Does Debunking Conspiracy Theories Make Them Worse?

Does pushing back against disinformation actually amplify disinformation?

It’s a question that journalists and debunkers constantly grapple with – whether their efforts to expose the truth about conspiracy theories merely expose more people to conspiracy theories. And by extension, they give life to a conspiracy theory just at the point where it should be hitting the limit of people open to believing it. Even just the act of taking apart misinformation can be used as proof that the misinformation is the truth, and that the person taking it apart is a paid shill trying to “contain the damage.”

There’s a name for this phenomenon, the “backfire effect.” Coined in 2010 to describe proponents of the Iraq War digging in deeper when evidence of the existence of weapons of mass destruction was debunked, the backfire effect essentially states that, as RationalWiki puts it, “in the face of contradictory evidence, established beliefs do not change but actually get stronger.”

This is a kind of nihilism that says that any kind of effort to debunk a hoax will make the believers in that hoax  believe it harder. In that case, why would organized skepticism and critical thinking even exist? Isn’t it doing more harm than good? Why not just let this stuff go unchallenged rather than challenge it and give it credibility?

A good example of this can be found in the explosion of disinformation around the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China. The disease is spreading rapidly, with counts of victims and deaths rising, and tens of millions of people quarantined in cities where very little information is leaking out. People are scared, looking for answers, and many times what they find are conspiracy theories.

As with any kind of little-understood but compelling danger, the conspiracy theory community jumped on people’s scientific illiteracy and paranoia to push a range of hoaxes – that the virus was patented in 2015, that Bill Gates funded its creation to help further his genocidal agenda, that the Chinese government created it and is trying to downplay how bad it really is, etc. Almost immediately, tweets and Facebook posts with the allegations got thousands of shares, muddying the waters of an already fast-moving and scary situation. Most of it was nonsense, but it caught on with people who are prone to believing things like that. And it caught on just as the first few cases were being discovered in the U.S.

There is a compelling argument to be made that debunking these hoaxes gives them oxygen and extends their life beyond the initial viral outbreak. And in turn, debunking exposes the conspiracy to even more people who had never heard of it. And while many of these people won’t believe it, a few will – they won’t be equipped with the critical thinking skills or digital hygiene to resist it. And like the coronavirus itself, the coronavirus conspiracy theories will continue to spread quickly and efficiently.

I would submit that debunking conspiracy theories and hoaxes is most useful not for the people who strongly believe in them, but for the people who know nothing about them. If, as the backfire effect stipulates, the mistaken belief is already deeply-held, then debunking won’t make the situation worse for those people, because it’s bad already. That true believer can’t be helped, because they don’t think they need help.

But most people aren’t exposed to conspiracy theories right away, particularly not on Twitter, which most people still don’t use. These things filter through social media, often finding their final form in slick YouTube videos and memes. If these things hit Facebook and mainstream outlets without being challenged, they become the story of record. And they become the first things people find when they go searching for information. When frightened people go looking for answers about a fast-moving and scary situation, the first and only thing they see shouldn’t be a conspiracy theory. It should be the truth.

For one, the viral hoaxes are already out there, whether or not they’re debunked. Conspiracy theories about major incidents get going while those incidents are still in progress, and disinformation is always going to move faster than the truth. The first tweet alleging that the Wuhan coronavirus was a patented bioweapon funded by Bill Gates got 4,000 retweets at once; with a number of other conspiracy theorists amplifying it from there (I’m not linking to it, you can find it.) The videos and hoaxes and memes hit right away, and because these media figures have large followings, they spread almost as fast as the pandemic themselves. The only thing that takes them down initially is deplatforming, which gets into free speech issues that only amplify the grievance of conspiracy believers.

There’s also value in the debunking for people that have a loved one or friend who has gotten sucked into conspiracies. Conspiracy believers love to think of themselves as having secret knowledge that will help others if they can get through to them.  If nothing is out there other than hoaxes, there’s no way to push back and inoculate yourself against the hoax. You can’t prove them wrong…so does that mean they’re right?

We saw it on Twitter with the Wuhan outbreak – searching for “coronavirus patent” brought up nothing but viral tweets of people claiming the current outbreak is some kind of patented strain. But it’s not, and it’s important that people know that. The first time you hear about a conspiracy theory you should be reading something that debunks it – that way you’re never open to falling for it.

Finally, trying to kill conspiracy theories by starving them of oxygen doesn’t actually kill them, it merely makes them the opinion of record. If nobody challenges the false claims, the false claims become the truth. By that point, they’re impossible to kill, and will pick up believers who have nowhere else to turn.

Debunking matters because the truth matters. The lies will be out there no matter what, because lies are a lucrative business. But the truth is the truth, and it should always be advocated for – even if it risks exposing people to unpleasant ideas that aren’t true.

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