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  • Pauline Hoffmann

What do you believe?

Conspiracy theories, disinformation, misinformation, oh my!

Do you think you are immune to disinformation and conspiracy theories? Think again. We may all be susceptible. Certainly we all think we are much smarter than to be taken in by false information but be honest with yourself, have you ever believed something to later find out it was completely untrue? Or the reverse? Have you ever believed so strongly that something was crap but you later found it to be true?

What about aliens? I know many of you are laughing at me now. Stop for a second. Reports of unidentified aerial phenomena (they aren't UFOs anymore) and aliens have been reported for centuries. Also, the universe is vast. It is quite arrogant of us to think we are the only life forms. Also, if the U.S. is declassifying documents related to sightings, there must be something to that, right? (To hear more about aliens and alien conspiracy theories, listen to my recent podcast, PB&J, Pauline, Ben and Just the Facts, with my colleague Dr. Ben Gross.)

Have I lost all credibility discussing aliens? Do I believe? I don't not believe but I need more evidence than declassified documents. I need to see - though I don't need to be abducted.

Why do so many people believe in conspiracy theories? First of all, what is a conspiracy theory? According to Merriam-Webster, it is "a theory asserting that a secret of great importance is being kept from the public." It is something that is secret....and we - the believers - are savvy enough to have uncovered the secret! Bwahhhaaaa! I would argue that in many cases, disinformation may be a conspiracy theory. The reasons people believe in conspiracies may be the same reasons they fall for disinformation campaigns. As a note, those who use their powers for good may also use these same tactics for legitimate, public good, social advocacy, and public health campaigns.

But why do we believe? There are several reasons. First, conspiracy theories may play to our fears and emotions (cognitive bias). They target and prey on what we are afraid of. Take the disinformation surrounding vaccines. What are we afraid of? We are afraid of getting the initial disease, yes. But we are also afraid of the unknown. If we don't know how vaccines work, we might fear the rhetoric that vaccines will harm, maim, or kill. We may have an underlying distrust that is just fed by the additional information telling us that we are correct.

Which leads me to confirmation bias. We seek out information that reinforces our already held beliefs. If I believe the medical profession seeks to harm me because I am a woman (or ignore me or discredit me, more like) I may be hesitant to believe them when they tell me vaccines are okay. I may seek out information that supports a medical cabal against women.

We may also be so taken with emotions that we ignore facts and logic (post-truth). Or we may not know how to read and understand the information that's out there. There is much that is shared. It can be incredibly difficult to cull through all the information we are bombarded with daily!

Partisanship plays a role in disinformation and conspiracy theories. If we believe the rhetoric from our preferred political party we may not dig deeper and look at the facts. We may be driven by partisan fear and emotion. If we are incredibly upset that our preferred candidate did not win, we may believe disinformation and conspiracies surrounding it. No evidence exists of widespread election fraud yet a number of people believe it to be true (much more on this in future issues).

Many disinformation campaigns revolve around incredibly complex issues. We cannot possibly know everything. We can only be expert in a niche area. What about those areas we are unfamiliar with? Do we have the tools to determine what is real and what is not? I love science, data and health care. Not everyone does. I hear from people that they loathe those topics. Part of the reason is because they don't understand or they don't think they understand. I even hear people say that they can't comprehend those topics. (Bah! science, data and health are for everyone and it is my life's mission to make you love it!) Conspiracies often arise to simplify complex issues. If someone speaks our "language," we are apt to believe them, particularly about subjects with which we have little or no familiarity.

There is an echo chamber in our communication universe. We are able to self-select what we hear, read, see. We are also able to self-select with whom we hang out and listen to. That may be to our detriment - but it is certainly understandable. It is much easier to connect with people who are like us than not. It does behoove us to listen to, read and see others. It is through understanding that we break barriers.

With that echo chamber and with social media algorithms, we are able to live in our own little bubbles. I love that social media has opened the world up to us but even I have to admit that I find myself looking for others who share my values and beliefs.

If you found yourself nodding or saying, "amen" to any of the above does it mean you will fall victim to disinformation and/or conspiracy theories? Maybe, maybe not. Arming yourself with information will help you recognize why you may be believing or willing to believe in certain things. Remember my checklist of a few weeks ago (I will keep repeating this so get used to it): authority, purpose, publication and format, relevance, date of publication, documentation. Do your due diligence. Care before you share. Check yourself to see if you are resorting to emotion over facts, biases over truth, fear over reason.

Remember, not all conspiracies are dangerous. I love the interactive conspiracy theory chart that gives you more information on common conspiracy theories but also ranks them by possible truth and least dangerous to most dangerous. Also remember that some former conspiracies were actually determined to be true. It's almost like science fiction eventually becoming nonfiction.

Remember at the beginning of this issue I noted that many of the tactics used for disinformation campaigns are also the same tactics used in regular old public relations/communication campaigns? Think about what communication moves you to action. Appealing to your fear of getting Covid, for example, may motivate you to get the vaccine. How is that different from using fear to prevent you from getting vaccinated?

Truth vs. fiction. That's one difference.

I leave you to think about that.

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