TO Michael Butter, author of the book The Nature of Conspiracy Theories, conspiracy theories seek to explain events happening in the world as planned, with little room for coincidences or accidents.
Through this prism, someone or a secret cabal of people are orchestrating world events, including Covid-19, for some insidious benefit.
Conspiracy theories are not unique to the Covid-19 pandemic. There were conspiracy theories explaining 9-11, the Denver International Airport and the sinking of the Titanic, but in the past, the spread of conspiracy theories was limited due to a reliance on more physical forms of communication and smaller social networks.
This has changed with social media where you can network, share and reinforce conspiratorial beliefs with similar-minded people across the globe with relative ease.
Compounding the problem is how in private groups filled with similar-minded people, wider public scrutiny might be absent, leaving problematic viewpoints unchallenged, minds unchanged and groupthink entrenched.
Aggravating this is how easy it is to discover conspiracy theories, intentionally and inadvertently, on websites and through social media and communication applications.
This means that even those who are unaware of conspiracy theories previously could accidentally come across them while searching for credible information.
If left unchecked, conspiracy theories could undermine medical knowledge, reduce people’s risk perception of the novel coronavirus, or lead to unfounded fear surrounding the Covid-19 vaccines and getting vaccinated.
In addressing the problem, deterring would-be creators and sharers of conspiracy theories with sanctions might make common sense.
Unfortunately, the real world is more complicated with risks of such a strategy backfiring. With conspiracy theories claiming that there is a powerful secret cabal that is incentivised to keep the “truth” under wraps, by clamping down on believers, the perception that someone somewhere is trying to silence the “truth” can be hardened. Other responses, such as fact-checking these conspiracy theories, while an inherent good, could be ineffective in changing minds.
In fact, in a study conducted by Jolley and Douglas, trial participants who were exposed to vaccine-related conspiracy theories will not change their intention to not vaccinate their fictional child even if anti-conspiracy theory information is introduced later on. This suggests that conspiracy theories, once introduced, are quite resistant to correction.
The researchers’ explanation for this is that as conspiracy theories are usually controversial, interesting and familiar to the audience, this tends to produce what is known as the primacy effect.
The primacy effect is a cognitive bias where we tend to remember the first piece of information we encounter better than information presented later on.
Complicating matters is how debunking, while intuitive, could trigger cognitive resistance should the conspiracy theory be part of the believer’s personality, value system or ideology.
Considering this, the challenge then is how to deal with conspiracy theories before they set in the minds of people. One way is to introduce anti-conspiracy theory messages before people encounter conspiracy theories online or on social media.
This can be done through what is known as “pre-bunking”, which works similar to traditional vaccines. Here, a watered-down version of the conspiracy theory, along with explanations of why and how it is misleading and false, is introduced to the public to inoculate them against the conspiracy theory.
The idea then is that when they encounter conspiracy theories “in the wild”, the primacy effect kicks in in the form of the pre-bunked explanation.
In the study conducted by Jolley and Douglas, participants who were presented with anti-conspiracy theory messages prior to exposure to conspiracy theories were found to be more likely to vaccinate their fictional child.
Further adding to the promise of prebunking as a policy option is how Roozenbeek’s research showed that it can make people less likely to be susceptible to misinformation and more likely to spot it as well.
To build wider resilience to conspiracy theories, however, the obvious, in the form of promoting and enhancing media literacy, holds true.
Media literacy here refers to the ability to assess the credibility of information, basic fact-checking skills and good information consumption practices, such as obtaining information from authoritative sources.
As we prepare to roll out the second phase of the National Covid-19 Immunisation Programme, it is already burdened with high expectations of allowing “normal” life to, once again, resume. Considering this, all efforts must be undertaken to ensure the vaccination plan’s success, including addressing the conspiracy theory aspects of the infodemic.
This article was first appeared in New Straits Times on 1 April 2021.