Fighting Conspiracy Theories

“Witness Howard Brennan sitting in the identical spot across from the Texas School Book Depository four months after the assassination. Circle “A” indicates where he saw Oswald fire a rifle at the motorcade.” By Howard Leslie Brennan [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Caption text from Wikimedia Commons also.
Apart from Murray in Stranger Things, and the Lone Gunmen in the X-files, most conspiracy theorists don’t have secret knowledge that the majority of humanity is unable to accept. Instead, people turn to conspiracy theories when they feel disempowered and desperate. Conspiracy theories thrive during times of crisis, such as a pandemic, or a profound political crisis. They also emerge at times when trust in government is low. I’ve done work (with my wonderful colleague Leopoldo Rodriguez) on a conspiracy theory in Argentina that focused on the death of government prosecutor Alberto Nisman. In the Argentine case, these conspiracy theories absorbed the news and attention of an entire nation. But during the 2009 influenza pandemic, conspiracy theories became truly global, as people told these narratives from Mexico to Europe. I studied this phenomenon in an article that is open access:

Shawn Smallman, “Whom Do You Trust? Doubt and Conspiracy Theories in the 2009 Influenza Pandemic” Journal of International and Global Studies, Vol. 6, No. 2: pp. 1-24. While its helpful to document instances of conspiracy theories, it’s more important to understand how to combat them when they can cause damage, particularly in the field of global health. How do health authorities fight conspiracy theories about vaccination, which are not only making it more difficult to eradicate polio, but also costing health workers their lives?

     There is no simple solution to this problem. Many academics have worked on this question, particularly in the field of psychology. Because conspiracy theories reflect emotional needs, they are unlikely to be changed by rational arguments alone. So you can argue with your uncle or aunt about September 11th at length, but your points at the Thanksgiving dinner table will almost certainly never change their mind. I once had conversations with a student –while writing a book on HIV/AIDS- who was not only brilliant but also believed conspiracy theories that HIV did not cause AIDS. They held this belief despite their own deep knowledge regarding the virus. I also have had conversations with students in my AIDS seminar and introductory classes who passionately believed in HIV denialism. Often these were my better students. In these cases neither classroom content nor my arguments changed their views.
     At the same time, trust matters, so authority figures sometimes can influence how people view conspiracy theories. During a health crisis, a trusted doctor, nurse or health worker may be able to affect how people view vaccinations. Local community figures -particularly those who share a person’s political or religious beliefs- may also be able to change peoples’ perceptions. The more that the issue can be divorced from larger partisan debates, the more likely the person is to change their mind. But how as a society do we fight damaging conspiracy theories?
     One key tool is information literacy, which most of us probably have taken has a key learning outcome for our courses. I recommend the following article, which is a brief but important study:
Craft, S., Ashley, S., & Maksl, A. (2017). News media literacy and conspiracy theory endorsement. Communication and the Public, 2(4), 388-401.
In essence, what the authors found was that the more that people understood how the news media created the news, the less likely they were to believe in conspiracy theories regarding the media. This article is readable, jargon-free, concise and insightful. It would make a good reading in any class in International and Global Studies which deals with theory.
     In my own program, I sometimes teach our “Foundations of Global Studies” class, which examines key theories in the field, from liberalism to Green Theory. I’ve looked at every possible text for this class, and in not one of them will you find conspiracy theories. As academics, we typically look at conspiracy theories with disdain, because they do not use the same standards of evidence that hold in other theories. But I also think that there is a certain elitism that leads faculty to exclude conspiracy theories in their classes. For a scholar, a theory should be founded by a particular individual or small group, who create a school of thought that is promulgated by key texts. And these theories are typically created by intellectuals, not the masses. So academics don’t like to talk about conspiracy theories in theory classes, even though a video regarding a conspiracy theories may have hundreds of thousands of views, while few undergraduate students will truly remember or use Gramsci. I personally believe that we do our students a disservice when we exclude conspiracy theories from our classes. If theories are a framework for understanding our world, and shaping political and social decisions, how can we ignore such common and influential narratives?
     More broadly, I think that the curriculum in International and Global Studies classes should scaffold information literacy. This information should include not only how to research and cite, but also how the media shapes how people understand the world. I also think that all students should graduate understanding Fake News, particularly given how social media now shapes how people learn news. The Portland State University library has a great resource for students to learn about Fake News, which would be a wonderful tool to embed in a course shell.
     Of course, it’s important to remember that what constitutes a conspiracy theory is a judgement call. It’s a truism in the literature that there really are conspiracies. For a civil rights worker in the United States 1960s, it was perfectly rational to fear that the government was acting illegally to discredit her or him. Germany really did manufacture the Gleiwitz Incident to justify their invasion of Poland. In 2009 in Guatemala, Rodrigo Rosenburg Marzano allegedly hired hitmen to kill him, after he first created a video that blamed the president for his murder. In this particular case, it took the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala to persuade the country that this individual had planned their own murder in order to discredit the president. Still, as a whole conspiracy theories can have a corrosive effect on the political system, and lead individuals to make decisions based on poor information.
    The podcast ‘Quirks and Quarks” has a good episode on the psychology of why some people believe in conspiracy theories. You can also read the text of the interview at the link on the left, or click on the podcast link to listen.
     The more that we can incorporate discussion of both conspiracy theories and information literacy into our classes in International and Global Studies, the better prepared our students will be to evaluate these theories. For those of us who do work in Global Health, it is also inevitable that we will come across conspiracy theories in our work -whether in the classroom or in the field- so it’s also helpful for us to understand not only what feeds these beliefs, but also the most useful way to address them. In 2013 Portland voted not to fluoridate its water, in part because of widespread fears shaped by conspiracy theories. These theories shape public policy. For this reason, discussion of conspiracy theories should be included in every class on global and public health.
    Are you interested in reading more about conspiracy theories and global health? You can read about conspiracy theories and Zika here.
Randall Munroe, XKCD Comic, shared with a Creative Commons Attribution and non-commercial use 2.5 license
Privacy & Cookies: This site uses cookies. See our Privacy Policy for details. By continuing to use this website, you agree to their use. If you do not consent, click here to opt out of Google Analytics.