Go back in time twenty or more years and conspiracy theorists were viewed as pretty kooky by the rest of the world whether the conspiracy be the Kennedy assassination, the Moon landing, UFOs, the New World Order, the Priory of Sion, Holocaust denial or even that the government is poisoning the water supply, to mention but a few.
Fast forward to the present day, an era in which information is much more readily available than ever before, and not only have these conspiracies not been put to rest but they've actually grown in credibility. How has this happened? How is it that there is even a 9/11 'truth' movement?
The difference is the Internet.
The Internet has allowed people with like-minded views to gather in one spot, metaphorically, discuss their opinions, knock off the rough edges, develop counters to any argument and promote their positions in a much more focused way than ever before whether the position be from either end of the political spectrum or single issue focused.
It is often commented on that we live in an age of cognitive dissonance, one in which facts are not required in order to hold a particular opinion. The most glaring of these is Holocaust denial. In spite of the Holocaust being the most widely studied topic in the history of mankind there are those that either refuse to believe that it happened or minimise the number of victims involved. The number of myths spread in this way against Israel, for example, seems to increase on a near daily basis.
The barrage of reasonable-sounding opinion presented as fact has had one very negative impact - it has lowered the level of evidence required for people to give a particular position more than zero credibility. It is in this environment that we see totalitarian extremists held up as being members of a religion of peace defending themselves from outsiders. We see the rise of the scatological 9/11 truth movement. We see recidivist fact distorter Michael Moore continue to pump out documentaries made in the name of exposing the truth. This lowering of the standard of evidence even goes some way to explaining why people have bought into the catastrophic predictions made by the global warming doom merchants when the facts show that any change will be quite mild.
There is probably no greater example of opinion substituting for fact than the free encyclopaedia, Wikipedia. Pick a subject that does not have a political bent to it and you'll find that the information presented and the comments in the discussion pages are largely non-controversial. For example, the pages on the Supermarine Spitfire or the Andes flight disaster are a good reference point for information on those topics. However, try picking global warming and check out the discussion/edit pages and you'll see exactly the problem. As in the mainstream media, all information that doesn't support the 'consensus' is edited out. Try looking up socialism and check for balance. The socialist experiment knocked off nearly one hundred million people in the twentieth century but you'd never know that from Wikipedia. Unlike a real encyclopaedia, Wikipedia allows anyone to add or remove information regardless of their qualifications thus allowing opinion to trump fact and a hard political slant to be inserted.
It's difficult to see how this new phenomenon will actually be brought into check. Those with strong leftist political opinions seem to be more motivated to force their views onto the world than those from the right, which is why Wikipedia can end up with such a left wing slant to it. Even sites like Digg.com have developed a culture of burying articles that don't agree with a left wing political viewpoint regardless of their accuracy. When opinion replaces the need for hard facts you end up with a situation that leads to the views of a Lysenko or Lamarck being accepted as fact (if you study Lysenko, particularly, you'll see a lot of parallels with today's global warming proponents).
Welcome to the age of Internet Opinion.