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Conspiracy Theories Deconstructed

In March 2011, Nolan DiFrancesco, a Hopkins junior who was studying at the American University of Beirut in Lebanon, received a text from a fellow student that classes were going to be cancelled due to rain. But this wasn’t just ordinary rain.

It was radioactive.

Ten thousand miles away, several Japanese reactors were leaking radioactive material as a result of the recent earthquake, and people in the Lebanese capital were panicked. “There was this mass text campaign going around saying that the rain could cause cancer, even though there had been numerous articles that had noted it wasn’t harmful,” DiFrancesco says.

For the international studies major, it was the perfect example of how misinformation and conspiracy theories can spread, like, well, nuclear fallout, in the Middle East. “Conspiracy theories exist everywhere but there’s something about the Muslim world at large where they play a significant role in public debate,” he says. “Information is somehow created to fit a narrative instead of the other way around.”

When he returned to the United States, DiFrancesco, a recipient of a Provost’s Undergraduate Research Award, who had been studying the role of social media in the changing political dynamics of the Middle East for his senior thesis, decided instead to focus on conspiracy theories in the Arab world and the role of technology in spreading them. Specifically, he’s looking into one of the greatest supposed “hoaxes” of them all: the death of Osama bin Laden.

DiFrancesco was in Beirut when bin Laden was killed and witnessed firsthand the reaction of many regarding the news’ veracity. “Some were accepting of what every major news organization was reporting, but a lot of people believed he was still alive and that the Obama Administration was just trying to gain political points. Other people thought that he was already dead and that the Bush Administration had to [falsely] keep him alive in order to justify the war on terror. Others even believed he was frozen away in some U.S. government refrigerator.”

DiFrancesco has been tracking the digital history of the discussion on extremist social media sites in order to plot how the conspiracy theory started and trace the pathways by which it spread. He also hopes to interview members of the U.S. State Department team that is dedicated to combating conspiratorial or other anti-American posts online. “I’d love to see if that program is working or not,” he says.

And, he notes, while many credit social media with fueling the Arab Spring, DiFrancesco believes it can also empower conspiracy theorists. “Social media and new technology in general, for all the promise it holds, just enforces existing political and social conditions,” he says. “If people are inclined to believe in irrational views—even with access to new information—they will. Technology does not change the way people think, but lets them be more active in a discussion that confirms their own biases.”

DiFrancesco ultimately hopes to publish his thesis and someday to return to the Middle East, an area he finds so different than what he expected. “Growing up in the 9/11 generation and seeing images, I always assumed there might be something we might not be getting by the conventional way of looking at things,” he says. “By being there you get a remarkable look at a part of the world that is so often misunderstood.”