South Park’s 2016 season depicts an international crisis caused by a bunch of trolls and a president who is elected as a result of online disinformation. To avoid a third world war, the show’s main characters manage to destroy the internet in the final episode and give everyone a clean slate. Local news covers the first email sent on the new internet and we are quickly reminded that it’s not the internet that’s at fault but the people using it. In this week’s newsletter, today’s trolls, their tactics, and the intended and unintended consequences of their actions.

“After Trump sends note to Ginsburg” — you may have spotted it in your own YouTube feed, a video with significant views and engagement, but with a strange title. Surely, it’s clickbait. But YouTube star SmarterEveryDay opted to investigate the phenomenon and decided to figure out more behind the “viral” computer-voiced fake news vids and the spread of disinformation. In his video, he visits YouTube HQ, looks into online video software’s role, and talks with Renee DiResta — the director of research at New Knowledge — on how bad actors are able to manipulate social media algorithms.

“Regardless of whether this material is made in some far-off land to make a quick buck, or it is from a malicious nation trying to influence a foreign election, it is all taking advantage of this flaw in our heart – to fight with thy neighbor,” says the YouTube star, adding that the trolls make us hate each other, while taking our money.  

Why it matters: Social media giants and governments are working to limit the spread of fake news, trying to keep up with disinformation’s new tactics. But while doing so, new laws and regulations governments design give space to government censorship and the limiting of free press, while social media companies’ attempts are often after-the-fact when the damage has already been done.

Dig Deeper: “In a warm information war, the human mind is the territory. If you aren’t a combatant, you are the territory. And once a combatant wins over a sufficient number of minds, they have the power to influence culture and society, policy and politics,” warns Renee DiResta in her essay “The Digital Maginot Line.” While we prepared out digital defense line for cyber hacks, the cyber warriors instead went straight to the people.

And while the cyber warriors find their way into our hearts and minds, so have they been able to spread conspiracy theories and cults. Although the response to Donald Trump’s claim that windmills cause cancer has been met with derision, the spread of conspiracy theories online is more worrying. WhatsApp conspiracy theories leading to murder in India, the “Pizzagate” conspiracy, and Q-Anon supporters believing all of Trump’s enemies will be arrested and executed for being murderous child-eating pedophiles.

How it works: Dylan Roof, who murdered nine people, said that after hearing about Trayvon Martin’s death he decided to Google him, finding an abundance of links to “black on white crime.” Radicalization in today’s world, often starts with a simple question online. Our story on HIV denialists in Russia shows how one simple search online can drag people into online groups and forums in which they are bombarded with the conspiracies, finding “like-minded’ new friends and alienating themselves from friends and family – just as the old cults did before.

Although their beliefs may seem outrageous to many, they are so strong that even when confronted with evidence disproving them, they still reject reality. SCOTUSblog set up a small experiment to see how conspiracy theorists react to evidence disproving their idea by following 82 Twitter accounts with over 10,000 followers that tweeted claims or insinuations (including questions) about Ginsburg’s death or incapacity. When Ginsburg returned to the bench, the overwhelming majority either ignored it completely as if nothing happened or found some new conspiracy to rationalize it.

Why it matters: The number of people believing in conspiracy theories is growing. When researchers at the University of Chicago surveyed people in 2014, they found that about 50% of the population supported at least one conspiracy theory. But when they repeated the study in November 2018, this number had risen to 61%. In the UK, this number is also currently at around 60%, according to a study by the University of Cambridge.