How to counter conspiracy theories

Following the interest in our earlier article, What policy experts can learn from conspiracy theories, and in the light of misinformation’s role in the storming of the Capitol building, we turned to a specialist to explore this phenomenon.

We sat down with Ezri Carlebach, a Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute and coordinator for AI and emerging technologies on the Institute’s Policy and Practice Committee, to discuss what can be done to tackle conspiracy theories. Ezri was also a visiting lecturer at the University of Greenwich for 6 years, where he taught social theory, and has worked in PR and communications for 20 years.

Could you tell us about your perspective on conspiracy theories?

In my professional life, I have taken a great interest in the power of words and stories to influence beliefs and behaviours. And on a personal level, I have lived my whole life under the shadow of the Holocaust. My grandfather, Joseph Carlebach, was chief rabbi of Hamburg until he was deported, along with his wife and three youngest children, to a concentration camp where they were murdered. 

While Nazi anti-Semitism had various roots, the willingness of ordinary people to participate in the extermination of Europe’s Jews was undoubtedly enabled by a conspiracy theory.

Why do you think some groups of people are targeted more than others?

Conspiracies are as old as human society. However, the ‘conspiracy theory’ was born from the confusion and fear in Europe following the French Revolution. The initial targets of these theories were Jews and Freemasons, and while conspiracy theory narratives evolve, they accrete, layer upon layer, over these 18th-century tropes. 

Jews remain targets for conspiracy theory instigators even when they are ostensibly concerned about 5G phone networks, vaccinations or UFOs.

Why do you think conspiracy theories are spreading so quickly and becoming so powerful now?

Digital communications, particularly social media, have obviously amplified the scale and speed at which conspiracy theories spread. But, as the academic and journalist John Naughton has pointed out, social media platforms are a necessary but not sufficient condition for current levels of conspiracy theory dissemination. 

The early conspiracy theories did not address the general public because, at that time, the public had no influence over policy. In liberal democracies, voters can be persuaded to elect candidates who endorse conspiracy theories or fail to condemn them, which is effectively the same thing. 

One of the paradoxes of countering conspiracy theories is that democratic institutions are therefore also a necessary condition for the emergence of ‘conspiracism’, a worldview predominantly informed by conspiracy theories.

Is there a difference between followers and instigators?

Conspiracy theories are similar to cults, in that every recruit is turned into a recruiter. Cult leaders have psychological profiles which are typically the opposite of their followers. However, there would be little psychological satisfaction from following a conspiracy theory without also promoting it. 

Today, that’s a simple matter of ‘liking’ or sharing content on social media. Cult members who escape often go through a painful process of recognising the harm they caused just by being members. 

Although it is understandably worrisome to regard anyone who ‘likes’ an anti-vaxxer post on Facebook in the same light as someone instigating conspiracy theories, there is a principle of individual responsibility that all of us must consider.

What do you think individuals can do to stop the spread of conspiracy theories?

I suggest a three-step process: investigate, educate and remonstrate. 

INVESTIGATE – challenge claims no matter where they originate. See what you can find out for yourself, but don’t rely on Google. Use other sources, including talking to colleagues, friends and relatives, whether or not they share your views. 

EDUCATE – share what you find with others, not to control what they think, but to demonstrate an open and questioning attitude.

REMONSTRATE – never let conspiracy theories go unchallenged. Respectfully, but firmly, keep asking why. Why would mobile phone companies deliberately spread diseases? Why would Bill Gates kidnap children? Why would Jewish people meet in a graveyard in Prague to plot the enslavement of the entire planet? 

And ask also about motivations: Why does the person saying that want you to believe it? And how transparent are they about the funding and ideologies behind the groups or individuals spreading the conspiracy theory?

Is it time for governments to step in with anti-conspiracy theory policy, and what could this look like?

My opposition to conspiracy theories does not equate to blindly trusting institutions, particularly government. Conspiracies are part and parcel of politics, but if policymakers are to act against conspiracy theories they must acknowledge that they operate within the same complex interactions of psychological, social and technological pressures as the conspiracists. 

Honestly and actively encouraging participation in democratic institutions can be effective, as we saw with the turnout in the recent US presidential election. 

Finally, regulating the tech platforms must be considered. It is clear that social media companies cannot be trusted to self-regulate, and policy options beyond regulation – including breaking businesses up if necessary – should be on the table.

Transparency and accountability – the cornerstones of all good governance – need every possible support. 

And finally, as defenders of evidence-based policy, what role can and should think tanks play in countering conspiracy theories?

There are three things think tanks should consider. First of all, while think tanks have undoubtedly evolved and diversified from their origins in post-World War Two US military planning, they share some related issues of transparency and accountability. 

There are think tanks operating from just about every political perspective, and they attract funding from – and, with it, the influence of – all kinds of sources. The ongoing debate about ‘dark money’ behind the Tufton Street pro-Brexit think tanks is an obvious example. Ironically, some of this debate itself starts to blend into conspiracism.

Nevertheless, the most important thing think tanks can do, if they are genuinely concerned with stopping conspiracy theories, is to be completely transparent about their own funding. 

The most important thing think tanks can do, if they are genuinely concerned with stopping conspiracy theories, is to be completely transparent about their own funding

Secondly, they can review their interactions with mainstream and social media and strive to promote greater accuracy in reporting, particularly in relation to evidence used to support (or contradict) government policy decisions. 

This point was made in a recent e-symposium on the COVID-19 pandemic hosted by Trends Research & Advisory, an Abu Dhabi-based think tank. According to Dr Stephen Blackwell, Director of Research and Strategic Studies at Trends Research, if they are to contribute positively to public understanding of complex problems, think tanks “need to work harder with the increasing pace of the news cycle”.

But there’s a third challenge that might not be so apparent. Apophenia and pareidolia are psychological conditions in which the instinct to look for connections and patterns in the natural world becomes exaggerated to the point where individuals find them where they do not exist. 

For example, when people ‘see’ the face of Mother Teresa in a cinnamon bun, or Elvis Presley in a rasher of bacon. And, of course, when they connect the effects of a pandemic, or an economic downturn, or a controversial social change to an unrelated group of people. 

The basic premise of how think tanks function is similar – they look for patterns and connections, and it is sometimes in their interest to find them where they don’t exist, particularly if that might suit their funders or if they feel under pressure to find a solution for a specific problem. It is an unintended consequence of the systems approach that has underpinned think tanks’ methodology since they first appeared.

As Paul Slee Smith noted in his 1971 study Think Tanks and Problem Solving, “Some present day problems are so complex, so inextricably mixed up with other problems and involving such obscure interrelationships that clear cut solutions become impossible”. 

It may not be easy, but it would be better if think tanks and their funders were to acknowledge this more readily, and confront some of the core assumptions on which their activities are based. 

The stakes are high, because we face a growing list of complex, mixed up problems, and conspiracy theories, even the superficially harmless, are rooted in hatred and violence. We cannot allow them to flourish unchallenged.

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