What we can learn from conspiracists on social media

By relying solely on traditional media, we might not be able to create group immunity with a COVID-19 vaccine. Science communicators can learn from conspiracy influencers how to reach people, especially on platforms like Instagram that have become conspiracy engines, so where are they on social media? How can we work together on spreading accurate information and inoculate people against conspiracies?

Parts of this piece previously appeared in Dutch in Knack.

It is finally here: a corona vaccine! A possible way out of a terrible year, yet confidence in this ‘miracle solution’ has been declining more and more between the start of the pandemic and now. People are suspicious, they do not fully trust the vaccine, and prefer to wait until there is more clarity about a long term (which for some is situated somewhere around 2-3 years). While that is their right, many have become caught in anti-vaccination campaigns and doubts spread by conspiracists. People distrust the government, traditional media, and the experts who seem to be ‘selected’ to share a certain narrative. They look for answers that don’t feel spoon-fed and take them from people they trust, or from sources that give an answer they feel most comfortable with. There is a community of antivaxxers that prey on this doubt and seek out those in search of answers to their questions. Researchers found that the anti-vaccination movement on Facebook is estimated to have reached some 100 million people during the pandemic.

The established media have been working overtime for months to investigate every piece of misinformation for its veracity and to refute it with correct information. This is commendable, but factchecks have a limited impact. They are often pushed out into the world without taking into account how the information ecosystem works with all its emotional and social aspects. A factcheck should be part of a conversation. Not simply consumed but experienced. It should be a source of information for people who want to engage in discussion with loved ones but don’t have enough accurate information at hand themselves. Therefore, sharing should be made as easy and attractive as possible.

Appreciation for the micro-influencer

In times of social media where our main social interactions during this year have been digital, many have established themselves as “micro-influencers” in their communities. They are considered an authority within a community. Often they are the ones spreading accurate information in this infodemic that has overwhelmed many. People can engage with them and ask questions. They are the people who make others think and encourages them to spread correct information. These micro-influencers also exist in conspiracy circles of course. The main difference is that in those circles, they are adored far beyond their personal network. They are seen as beacons of light in a sea of self-proclaimed “lies”. The micro-influencers sharing accurate information are by contrast undervalued outside their network. Traditional media sees it as a self-evident point that people get informed on their own and that accurate information will just land where needed. By assuming this spread will occur naturally, few feel motivated to help this spread of accurate info. There aren’t many incentives to inform loved ones and the personal network on the safety of a COVID-19 vaccine as it often fuels conflict. It is time we nurture, encourage and provide support for the authority figures in the microcosms of our society to disseminate accurate information.

Where are our science influencers on social media?

One way to support the micro-influencers in society, is by providing them with shareable, easily digestible and engaging content. For this, we should also focus on a new type of influencers: science communicators. Doctors and nurses who were on the front line of the pandemic, researchers who can explain in great detail how such a vaccine, the immune system and the human body work, epidemiologists, virologists, statisticians; these are the people we need to get out of their digital cages so they can help answer questions about the probabilities and risks of a vaccine. They can become a reference point for the micro-influencers and can be a face behind the dry explanations on a website. The more people who are the point of contact, the less people have to walk around with an unanswered fear of consequences. The alternative is for them to blindly seek out information that often confirms their fears, or follow false prophets who seem to know better than the scientific consensus.

Of all the social media that needs science communicators’ presence, I’m particularly looking at Instagram. This visual medium of ‘influencers’ has become the home of many internet users, over 1,2 Billion monthly users in 2020. And even though Facebook has 2x more monthly users, Instagram generates 23% more engagement than Facebook. It is also one of the platforms with the biggest growth of conspiracy spreaders according to the Centre for Countering Digital Hate.

