1. Links to an authentic-looking BBC News article circulated for a while on social media Monday with the headline “Doubts raised over authenticity of Charlie Hebdo footage.”

    However, the article and the embedded YouTube video, which also included a BBC News logo and theme, were fake.
  2. The page looked very much as though it were part of the BBC News website, with working links to other sections and related stories, but it was hosted on bbc-news.co.uk, which is not an official BBC address.

    The site has since been taken down.

    The apparent goal of the elaborate ruse was to advance the conspiracy theory that the shootings at Charlie Hebdo in Paris last week had been staged by a powerful organization for shadowy, unknown purposes.

    This kind of conspiratorial thinking has become more and more prevalent in the Western world since the beginning of the 20th century, says Martha Lee, a political science professor at the University of Windsor and author of Conspiracy Rising.

    “In North America, we tend to see conspiracy theories that are not just about single events but that link a number of particular events in a larger conspiratorial framework,” she said.

    People who believe in such theories, Lee says, are seeking a purpose or rationale for the disturbing events that occur in a changing world. Conspiracy theories often crop up around deadly attacks that are hard to explain, such as the Ottawa shooting in October, the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012 and the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

    “It is terrifying to live in our modern world. You never know what’s going to happen. Conspiracy theories provide a rationale for what does happen. They very often tell us that nothing is what it seems and everything is connected,” she said.

    It seems counterintuitive, but attributing a rationale — even one that involves a global conspiracy — is in some way comforting, Lee said.

    “There’s a double-edged sword there. It’s a terrifying picture in one way, to think about someone or something orchestrating these events. On the other hand, [people are] finding security in that kind of belief,” she said.

    The attacks of 9/11 coincided with the rise of blogs, and with that came an ease of online publication that was a boon to conspiracy theorists.

    “The internet, and social media in particular, of course, provide everyone with as much information as they could possibly ever read in their lifetime,” she said. “Amongst this universe of information, it’s very hard to find trusted sources.”

    On social media, people tend to like and follow other people who think like they do.

    This is why people who are likely to believe that, say, the Illuminati controls governments, banks and media to its own end, tend to find each other.

    “People are left on their own — or through the connections of social media, amongst groups of like believers — to latch on to these ideas that may not bear any resemblance to reality,” Lee said.

    YouTube in particular seems to be popular among conspiracy theorists because hunting for anomalies in videos of news events has been a pastime of theirs since the Zapruder film of the Kennedy assassination.

    “Like social media in general, YouTube provides a forum for anyone who has a particular gripe against the government or against a particular group to spread their ideology far and wide,” she said.

    The medium of online video is attractive to conspiracy believers for other reasons, too.

    “The fact that you can capture things in video that may be more compelling than a lengthy argument in an academic journal article also speaks volumes. You can see something and assume that what you’re seeing is the truth,” said Lee.
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