Fake news and conspiracy theories part 1: understanding the problem

As the Macquarie Dictionary declares fake news the word of the decade the epidemic of fake news and conspiracy theories is not showing signs of abating.

However, the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communications (4C) has made three significant contributions to combating the epidemic – a handbook addressing conspiracy theories; a project to combat misinformation; and, another handbook on debunking fake news.

University of Bristol professor Stephan Lewandowsky and Mason 4C professor John Cook have produced The Conspiracy Theory Handbook which explains how people come to believe conspiracy theories and how and why they share them.

History as demonstrated that when people are fearful, believe they are powerless and can’t cope with threatening events they very often resort to conspiracy theories to explain their situation.

Equally often they look for scapegoats who are believed to be at the heart of the conspiracies – in the Christian world Jews and heretics; in the Muslim world heretics and Christians; and in the plague-ridden medieval times sins and sinners. Today it might be anyone from environmentalists to the news media or any convenient political opponent or out group which can be demonised.

The Conspiracy Theory Handbook explains the different factors that contribute to people believing and sharing conspiracy theories. It then looks at different responses to conspiracy theories, such as inoculation, debunking, and empowering people.

Most usefully it outlines seven traits which characterise conspiratorial thinking dubbing them with the acronym CONSPIR.

The first is the ability to simultaneously believe in ideas which are mutually contradictory. They cite as an example believing the theory that Princess Diana was murdered while also believing that she faked her own death. “This is because the theorists’ commitment to disbelieving the ‘official’ account is so absolute, it doesn’t bother them that the two are matter if their belief system is incoherent,” the Handbook says.

Second, is an overriding suspicion which involves a nihilistic degree of skepticism towards official accounts. The suspicion closes the mind and insulates the believer from accepting anything that doesn’t fit their conspiracy theory.

Third, the conspirators motives are always dodgy although the authors term this nefarious saying: “The motivations behind any presumed conspiracy are invariably assumed to be nefarious. Conspiracy theories never propose that the presumed conspirators have benign motivations.”

Fourth, whatever the truth of the matter something must be wrong. “Although conspiracy theorists may occasionally abandon specific ideas when they become untenable, those revisions don’t change their overall conclusion that ‘something must be wrong’ and the official account is actually based on deception.”

Fifth, conspiracy theorists are also paranoid and the authors term the theorists ‘persecuted victims’ who see themselves as victims of organized persecution. Simultaneously “they see themselves as brave antagonists taking on the villainous conspirators.” This results in a self-perception of  being both a victim and a hero.

Sixth, and perhaps unsurprisingly, the conspiracy theorist is immune to evidence – “inherently self-sealing where evidence that counters a theory is re-interpreted as originating from the conspiracy. This reflects the belief that the stronger the evidence against a conspiracy (eg the FBI exonerating a politician from allegations of misusing a personal email server), the more the conspirators must want people to believe their version of events (eg, the FBI was part of the conspiracy to protect that politician).” Indeed, the nature of conspiracy theories is that any evidence which disproves a theory may be interpreted as yet further evidence for the conspiracy.

Seventh nothing is random or happens by accident. “The overriding suspicion found in conspiratorial thinking frequently results in the belief that nothing occurs by accident.

Small random events, such as intact windows in the Pentagon after the 9/11 attacks, are re-interpreted as being caused by the conspiracy (because if an airliner had hit the Pentagon, then all windows would have shattered) and are woven into a broader, interconnected pattern.”

Some years ago the American Skeptics Society founder, Michael Shermer, visited Australia and gave a talk about 9/11 at the University of Melbourne. He joked during his lecture that the conspiracy theory he got asked about most was whether 9/11 was an inside job planned by George W. Bush. He said that when asked whether it was true or not he inevitably replied that if George W. had been the organiser it wouldn’t have worked.

The Handbook authors suggest that conspiracy theories spring from: “feelings of powerlessness, exploiting highly unlikely events; social media; coping with threats; and, disputing mainstream politics.”

If you hate Hillary, for instance, it is a short step to believing that she runs a Satanic child sex abuse empire from the basement of a Washington DC pizza parlour and, in the case of one believer, you heavily arm heavily and head off to the pizza place to liberate the children. Then if you get arrested you believe it is all part of the cover-up.

Lewandowsky and Cook point out that genuine conspiracies do exist. “Volkswagen conspired to cheat emissions tests for their diesel engines. The US National Security Agency secretly spied on civilian internet users. The tobacco industry deceived the public about the harmful health effects of smoking. We know about these conspiracies through internal industry documents, government investigations, or whistleblowers……Conspiracy theories, by contrast, tend to persist for a long time even when there is no decisive evidence for them.”

David Michael’s new book The Triumph of Doubt is the latest investigation of the merchants of doubt and will be reviewed here later.

The authors also highlight tactical conspiracy theories which aren’t always the result of genuinely held false beliefs but are intentionally constructed or amplified for strategic, political reasons. The Russian government’s spread of various political conspiracy theories in the West, particularly in the 2016 Presidential election, is one example.

Climate change denial, for instance, is not irrational but is “an effective political strategy to delay climate action by undermining people’s perception of the strength of scientific evidence,” the Handbook says.

Next up: Part 2: responses to misinformation.