How fake news leads to conspiracy theories

by Rosemary Smith, Getting Better Foundation, USA.

Besides being potentially avoidable tragedies, what do the Nashville Bomber, Russian Trolls, Black Lives Matter, Covington Catholic, Pizza Gate, Sandy Hook, Anti-Vaxx, Capitol Riots, and COVID Conspiracies all have in common? They’re all instances where a lack of media literacy led to destruction of property, health, or life… and, they were all avoidable.


  • Nashville Bomber: a belief, taken from online misinformation touting “5G paranoia” is believed to have motivated Anthony Warner’s desire to disrupt Tennessee’s cellular coverage with his RV’s explosives.
  • Russian Trolls: foreign adversaries have lots to gain by hiring and using tech geeks to create false social media personas… all in the interest of creating dissent.
  • Black Lives Matter: misperception that the BLM movement was formed by militants’ intent on abolishing police, has led to violent outbursts, rioting, and arrests.
  • Covington Catholic: misinformation spread on the internet using video taken out of context when school children were confronted on a Washington D.C. field trip.
  • Pizza Gate: a now debunked child sex ring and satanic conspiracy theory that went viral leading to a potential assault rifle shooting and incarceration of a North Carolina man.
  • Anti-Vaxx: identified as one of the top global health threats by the World Health Organization, the campaign not to vaccinate children is causing record new cases of measles, mumps, rubella, and tetanus.
  • Capitol Riots: Online manipulation causes a violent attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Screening of ”Trust Me” during educator media literacy workshops, Sibiu, Romania,

When we perform an internet search, we like reading what agrees with our beliefs, disregarding the rest. That’s called “confirmation bias”. And, when we can influence others to agree with us, it creates feelings of acceptance through oxytocin and dopamine “feel good” chemical drips in our brains. Dopamine is one of the most famous neurotransmitters in our nervous system. It is known as the neurotransmitter of pleasure. Oxytocin is the labor inducing neurotransmitter, thus the “social glue” that forges the bond between a mother and child.

As Dr. Paul Zak, neuroscientist at Claremont Graduate University & author of Trust Factor reasons, “Just like human touch, love, and empathy bring people together, these drips can forge relationships that help bring us closer”

… or lead us down roads that polarize and tear us apart. If our brains misinterpret these signals as the truth because they make us temporarily feel good, or smart, or influential, or loved, that’s powerful catalyst for spreading mistruths, misinformation, or disinformation!

Screening of ”Trust Me” during educator media literacy workshops, Sibiu, Romania,

As in the cases of fake news and conspiracy theories like the Nashville Bomber, Pizza Gate, and Anti-Vaxxers, people wittingly or unwittingly sharing their beliefs on social media ended up influencing another human who decided to act. “Human beings are… hard-wired… to pay attention to messages that create strong emotion” Says Renee Hobbs, Founder & Director of Media Education Lab, University of Rhode Island. “… from fear to lust to desire… to hate.”

We can choose. By becoming more media literate, we choose to check our facts prior to forming opinions in our own brains, thus setting our ways… ways that become difficult to change after time elapses and we age. Or we choose to spread mal, mis, disinformation… and hate… just to gain a short-term blast of dopamine from “likes” and “shares”. As with ingesting too much sugar or alcohol, in the long term, those continuous “drips” are bad for us.

Good actors are rising, and learning resources abound to help us identify factual, honest things to share. Check out for ideas and resources to help educate yourself and others. Better yet, take 90 minutes to watch “Trust Me”, a compelling documentary laden with personal stories where a lack of media literacy led to disastrous events. Then experts in psychology, journalism, and media literacy help guide us toward prevention and collaboration with others. It may just be the best 90 minutes of your year. And, just what our world needs to heal and progress.


Rosemary Smith, Managing Director – Getting Better Foundation