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Although conspiracy theories, and disinformation more broadly, are based on unfounded foundations, they are not devoid of concrete harmful effects. They trigger a range of harmful consequences in reality: spreading false information, undermining trust in the media and government institutions, incitement to violent and even extremist behavior.
For example, some conspiracy theories claim that the Covid-19 pandemic is a hoax or a plot by a secret group to control the world’s population. Such beliefs can lead to the rejection of essential public health measures, such as wearing masks or vaccination, and thus put the population at risk. These theories can even erode the credibility and authority of scientific and political institutions, such as the World Health Organization or the United Nations, and promote distrust and polarization of opinions.
Taken to the extreme, conspiracy theories can also incite certain individuals or groups to resort to violence. False narratives that the 2020 U.S. presidential election was “stolen” were the impetus for the attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. Another example is the “stolen” incident. Pizzagate » in 2016: mistakenly believing that a Washington pizzeria was a front for a pedophile ring involving high-ranking Democrats, a South Carolina man drove to the capital, entered the restaurant with an assault rifle and terrified employees and customers by searching for nonexistent evidence of a crime that never happened.
These two examples show that conspiracy theories and online misinformation are not trivial conversations. On the contrary, they can constitute a serious threat to individual and collective security, social cohesion and even democratic stability.
Communities that adhere to these theories grow and spread online. Social networks, including forums, allow these groups to form, have continuous and repeated access to information that reinforces their beliefs and form a sense of common identity. Faced with evidence that contradicts their beliefs, these groups do not weaken: they often choose to strengthen their commitment, which sometimes results in radicalization. For many, the idea of giving up these illusions is simply unthinkable – they are too deeply invested.
This identification is why common strategies to combat misinformation or conspiracy theories (fact-checking, detailed rebuttal, presenting alternative points of view, etc.) fail and can even contribute to pushing these communities to come forward even more. determined.
In our recent studywe sought to understand why and how conspiracy theories persist and persevere over time on social networks.
We found that social media can help forge a common identity that is conducive to radicalization through conspiracy theories. In effect, they act as an echo chamber for such beliefs – the core features of social media play a crucial role in constructing and reinforcing identity echo chambers.
For example, they facilitate the process of increasing adherence to such theories by providing easy and persistent access to content that fuels individuals’ distorted beliefs. These people see themselves as “real-life investigators”, while searching the Internet only for information that confirms their pre-existing beliefs.
Online networks also make it easy for individuals to duplicate conspiracy theories by sharing content or copying and pasting it. This information is therefore quickly visible to subscribers or forum members, then through hashtags and algorithms used by certain platforms. Our study identifies four key stages in the escalation of these conspiracy beliefs.
- Identity confirmation: Users access and view different types of content (via forums, mainstream media and social media) to actively verify and confirm their own opinions.
- Identity assertion: Information from the above sources is selected based on preferences and decontextualized by individuals. In the case of “ Pizzagate “, people prone to conspiracy theories took photos of the Clinton Foundation’s work in Haiti, created visual materials supporting alleged links to a sex trafficking ring, then posted them on Reddit and 4chan. Although obviously edited and taken out of context, the images were widely shared to promote the conspiracy theory.
- Identity Protection: Individuals protect their “information environment” by actively seeking to discredit people or organizations who present contradictory evidence, for example through antagonistic or negative posts or comments.
- Identity Achievement: Individuals seek social approval from a wider audience. This may lead to efforts to recruit more people and call for violent actions, drawing on the community’s user base.
These stages constitute a spiral, a sort of vicious circle reinforcing a shared conspiratorial social identity and allowing a potential escalation towards radicalization.
Prevention, not facts
Our results highlight the need to rethink certain current approaches whose strategy is to counter disinformation with facts. Not only do these prove ineffective, but they even fuel conspiracy beliefs. We therefore encourage political bodies to focus on prevention and support education.
Developing media literacy and critical discernment among citizens has become a major imperative to help them assess the credibility and validity of online sources of information. Skills to strengthen include analysis, synthesis, comparison of evidence and options to identify weaknesses and inconsistencies.
It is also important to address underlying social issues that may contribute to the spread of conspiracy theories. Conspiracy communities are often made up of people who are marginalized in our society – the existence of these communities is made possible by social exclusion. Tackling social exclusion and promoting collective values can also help combat the spread of conspiracy theories.
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