Scott: Not Just Boomers: Young People Are Falling for Internet Conspiracies

A student sita in the Marriott library to work on her online class, Monday, August 31, 2015.

A student sita in the Marriott library to work on her online class, Monday, August 31, 2015.

By Elise Scott, Opinion Writer


If asked to describe the demographic most likely to post wildly sensationalist and factually-challenged political content on social media, many people would single out baby boomers. This is understandable, considering the 2019 popularization of “OK boomer” and the dated aesthetics (bold text, odd capitalization, pixilation and vignette borders) associated with conspiracy theory memes on Facebook, the social media platform of choice for many older users. Between Boomer Email – a newsletter than harvests truly outrageous (and real) email chains – and the fact that almost everyone has an older relative who has fallen for an Onion article, lampooning the media literacy of older generations is a popular sport.

But we have made a mistake in assuming that sharing stupid stuff online is exclusive to older age groups. Younger generations might have been raised on the internet, but, as recent TikTok and Instagram trends have demonstrated, they are far from impervious to the grifts of propagandists and conspiracy theorists. Technological literacy does not translate to media literacy, and young people may be duped far more often than we realize.

We often assume that people who believe in conspiracy theories are uninformed, unintelligent and generally abnormal — an assumption that obfuscates the nature of conspiracy, even as it stealthily draws bright and eager young people into its dark recesses. In Ellen Cushing’s Atlantic piece “I Was a Teenage Conspiracy Theorist,” she argues that “The tragedy of conspiracism isn’t that it is the absence of thinking, but the misapplication of it.” We all know what fake news is, but none of us consider ourselves to be the type of person who falls for it. We all privately think “I know how to analyze information, I know the truth”– a dangerous delusion in a world where manipulative infotainment is just a click away.

Young People Invest Their Time and Themselves Into Online Spaces

According to a 2019 report from Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that promotes safe technology and media for children, teens in the United States “spend an average of seven hours and 22 minutes on their phones a day” — roughly equivalent to the American school day. And it’s not just time that young people are investing — they are pouring themselves, via personal profiles, photos and algorithms, into a digital world that rewards extremity and oversimplification.

And they know how to play along. No one is more internet savvy than young people, and users who cultivate a respectable social media following understand the necessity of generating interest — in other words, they must drive clicks and shares by doing some clicking and sharing of their own. It’s not just selfies and cat photos — by seeding your cutesy, inspirational Instagram account with conspiratorial claims, you open up an entirely new market for your posts. Play the game, reap a potential reward.

Frustrated By the System, Many Resist Identifying With Mainstream Politics

Older Republicans and Democrats share fake news fairly equally (though one study did find that Republicans were 14% more likely to share hoaxes than Democrats), but I’m not convinced that today’s young people are yet partisan enough to be as neatly sorted as the older generations, who have had time to grow into their beliefs. Frustration with partisanship remains high, and according to a Business Insider survey of Gen Z participants, “the majority did not identify as either conservative or liberal.”

Political identity is downright tumultuous during early adulthood, and social media may have the greatest influence in shaping and solidifying of young peoples’ beliefs. TikTok teens of all political leanings are exposed to Pizzagate and QAnon conspiracies, misinformation about COVID-19 and misleading Trump content. Twitter encourages users to be reactionary and overly simplistic, boiling nuanced analysis down until it fits into a pithy 280 characters. YouTube has something for everyone, with an “autoplay” feature that guides viewers to the most extreme version of whatever their ideology is. There’s no going back to a pre-social media age. Wherever their political homes end up being, these young people will take their conspiracy theories with them.

Conspiracies and Misinformation Are Shaping An Entire Generation of Voters

Two things are clear: young people are influenced by the hours they devote to social media, and they are currently developing nuanced political identities. These two factors, combined with 2020’s constant stream of devastation, have prepared them to buck the system, incite reactions and, above all, reject mainstream narratives.

And while it would be foolish to imply that a thing is good purely because it is mainstream, it is worrying to see such obstinate suspicion toward mainstream accounts that have been verified over and over again (such as the debunking of the Wayfair and Pizzagate child-trafficking conspiracies). Similarly, while we cannot ignore the way some conspiracies uncannily reflect some peoples’ lived experiences, it does not help anyone to waste energy jumping at shadows.

The memeification of conspiracies has somehow managed to combine the worst of political and internet culture into an unkillable beast. Heavy, real-world problems are interwoven with apocalyptic panache, deep fears are given teeth and it is all wrapped up to be delivered instantaneously via smartphone. It is all so impressively efficient. Though, of course, it comes at a cost – namely the confidence and critical thinking skills of young people. The steady collision of social media and conspiracy theories has placed us on a frightening path, and it is difficult to see how we might accomplish a course correction at the level we need. Soon it won’t matter how outrageous the claims become, because as long as you meme it, they will post.


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