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. A wave of conspiracies has washed over the information ecosystem and play into people’s deep seated fears. Science communicators can learn from conspiracy influencers how to reach people, especially on platforms like Instagram that have become conspiracy engines. How can we work together and inoculate people against conspiracies?

When the corona vaccine arrived, it felt like the release from a terrible pandemic year, yet not everyone felt that way. Surveys around the world show that people are suspicious and do not fully trust the vaccine. 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 hereby land in the conspiracy realm. There is a whole community of antivaxxers that is having its glory days during this pandemic. While they’ve been around for a lot longer, they prey on these doubts in times of crisis, and offer answers to people with 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 the past year 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 used as a tool for people who want to engage in discussion with loved ones but don’t have enough expertise on the topic. 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, there aren’t many incentives to inform loved ones on the conspiracies surrounding this pandemic, as it often fuels conflict.

Isn’t it time we nurture, encourage and provide support for the authority figures in the microcosms of our society and helpt them disseminate accurate information and counter conspiracy myths?

Memes on instagram

To support the spreading of accurate information, I created an account with memes against conspiracies @anti_conspiracy_memewars (25k). I am not a medical expert so 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. 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. It is the perfect platform to spread conspiracies, but it also has some potential to debunk them.

Make no illusions; the purpose of the account is not to directly convince 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, or someone who has garnered a huge amount of trust with people. 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.

An example of one of these memes that simplifies a common misconception to the point of it just being understandable and relatable:

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

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. If you are an experts with 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 or creativity, but have a wide platform and a lot of followers; signal boost those creators and experts and make sure their voice is heard. If you see people who should collaborate, connect the dots in the network, maybe they are not be aware of each other’s presence. If you see something trending, alert those in the field who could create content about this pre-emptively. . Every single human with a network, no matter how small, can be a micro-influencer in their community. 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:

Our information ecosystem is not hopelessly polluted. But we all have to work together to make a change.

Parts of this piece previously appeared in Dutch in Knack.

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