In confronting the post-truth machines I looked at different types of fake news and what could be done to counter them — Propaganda, Disinformation, Clickbait, and Conspiracy Theories. I mentioned that the researcher danah boyd defines agnotology as — “the strategic and purposeful production of ignorance”. Today, as ever, many forces are at play promoting agnotology — from governments, to corporations, to social movements. This ignorance in our society can easily lead to conspiracy theories.
In the conspiracy theory handbook (March 2020) the authors from several universities explain in detail what conspiracy theory is and what can be done about it. It’s a short read read and a handy reference. The prime differentiation is between actual conspiracy (e.g. VW diesel emission tests) and imagined conspiracy (e.g. JFK assassination). One comes with a perspective of healthy skepticism while the other from one of overriding suspicion. The authors say that conspiracy theories are popular because they address feelings of powerlessness, provide a way to explain unlikely events, help cope with threats, and dispute mainstream politics which can help make some minority movements feel special.
The handbook goes on to describe seven traits of conspiracy theories, using the CONSPIR model.
Several ways to counter conspiracy theories are provided and I prefer the idea of ‘Prebunking’ or getting ahead of the conspiracy. This is how George Lakoff explains it, “1) Repetition strengthens the synapses in neural circuits that people use in thinking 2) Whoever frames first has an advantage 3) Negating a frame activates and strengthens it.” —@GeorgeLakoff. Therefore, getting the message out first, and framing the conversation, is much better than countering any conspiracy theory after the fact.
With the wide use of consumer social media, and their dark sides, we need to actively engage in proactive messages on a continuous basis. Waiting for the conspiracy theorists to act first is a grave mistake. Their influence is greater than their numbers!
“Conspiracy theorists also have an outsized influence despite their small numbers. An analysis of over 2 million comments on the subreddit site r/conspiracy found that while only 5% of posters exhibited conspiratorial thinking, they were responsible for 64% of all comments. The most active author wrote 896,337 words, twice the length of the Lord of the Rings trilogy!”