Sunday, 7 Aug 2022

Covid 19 coronavirus Delta outbreak: Jarrod Gilbert – Disinformation, conspiracy theories and the solutions


In my last column I outlined the problem of the ‘contagion of crazy’; the growth and spread of disinformation and conspiracy theories. This column is a much tougher one: the solutions.

You probably know a person convinced of one myth or another around Covid, perhaps someone in your family or on the periphery of your friendship group; either way you almost certainly know it because of their postings on social media, where these issues flourish.

One reader of my last column, clearly sucked down a rabbit hole, sent me a number of pamphlets to set me straight. He thought I would be “intelligent enough” to see the vast conspiracy at play. In reality I saw him for what he is a man who has been sold a lie. I felt sorry for him, but more than that I saw him as being a clear example of one of the great problems of our time.

If you have a friend or a family member who’s fallen into the trap of disinformation or conspiracy theories, it can be very hard to talk them out of it. Conspiracy beliefs can be resilient and self-reinforcing, and experts concede there’s no way to go about dealing with them that’s guaranteed or, even particularly likely, to be effective.

If your relationship with the person is strong and a person’s misinformation is limited to a single issue (rather than the myriad of conspiracy ideas), a forceful approach may work. A friend of mine, a person of great mana, said she had been using a direct approach with some people around Covid vaccines: “C’mon, you’re too clever to be that dumb.”

She said this had been successful on people because it empathises the “clever” – but her community standing would also help. But this direct approach won’t be the right for all situations. In fact, my psychology colleagues tell me that if that’s mis-pitched it may be counterproductive, as many people when feeling attacked will only retreat into their entrenched position and see you as part of the problem. Family members or friends completely falling out with one another is evidence of this.

Providing credible information neutrally while consciously acknowledging their fears and concerns may work in some instances. This is particularly true if you’ve asked them what specific issues they are concerned about and provide information on point. This is no silver bullet, but may counterbalance the misinformation, and give them some pause for thought. A person deeply convinced is unlikely to change their mind due to one interaction, it is likely to be a process that takes time.

Emotional approaches may also be effective. Studies have shown that anti-vax misinformation sources are very likely to use emotional appeals – such as anger and fear – to influence people. Speaking in terms of emotions can be a useful way of undoing this: ask them, for example, “How would it feel not being vaccinated and spreading the virus to someone you know who has a compromised immune system?” Posing things as questions helps people feel they are realising issues for themselves, rather than being told how to think.

But given the widespread nature of misinformation that is spread online, this issue is not going to be solved by dealing with individual cases; there needs to be widespread measures to tackle the problem at its roots.

And it’s highly likely you agree with that. An excellent research report by the Classification Office recently found that 82 per cent of Kiwis are concerned about misinformation and the threat it poses, and a similar number want action on it. Politicians ought take note.

The Classification Office concluded, correctly in my view, that criminalising misinformation won’t work, and I’d argue is undesirable. But regulatory frameworks around social media – in the same ways that they exist for mainstream media and advertising – are overdue. Social media companies make money from disinformation, and they have been slow – often hostile – to change. If that continues, then they should be forced.

One point on which experts agree is that populations need to be given the skills to identify misinformation. We need to give people the tools to avoid them falling down rabbit holes from which they may never emerge.

One obvious place to begin is in schools. Education needs to reflect the changing times, and in this area we can look to Finland for a steer.

Finland has begun teaching about how to recognise and understand online disinformation as early as primary school, and has woven information literacy and critical thinking about the subject into a wide variety of core subjects in high school. They have also set up an independent body to train government ministries, police, journalists, teachers and librarians. And it’s working. Finland is rated the nation most resistant to fake news in Europe.

Covid has highlighted the dangers posed to our communities and our economy by misinformation and conspiratorial beliefs, but it is far bigger than that; the contagious nature of these ideas mean they spread and undermine community cohesion in ever-increasing ways. Disinformation and radicalisation are heads of the same coin; both the terrorist in Christchurch and the recent one in New Lynn were primed by disinformation.

The longer we wait to take collective action, the more the rot sets in.

Dr Jarrod Gilbert is a sociologist and the Director of Criminal Justice at the University of Canterbury.

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