A conspiracy theorist, or CT, is a person that believes or perpetuates a set of ideas based on conjecture surrounding established historical events. These ideas are typically coupled with a mindset that involves open contempt for government or certain organizations. Their convictions generally point to an elaborate plot or sinister coverup that hasn't yet been fully revealed to the general public. Confirmation bias is a term describing how CTs select certain facts that add more weight or support to their conspiracy argument while ignoring other key facts. Along these lines, facts are often taken out of context to support their hypothesis. In some cases, CTs may reject well-founded historical facts altogether like claiming the holocaust never happened at all. Popular conspiracy theories include ideas like 9/11 was a hoax, NASA faked the moon landings, the Pearl Harbor attack was orchestrated by the U.S. government, Princess Diana was killed by British Intelligence, or President Obama wasn't born in the U.S. and has ties to subversive groups.
Some people label conspiracy theorists as delusional with mental health related issues like schizophrenia, however, this is not always the case. Many CTs are simply misinformed people led astray by fringe media sources and are not mentally ill. Other CTs may use a conspiracy theory to advance their own political agenda , for personal financial gain, or to assert power over others much like a cult. Some may only half-heartedly believe the actual myths, but feel compelled to perpetuate untruths in order to get more followers. Also, individuals seeking identity may cling to a conspiracy theory for social recognition in one form or another. Often the lure of conspiracies is that it makes the believer feel special, in his own eyes and the eyes of other believers. Conspiracy theories can be born from schizophrenia, from the pareidolia of an otherwise healthy person, and from the occasional vulnerability of a truly creative person as Kevin Goodman points out.
Conspiracy theories can create harm by removing the blame from the actual perpetrators of crimes or the real problems at hand. These distractions have surrounded cases such as the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, the Columbine High School massacre, the 9/11 attacks, and the Colorado theater shootings. Misinformation has devastating effects on the victims, victims' families, and the overall morale of society. It can also disrupt ongoing law enforcement investigations. Many reported cases have been documented where innocent people have been harrassed by conspiracy theorists online, through accusatory e-mails, telephone calls, and some have even had fake social media accounts setup under their names like Gene Rosen. The spread of conspiracy theories can also have an impact on the mentally ill by legitimizing their delusions.
It's safe to say that many people enjoy discussing conspiracy theories as a kind of "what if" in conversation. For example, it's interesting to talk about UFOs or the Rosewell conspiracy theory even though there's no hard evidence to support these ideas. Simply discussing these theories does not mean you are a conspiracy theorist, mentally ill, or causing any harm.
Internet communication technologies have provided a means for spreading prevailing popular views, and like never before, are being used for broadcasting fringe ideas; certain ideas that depart significantly from the mainstream. Advancements in the last decade have given rise to streamlined social media platforms. This has helped spawn and elevate formerly obscure players to compete with legitimate sources of information on an equal playing field. Any person, even a follower of a conspiracy theory, can soar to great heights of notoriety and even wealth, practically overnight, and depending on what today's search engine algorithms like. At its core, this is freedom of speech at its best, especially as it relates to people reporting real facts. Unfortunately the Internet has become a murky world, littered with myths, half-truths, and conspiracy theories. Fringe elements and conspiracy opportunists have helped pave what some call the misinformation super highway. In some ways the Internet has replaced the grocery store tabloid. Controversy is easy, and it makes money as a business model for anyone with access to the Internet and a keyboard. A growing number of opportunitsts have discovered this.