Why Kiwis are falling for conspiracy theories and what's at risk

An expert says tech companies' failure to crack down on disinformation and fake news is putting the very existence of democracy at risk. 

Conspiracy theories, once on the fringes and treated a source of amusement by most, have gone mainstream since COVID-19 emerged at the start of 2020

People send them to Newshub every day, asking why they're not being reported as news. On Friday morning alone, we've been emailed promotions for discredited COVID treatments, told vaccine side effects are being covered-up , that COVID is a "biological war" and the vaccines are spreading an "infection of death", as well as false claims of "multiple" unrecorded suicides thanks to the lockdown. 

We were also sent a bright pink email claiming 'Q-phones' would soon be distributed to everyone on Earth running on a 'G8' cellphone network, signed off with the QAnon catchphrase 'WWG1WGA'. 

News organisations have always been a magnet for people with out-there ideas, but it's intensified over the course of the pandemic. 

"People are searching for a simplistic answer to something that's quite complex," Nina Jankowicz told The AM Show on Friday. Jankowicz is an internationally recognised disinformation researcher who's written a book on the topic and appeared before US government as an expert witness. 

"Often that has something to do with some sort of secret cabal, right? We've heard these sorts of things about the assassination of JFK and putting a man on the moon, and now we're seeing the same thing with the COVID-19 pandemic."

She said it's understandable - we live in an "extremely anxious, frightening time", much of it spent online, particularly in lockdown. 

"A lot of people are not only searching for easy answers to that, but they're finding answers in certain communities. Conspiracy theories often provide people connection and community in a way that they haven't found before." 

In the past, conspiracy theories had to spread person-to-person, or via local media. That's no longer the case, with social media giving people a global audience, no matter how credible their views.

"The most vulnerable people can be targeted. Social media amplifies and allows this content to travel faster, further and more directed," said Jankowicz.

Nina Jankowicz
Nina Jankowicz. Photo credit: The AM Show

A former Facebook data scientist recently testified before the US Senate, detailing how the company "harms children, sows division and undermines democracy in pursuit of breakneck growth and 'astronomical profits'", NPR reported earlier this week. 

"The stuff that keeps us most engaged online is often the craziest stuff, it's the most enraging stuff, it's the stuff that's going to make us react and click and share and send to our friends," said Jankowicz. "Unfortunately that is often conspiratorial content, and it's often disinformation and hate speech." 

Publicly, social media giants like Facebook have said they're now cracking down on misinformation. But for years they let serial liars like Donald Trump use their platforms, saying world leaders were exceptions to the rule - before they weren't (both Facebook and Twitter gave the US President the boot in January, just weeks before his term was up). 

Jankowicz said it's important not to give people like Trump a pass, even if they are world leaders. 

"Donald Trump and many other autocratic and authoritarian leaders around the world have normalised the use of conspiracy theories and disinformation in politics, which means voters aren't going to hold those folks to account the way that they might at the ballot box, and there's an incentive for those in political power to buy into those same tools and tactics as well."

Jankowicz says it can be difficult for news organisations to strike the right balance when prominent figures - such as Trump - make verifiably false claims. Do you report them, and risk spreading the lies, or try to debunk? She recommends using a "truth sandwich" - tell the truth, explain the lie, then tell the truth again. 

While she insists disinformation isn't a partisan problem - it affects both the left and right - when she testified before the US House intelligence committee, no Republicans showed up to listen. 

"Disinformation is not a partisan problem, it's not a political problem - it's a democratic problem. It  ultimately tries to attack people's participation in the democratic system, to make them doubt what they're seeing on programmes like yours, hearing on the radio and reading in the news." 

For the record, the US did in fact put a man on the moon. Not only has it been independently verified, their bitter Cold War rivals the Soviet Union - no stranger to propaganda - didn't deny it. Investigations into the shooting of US President John F Kennedy have uncovered no evidence that debunks the official version of events.