Countering Conspiracy Theories with Critical Thinking

By Katharine Kosin and Kirsti Kenneth

Man online

Conspiracy theories aren’t going away, but it is possible to help limit their spread and harmful effects.

The First Amendment protects all kinds of speech we don’t like, but nothing in those 45 words prevents us from critically evaluating what we believe — or choose to retweet.

El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, have now joined the growing list of American cities that have suffered the horrors of mass shootings.

While both investigations are still unfolding, authorities currently believe that the El Paso gunman’s motivations might be explained by a manifesto posted online under his name shortly before the shooting. This manifesto touched on several conspiracy theories, including claims of a “Hispanic invasion of Texas” and that corporations controlled the government, while also praising a manifesto by the New Zealand mosque shooter that advanced a theory of “white extinction.”

The FBI also has begun labeling such conspiracy theories as domestic terrorism threats. There is renewed public discussion about the potential consequences of conspiracy theories and the presence of places on the internet like 8chan, where users have been known to encourage acts of violence.

When Infowars founder Alex Jones promoted a baseless theory claiming the parents of children slain at the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting were “crisis actors,” some of the parents he named became targets of harassment. At a societal level, the spread of conspiracy theories about vaccines or medical treatments can lead to the spread of viruses like measles or Ebola.

Belief in conspiracy theories is not confined to extremists. A study by University of Chicago political scientists J. Eric Oliver and Thomas J. Wood between 2006 and 2011 surveyed Americans about seven common conspiracy theories, ranging from “Barack Obama was born outside the U.S.” to “The U.S. government planned 9/11 to justify war in the Middle East” and “Aircraft vapor trails contain chemical agents being deliberately deployed into the atmosphere.” They found that at least 50 percent of Americans consistently believed in at least one of the seven theories presented.

As First Amendment advocates, we don’t seek to censor conspiracy theories. As ugly and unbelievable as some may be, such views are constitutionally protected from government action unless the speech is deemed an immediate incitement to crime and violence, constitutes a true threat to an individual or causes an immediate breach of the peace. Some conspiracy theories do grow from a seed of truth that deserves closer scrutiny.

Rather than ban production and publication of conspiracy theories, we should educate students and ourselves how to act responsibly and ethically when it comes to this type of content. Pausing to think critically before liking or sharing conspiracy-fueled posts or articles can go a long way toward stopping the spread of damaging misinformation. What constitutes critical thinking in these instances: Asking if claims are supported by facts and evidence, if they come from reliable sources, if they’re meant to entertain, raise awareness or simply inflame? Consider these questions before you act. According to a 2018 Pew Research Center survey, 71 percent of U.S. adults trust the information they get from friends and family, so be thoughtful about the content you may be passing on. Not every story is worth endorsing with your text, tweet or share.

But responsibility doesn’t stop there.

While government cannot regulate speech protected by the First Amendment, news creators, social media platforms and tech companies may need to reexamine their practices and regulations. Reporters covering conspiracy theories should weigh the value of the revelations against the added visibility the story will bring to a possibly damaging theory.

Social media platforms must reconsider algorithms that prioritize shocking and outrageous content, surfacing conspiracy theories in front of people who weren’t actively looking for them and enabling their spread. YouTube and Facebook say they’re working to address this.

Cloudflare, a company that protects websites from denial-of-service attacks, has announced it will drop 8chan as a client because it said 8chan had crossed the line from “content that we find reprehensible” to “directly inspir[ing] tragic events.”

There is a range of explanations as to why some people buy into preposterous theories. No matter the root of the belief, once someone accepts one of these theories as true, psychology makes it much more likely they’ll reject any contradictory evidence that comes their way.

In the wake of these latest tragedies, a sense of helplessness often accompanies the grief. But now is not the time to lose heart. Conspiracy theories aren’t going away, but it is possible to help limit their spread and harmful effects.

Contributing to this column were Barbara McCormack, vice president of education at the Freedom Forum Institute, and Pierce McManus, NewseumED’s digital communications and outreach director. Katharine Kosin, NewseumED museum educator, and Kirsti Kenneth, NewseumED’s curriculum developer, can be reached for media inquiries at media@freedomforum.org.

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