Conspiracy theories are not new, but thanks to the Internet and social media, technology makes them spread much faster than in the past before such innovations became prominent. Not surprisingly, technology itself is the subject of many conspiracy theories. Technology makes it easier for bad actors to carry out their tactics, plus it gives those plans a broader reach. Here are five of the top tech conspiracies that have been debunked through the years.
5. Facebook Does Not Listen to Users for Ad-Targeting Purposes
The rise of phone-based voice recognition tools makes people suspicious that their smartphones are listening while they use Facebook, allowing the site to provide advertising content that matches what people say. Debunking conspiracy theories like this one isn’t always easy, but several experts have noted that the idea is implausible. They point out that the frequent data transmissions would cause people to see strangely high charges for services. Plus, when people use the Internet, companies including Google and Facebook use trackers that keep tabs on where people go online. That means they already know enough about Internet users that they don’t have to resort to getting data by listening to people who have smartphones.
Facebook has denied this conspiracy theory, but that doesn’t mean other apps don’t listen to what people say. One investigation found hundreds of apps that attempt to find out about people for advertising purposes. So, Facebook isn’t listening, but other sites and apps may be.
4. The Government Is Not Spying Through Microwave Ovens
Debunking conspiracy theories might require looking at technology that existed before the Internet was widely available. One example is the fear that government agencies are spying on people through their microwaves. Michael Hayden, the former head of the CIA and the NSA, said last year in an appearance on Steven Colbert’s show that doesn’t happen to American citizens. Plus, people point out the various logistics that make microwaves unsuitable for spying. First, a microwave couldn’t transmit images unless it had an outward-facing webcam. Also, voice-activated microwaves — and those that connect to the Internet — are still relatively rare. Amazon recently released an Alexa-enabled microwave, but reviewers said it offered a frustrating user experience.
Instances of the government engaging in spying do exist, but people need not worry that it’s happening through their microwaves. A more feasible concern is that hackers could come across government records, such as those associated with agency employees, and leak sensitive information. A recent example happened when cybercriminals accessed and published the personal details of 20,000 people working for the FBI.
3. NASA Didn’t Admit Giving Americans Lithium Through Chemtrails
Some people have long been suspicious that airplanes are exposing Americans to tranquilizers or other drugs through chemtrails. This conspiracy theory reached a fever pitch due to a 2016 article in which a NASA representative supposedly admitted it was happening. When people who devote themselves to debunking conspiracy theories dug deeper, though, they found several problems with the initial claim. First, a study that was cited as supposedly supporting this theory was about inhaled vaccines, not dosing people with airplanes. Plus, NASA representatives confirmed they have used lithium chemtrails since 1958 to study events in space and that the usage did not affect humans. This instance is merely a case of people twisting the agency’s goal for the progression of science into something sinister.
2. Microsoft Word Wingdings Font Doesn’t Have Secret Meanings
Wingdings is a symbols-only font in Microsoft Word, and many people use it to add personality to signs, calendars or similar things they create with the word processing program. However, other individuals apparently had too much time on their hands and were convinced they could find hidden meanings within the font. Starting in 1992, people pointed out that using Wingdings and typing the letters NYC resulted in a skull and crossbones, a Star of David and a thumbs-up sign. They believed the combination meant Microsoft was anti-Semitic, which launched an anti-Jewish conspiracy theory. Microsoft insisted that the combination of symbols was completely random and didn’t have a deeper meaning.
However, some people still believe that those who issue statements debunking conspiracy theories are only trying to hide things. That’s why this theory was publicized again soon after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Since the first allegations, Microsoft took pains to change the font, but it didn’t help. People came up with yet another theory. This time, they argued that if people typed in Q33NY — the supposed number of one of the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center — the Wingdings predicted the attack. However, that’s not an actual number associated with the event, and Microsoft again said there was no deeper meaning related to the Wingdings font.
1. Fears of Y2K Computer Bug Were Totally Overblown
It seems hard to believe now, but years ago people were concerned the year 2000 would make all our computers obsolete because the operating systems would not be able to handle the new date format. The U.S. government and companies spent an estimated $100 billion trying to solve the “problem.” Many brands even set up entire departments to help people prepare for what was supposedly ahead. Some computer companies offered Y2K compliant programs.
Those specialized offerings undoubtedly boosted companies’ profits, but as it turned out, the conspiracy theorists were wrong. In the end, the so-called Y2K bug didn’t cause the problems people feared. As an example, countries such as South Korea and Russia spent far less than the United States did to combat the expected threat, but those nations didn’t have any more issues due to the lack of preparedness.
This list of tech-related conspiracy theories demonstrates that it doesn’t take much to get people worried about what would happen if their favorite tech gadgets turn against them or otherwise show unsettling characteristics. However, the debunked theories noted above also highlight why it’s so important to think critically and not automatically believe everything you hear or read — especially if the theory takes an alarmist tone.
Kayla Matthews is a tech writer and productivity-obsessed Pittsburgher whose work has been featured on Digital Trends, The Week, VentureBeat, and others. When she’s not drinking coffee, she’s probably daydreaming about coffee. To see more of her work, check out Productivity Bytes or follow her on Twitter @KaylaEMatthews.