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SocietyMay 13, 2020

How to identify a conspiracy theory and stop the spread of misinformation


Fear and vulnerability, plus plenty of spare time to head down internet rabbitholes, means fake conspiracy theories are seeing the light more than ever. Here are some simple steps you can take to combat them.

Right now, in Aotearoa and the world, we’re seeing an increase in conspiracy theories, and sometimes, real-world damage because some people believe them.

I have a computer science degree, am a board member of the Institute of IT Professionals (Te Pou Hangarau Ngaio), and a lead judge of the NZ Hi-Tech Awards. But I will not tell you what to believe, nor provide a single example of a conspiracy theory to distract you. Instead, let’s look at the tools that can help you unpack them.

In its basic form, a conspiracy theory is simply a theory about a conspiracy – that is, where two or more people work secretly to make something happen. There’s nothing wrong with that. Real conspiracies exist. Many have been proven true, but always (and this is important) after independent, official investigations based on verifiable evidence.

Conspiracy theories appear on our social media daily and cause us to feel anxious. We don’t know who the experts are any more. We doubt authorities who we may have previously trusted. Legitimate information is muddled with false information. Our world becomes uncertain.

Conspiracy theories have always been around, but the current crisis is making them more visible. They’re getting more reach and having more impact because people are already feeling vulnerable and have had plenty of time in lockdown to look at stuff they’d normally pass by.

What are the tactics of a false conspiracy theorist? The most effective provide a hybrid of real and false evidence, and even as the evidence is debunked, they pivot or evolve to fresh “evidence” to keep the conspiracy theory alive.

The more sophisticated conspiracy theorists boost their reach using multiple fake accounts and small automated computer programmes that push the conspiracy theories to their audiences. They create enormous surges in posts that humans alone couldn’t achieve. Yes, you’re being fed your daily dose of conspiracies by “bots”.

What kinds of conspiracy theories should we worry about?

Some are created for nefarious reasons. The motives are usually money (scams) or power (political) or both. The most harmful conspiracy theories claim that powerful groups are secretly plotting our demise, and our lives or lifestyles are at risk.

These conspiracy theories cause sustained fear and hopelessness, potentially leading to serious mental health effects. They reduce our trust in experts, institutions, authorities, the government, even when they’re not linked to any allegations. They influence our thinking, popularise their beliefs, and radicalise people towards certain objectives.

Who is more likely to believe a conspiracy theory?

It’s hard, right? To tell your friends you think they might be paranoid, easily led, and annoying? So share this article with them instead.

The people most likely to believe false conspiracy theories may have a cluster of characteristics. They could have a suspicious attitude towards authority generally. Some may present themselves as different, a rebel, or an activist. Others may have a low level of education and no formal training in a methodological approach to research. With all the suffering and corruption around the world, conspiracy theories provide a way for some of our friends to cope. There is comfort in the idea that some group is responsible. Perhaps then it can be dealt with – a visible enemy. And some people may attach a conspiracy to their sense of identity. So, to challenge them about their belief is to fundamentally challenge who they are.

It’s a lot, I know. We should ask ourselves whether we have some of these traits too, before we side-eye our friends.

I asked people using Facebook to share the effects of conspiracy theories on them. Here’s a snapshot:

“The friendship I thought I had is not robust enough to survive a discussion of ideas. The experience led to me needing to distance myself from them.”

“I’ve seen some aggressive verbal abuse by these guys who are stuck on some conspiracy theory and can’t handle any challenges.”

“Conspiracy theories are not isolated from all the other dysfunctions around us. Its basis is in trauma.”

“The person disseminating the tūtae (faeces) becomes a precious object that has to be tiptoed around. Elephants are in the room instead of adults.”

“Some guys are just wannabe modern day activists. They look ridiculous. They should find a genuine cause.”

“Lots of friends have sent me conspiracy theories in a private message. Why? Are they afraid someone will judge them if they post it on their page? Do they want me to tell them to believe it?”

Photo: Getty Images

How can we identify false conspiracy theories?

The goal is not to discredit all conspiracy theories. The goal is to understand whether they’re worth our attention.

A useful way to uncover false conspiracy theories is to develop a healthy scepticism, seek evidence, and look for wide-ranging consistency. Except, most of us are not trained researchers or experts in whatever the conspiracy theory topic is about, and have no access to the original source evidence.

But we can shake out most of the chaff.

Let’s say your friend shares a video of a doctor or engineer or someone with letters after their name. First, they list their credentials. Then they claim an elite group is using some nasty biological or technological tactic to get richer or get global domination. And your freedom or your life is at stake. It is war and there are enemies in every corner.

How can we check this?

Three things you can do right now

1. Slow the spread. If you think it could be a conspiracy theory, it probably is.

If in doubt, if you’re “just” exploring, if you think it’s humorous – don’t share, and don’t engage. Don’t put your vulnerable mates at risk and don’t tarnish your reputation.

2. Fact check. Use a reputable fact-checker specialising in hoaxes and scams. Here are some that I’ve found to be reliable and consistent: Snopes (US), Full Fact (UK) and RMIT ABC Fact Check (Australia).

Note: Facebook is rolling out a tool that alerts users to disputed content. The platform has partnered with independent third-party, certified fact-checkers to curb the spread of disinformation. It’s still being tested and hasn’t arrived in New Zealand yet. Is there a chance this could be a tool for censorship and the suppression of truth? Yes. Keep in mind, this already happens on a massive scale.

3. Google for the hoax. Google the headline or some of the text from the conspiracy theory post, with the word “fake” or “hoax” and see what comes up.

Six more things you can do if you’re super keen

4. Check the expert. The expert’s name may exist in real life, but it doesn’t make the person on your screen real. Are their credentials listed anywhere else? How many reputable websites name them? Does the expert have a long verifiable history of academic or industry publications? Can you find some of them in independent websites? Does the expert’s speciality qualify them for having an expert opinion on the exact topic of the conspiracy theory?

5. Check photos. Could the photo in the post be from some other event? Drag the photo onto your desktop, then put it into Google Images search and find out where it really comes from.

6. Check other news outlets. Are other reputable news outlets reporting it? How many?

7. Click the links. Do they go to credible independent websites or just more of the same? No links, quotes or references? Not good. Lots of “clickbait” advertisements? Not good. Selling their latest book? Not good.

8. The poster claims their posts get removed because “they” don’t won’t you to find out the truth – ask yourself if this is true, or is it simply because the increasing pressure on popular social media platforms means they’re getting better at removing harmful disinformation?

9. Ask if this is an emotional trigger. If a conspiracy theory post makes you angry, it’s designed that way. Conspiracy theorists play on emotions. The more angry they can make you, the more likely you are to impose their conspiracy theory on your buddies, or take action.

What if I no longer support a conspiracy theory – will I look like a fool?

We don’t want to look stupid, or to appear gullible or afraid. So, if you think you’ve made a mistake by supporting and sharing a conspiracy theory you no longer believe in, then the next step is easy. Just stop. Quietly step away from your screen and go and make us a cup of tea.

Robyn Kamira (Te Rarawa) is founder of New Zealand technology company Paua Interface Ltd
Keep going!