Jonah Berger's list of emotions that impact internet sharing:

  • Anxiety: It's no secret that conspiracy theories invoke feelings of fear and paranoia.
  • Anger: If a conspiracy theory is believed, it inevitably creates anger. In fact, if it is believed, it makes anger toward smaller, isolated events seem petty and insignificant. As belief in conspiracy theories grows stronger, the ability of other stories to inspire anger is diminished.
  • Awe: Berger describes awe as an emotion of self-transcendence that opens and broadens the mind and changes how you look at the world. When a conspiracy theory is believed, it meets this definition of awe.
  • Overall emotional intensity (emotionality): Emotions are intensified when placed in a conspiratorial context. Anything that inspires anger and anxiety will inspire still more of it if it's also part of a grand plan to do harm to the human race.
  • Interest: A well-written conspiracy theory ties together threads like a well-written suspense novel or political thriller. They are designed to elicit interest by their very nature.
  • Surprise: A conspiracy theory that is believed will ultimately shock the reader. In fact, belief in conspiracy theories diminishes the ability to be shocked by anything but another conspiracy theory.

In short, conspiracy theories hit every emotional influence Jonah Berger has looked at other than positivity, practicality, and sadness (which decreases sharing).

What Was That About Half of Americans Believing At Least One Conspiracy Theory?

The rampant success of conspiracy theories can't be explained by Jonah Berger's observations of emotional intensity and social sharing. As important as these factors are, we have to ask the question, why are people willing to believe conspiracy theories in the first place. A story ought not have any emotional impact on us if we refuse to believe it in the first place, except maybe for laughter.

As I said earlier, the best predictor of whether you believe a conspiracy theory is whether you believe in at least one other conspiracy theory. But there are other factors at play:

  • A propensity for magical thinking: supernatural beliefs, superstitions, the paranormal, and prophecies.
  • Feelings of anxiety or powerlessness cause people to see nonexistent patterns in experimental settings, and tend to correlate with belief in conspiracy theories in the real world.
  • Similarly, natural disasters or threats of joblessness tend to inspire belief in conspiracy theories.
  • The most widely believed conspiracy theories are also those that seem the most plausible, regardless of evidence. Belief in JFK assassination conspiracies or withheld cancer cures are very common, while belief in things like reptilian Illuminati are much less widely believed.

Again, conspiracy theories aren't just successful because they're emotionally intense, they're successful because they are believed, and they're believed because of the personality of the reader, the state of fear and powerlessness they have in a given context, and because the theory itself is framed in such a way as to seem reasonable to the reader.

What Does This Have To Do With Earning Web Traffic, Assuming You're Not a Conspiracy Theorist?

The popularity of conspiracy theories on the internet is informative if earning online popularity is something you strive for. I'm strongly opposed to the idea of spreading misinformation for attention, with the possible exception of the occasional April Fools joke. Even so, conspiracy theories have a lot to tell us about earning attention on the internet:

  • The most popular conspiracy theories are also the ones that seem most plausible: the hardest to reject on their sheer lunacy. This is because of a brain quirk called "belief bias," which I also discussed at HubSpot. Belief bias causes us to accept things not because they are logically consistent, but because they seem plausible, as opposed to outlandish. In short, if you want to be convincing, sometimes it's better to focus on points that are easier to believe in the first place. This means focusing on simple and emotional explanations as often, if not more often, than logic.
  • Conspiracy theories rely extensively on their ability to make the reader see the world from a different point of view. We need not venture into conspiracy theory territory to achieve results like this. Consider authors like Dan Pink and Malcolm Gladwell, or books like Freakonomics, which frame our everyday experiences in science-inspired viewpoints, changing the way we see the world.
  • Conspiracy theories also have a way of tying isolated events together, presenting the world through the lens of a common narrative. Making connections in this way is very pleasing, and it contributes to the sense of awe discussed above. Again, there's no need to put on a tin foil hat in order to do this. Drawing unexpected connections and fitting events, systems, and concepts into a common narrative is something all of us can do. While I tend to think that it's a bad idea to look at everything through the same lens, consolidating disparate ideas with a shared explanation can be very satisfying for your audience, as well as for yourself.
  • A good conspiracy theory knows its audience. It's written for people who are prone to magical thinking and anxiety. I would argue that conspiracy theories take advantage of these people, intentionally or not, but they are certainly written with their audience in mind. Many content marketers fail to identify the psychology of their target audience. They focus on topics, and sometimes demographics, but they rarely consider the thinking style of the reader.
  • Conspiracy theories exemplify, perhaps more than anything else, how people make decisions primarily based on emotions, and that "logic" (or a reasonable facsimile of it) is only used to justify those decisions. The most rational or skeptical among us will be pulled in by emotions or hunches, and wait for the logic to give us the final push. Very few, if any, human beings genuinely make decisions based on logic. The conspiracy theory lays bare how we really think. It would be wise to take this into consideration.

As I mentioned before, there's one big factor on Jonah Berger's list of emotions that impact sharing that's missing from conspiracy theories: practicality. Reality-based theories, narratives, and lenses might not be able to compete with conspiracy theories in terms of inciting outrage or anxiety, but we can offer something no conspiracy theory ever can: solutions. 

I'm sure I've said it before and I know I'll say it again: content that produces a real, tangible difference in the reader's life is going to stand out immensely.

Let's one-up the conspiracy theories, and give readers something they can use.

Read more in this series:

The Novelty Bubble.

The 7 C's, Part 2, Celebrities.

The 7 C's, Part 3, Comedy.