In this report we have outlined some of the many harms that conspiracy theories have on individuals and on society at large. Our polling has also given an overview of why some segments of the population are overrepresented among believers in conspiracy theory. The inevitable conclusion is that conspiracy theory is a complex problem which requires multiple different solutions.
To completely stop the spread of all forms of conspiracy theory is probably not a realistic endeavour. There are many reasons for the attraction and spread of conspiracy theory and elements intrinsic to it makes attempts to debunk and debate it hard. Mistrust in government, experts and media make it likely that those challenging ideas are turned on their head and perversely end up reinforcing rather than weakening a conspiracy theorist’s conviction. However, there are urgent steps that could be taken to stave at least some of the spread.
The solutions come in two broad areas, those aiming to stem the spread of misinformation promoting conspiracy theories and those that address the deeper causes which fuel the attraction to conspiracy theories.
HAMPERING THE SPREAD OF MISINFORMATION
While certain experiences might make someone prone to believe in conspiracy theories, it is people and organisations that give this sentiment both direction and fuel.
Though some might be spurred by a genuine though erroneous belief in a theory, there are also both ideological and monetary reasons to propagate conspiracy theories. British conspiracy theorist Paul Joseph Watson is currently selling Vitamin D “enhancers” alongside his videos covering the corona pandemic, and his InfoWars colleague Alex Jones was marketing his “Nano Silver” toothpaste as a cure of Covid-19 before he was ordered to stop by the New York State attorney general and the US Food and Drug Administration. There is profit to be made from conspiracy theory.
Social media platforms need to take the danger of conspiracy theory seriously and go beyond flagging it with warning texts. While YouTube, for example, has made some attempts to limit the spread of conspiracy theories through attempting to avoid recommending its most extreme videos and by supplying links with accurate information to Wikipedia, the videos often remain on the platform they can continue to be shared extensively by users.
Similarly, while some conspiracy theory material is already demonetised on YouTube – meaning that the creator is not getting any advertising revenue, as the example of Watson shows – conspiracy theorists can still advertise to sell items outside of YouTube. Only removing the content and conspiracy theorists from the website will stop this effectively which in turn will lower the incentives to spread conspiracy theory propaganda.
Moreover, this type of fact-checking can easily feed into the attraction of the conspiracy theory itself by creating the feeling of taboo and transgressive excitement, making the potential believer more convinced that the information they are trying to access is being suppressed by the powers that be.
Currently, content propagating the idea that the coronavirus is a hoax, provides a clear example of how conspiracy theory can cause real harm by discouraging people from accessing health care services and observing social distancing guidelines. Alongside this, many conspiracy theories scapegoat minority groups, risking their safety and breeding racism. Social media platforms moderation guidelines need to start to consider more kinds of conspiracy theory harmful and actively prevent its spread through tougher moderation.
Decisive moderation of conspiracy theory material will inevitably spark a feeling of being repressed for those who already believe in conspiracy theory but this is a small minority compared to everyone a virtual conspiracy theory video will reach. We must, therefore, prioritise stopping the spread.
To focus solely on social media platforms would however also miss other contributors. Mainstream media outlets continue to platform conspiracy theorists like David Icke and give credence to misinformation about minorities and the current pandemic. A recent example is the ITV presenter Eamonn Holmes giving credence to 5G conspiracy theories by saying that criticism towards it “suits the state narrative”. Mainstream media also has a responsibility to hamper the spread of conspiracy theory by not giving it a platform.
THE UNDERLYING CAUSES
We can not expect conspiracy theory to go away without giving an alternative to those who believe in it. Conspiracy theory fills a purpose. It gives a sense of belonging to those in conspiracy theory communities and it provides explanations in a chaotic world. It is not a coincidence that those who have the lowest income and least belief that the political system acts in their interests are also those that are most prone to conspiracy theory.
This is more complicated than staving the spread of conspiracy theory propaganda but as crucial. Countering peoples belief through fact-checking and debunking is an approach that most likely to resonant with the typology of the anti-conspiracists rather than the typology of the Conspiracy theorist and Uncertain Believer. Anti-conspiracy interventions that are emphatic, does not impose a singular “correct” view but seek out new ways to contextualise hardship through accurate information, and come from actors that already have some level of trust will be important.
Conspiracy theory is in some ways a symptom as much as a cause of cynical outlook on politics and society at large. In-part being a product of a cynical outlook on politics as well as enforcing the feeling that actions have little chance of affecting change. It is all a setup. These are issues that call for deep changes. Any solution will require engagement and serious structural, political and financial commitment.