The incredible information and virality potential of Instagram is underestimated by science communicators. Research has shown that, for example, disinformation during the 2016 US presidential election actually played a much bigger role on Instagram than initially thought. You can hardly share URLs on the platform, making it hard to provide sources for an argument. People just come to accept something is true because it is phrased well or looks nice in one of those pastel-coloured inspirational quotes telling you to ‘think for yourself’. Many serious voices are ignoring Instagram as they don’t know how to engage on this specific platform. This leaves a vacuum for the loudest voices.

In the US, several medical experts have figured out how to communicate science on the platform. Someone like Laurel Bristow, an infectiologist who can be found on IG under the name @Kinggutterbaby, had 700 followers at the start of the pandemic. Now she has almost 300 THOUSAND. With her Instagram stories, short videos that disappear after 24 hours, she explains new concepts to her followers and answers questions on the fly. She is part of a community of English-speaking science communicators who understand how to get correct information to an audience in a fun way.

This is clearly catching on, but in most European countries there is a deafening silence and most scientists seem to hope things will naturally sort themselves out. Do we really have to wait until we find out that too few people want to voluntarily get a COVID vaccine? Should we really leave a vacuum to misinformers on huge platforms like instagram, with all the consequences towards the future of this unravelling information ecosystem?

Going viral on instagram

I and some others refused to wait, which is why I created an account with memes against conspiracies @anti_conspiracy_memewars (25k). I am not a medical expert and cannot become a science communication influencer, which is why I resorted to memes. Memes are perfect “units of culture”, as Richard Dawkinks describes them, that can diffuse ideas in an accelerated fashion. Memes are bitesize, often humoristic and easily shareable, which is also why conspiracy thinkers thrive on the use of memes. The account is nothing more than a collection, a database of anti-conspiracy memes that were either circulating the web already, or deserved to be seen. Instagram is a huge virality motor through its stories-feature. With 500 million daily active users of the stories feature, content gets shared far more through this tool than on most social media platforms, and can spread into several different ecosystems. Make no illusions; the purpose of the account is not to debunk or argue with conspiracists. A meme account cannot develop the needed empathetic relationship with someone suspicious of medical and political authorities. Only a loved one can counter those doubts. The purpose of the meme-account is to provide users with tools of communication for prebunking. Users are encouraged to share memes in their story to expose their network to a diversity of perspectives, in the hopes that it reaches them before the misinformation reaches them.

As it is a meme, often light-hearted or tongue-in-cheeck, it is less likely to stir up conflict, but the anti-conspiracy message still passes. It becomes a form of prebunking that fits in an inoculation strategy against misinformation.

“inoculation theory posits that pre-emptively exposing people to a weakened persuasive argument builds people’s resistance against future manipulation.”

Jon Roozenbeek, Melisa Basol, and Sander van der Linden

The memewars account has also managed to embed itself in a broader community of science communicators on Instagram, experts who can communicate with followers from their subject matter expertise, complementary to some of my simple but poignant memes. To encourage the presence and spread of the content of non-English speaking science communicators, I listed some accounts that are trailblazers in different languages, and encouraged my followers to signal boost these.

Roles and contributions

We must all accept the current information ecology in which information spreads and work with the structures that are put in place, even if that means ‘degrading’ ourselves to memes, or showing our face in an IG Live. Preferably the information ecology would be different, but as long as these platforms offer no friction, as Renee DiResta wrote in her Wired piece, untrustworthy information will keep spreading.

There are many things we can all do as individuals. For the experts who have knowledge; show your face and push out the evidence and facts to counter or prebunk conspiracies. Team up with a creator to translate your content to the language of the platform. If you don’t have the facts but have a wide platform and a lot of followers; signal boost those creators and experts! Connect the dots in the network who might not be aware of each other’s presence. Distribute that content and make sure their voices are heard. Every single human with a network, however small, can be a distributor, a micro-influencer in their community. If you see something trending, alert those in the field who could create content about this pre-emptively. This is how everyone can actually be part of the counter-conspiracy team in an organic way.

We don’t have to sit by idly.

As Claire Wardle put it so eloquently:

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