Nov 23 2020

Weaponizing Conspiracies

In 2019 PopSci published a flow chart they called “How to Start a Conspiracy Theory.” It’s not really about conspiracy theories themselves, but rather how to popularize an extreme idea. Many extreme claims are conspiracy theories, or at least incorporate conspiracy thinking as a way to justify themselves, so there is a lot of overlap.

What the chart really reflects is how to use social media and other outlets to weaponize disinformation. Let’s take a look at what I think are the main features, and then we can see how they apply specifically to conspiracy theories. The process starts by coming up with an idea that “resonates” with the public. This is probably the hard part as there are lots of ideas out there, and it is difficult to just invent something that will go viral. This is more like winning the lottery than an engineered result. But essentially the flow chart reflects an iterative process by which you keep tweaking the idea until it takes off.

If your goal is to manufacture viral misinformation, there are a few ways to almost guarantee this will work. The first is to already be plugged into a major information outlet, like a news network, a political party, or a celebrity. This is no guarantee, but it magnifies the chances of success by orders of magnitude over just being a member of the general public. This can also work indirectly if you have the resources to push your idea through those outlets (such as lots of money, or the resources of a country).

You can also crowd-source the iterative process. This is essentially what happens when there is an existing information ecosystem surrounding an ideology. For example, anti-vaxxers are already well established enough to have their own social media ecosystem, and they can collectively iterate ideas in their internal incubator, and then push those that seem to work best. Extreme political ecosystems work the same way, pushing all kinds of crazy ideas internally with their loyal base, and then trying to export them to the mainstream media. Occasionally an idea will hit.

It is especially easy to come up with an idea that resonates if you already have an ideology to operate within. Making up a claim that supports one political party, for example, is almost guaranteed to have some support within that party. The same is true of religious beliefs, social movements, or any ideology. You can make up just about anything and it will be believed by some if it supports their tribe.

Once you have a claim, conspiracy, or bit of misinformation that seems to garner attention outside of the bubble in which it formed, social media provides many opportunities to try to spread the idea to the general public. This is why there are so many bots on Twitter and Facebook – these platforms can be exploited to bridge misinformation from the incubator of an ideological group to the mainstream media. In fact, the mainstream media is not even necessary to have an impact. Enough people get their news and information directly from social media that you can have an impact without attention from the big outlets. But getting that attention is still effective, so social media is used both to directly spread information and to seed that information to the mainstream.

And this is where traditional news outlets generally fail. They are starting to become a little more savvy, but they have been generally slow to learn how to cover the cesspool of misinformation that is social media. Some outlets don’t seem like they care, but even those that do struggle to cover fringe topics without promoting them. Or they may lack the discipline to simply not cover fringe claims, and thereby starve them of oxygen.

This is also where we as individual consumers of information play a role – we don’t have to share links to crazy information that is not verified. Vet before you share is good social media hygiene.

Conspiracy theories specifically are perfectly suited to this model of weaponizing disinformation by exploiting all these weaknesses in the information ecosystem. Conspiracy theories are psychologically appealing because they frame our group as victims, and the out-group as villains. It also absolves us of failure or responsibility – we did not really lose or fail, we are the victims of a system or a campaign that was rigged against us from the beginning. Conspiracies also come with pre-existing excuses for why there is absolutely no evidence to support the conspiracy. Missing evidence was covered up by the conspirators. Evidence against the conspiracy was manufactured, or is a false-flag operation. Conspiracy theorists can also make up evidence very easily, by anomaly hunting combined with a little confirmation bias and subjective validation. Basically – look for anything even slightly unusual (which always exists) and then simply declare that as evidence for the conspiracy. The logical connection can be extremely tenuous, but it doesn’t really matter for those who want to believe the conspiracy.

Conspiracies are therefore easy to manufacture out of whole cloth, they tend to resonate with their target audience, and they shield themselves from refutation. Believers can congratulate themselves on being so savvy, while criticizing their ideological foes for being gullible. So those who disagree with them are gullible fools who can be dismissed, while the leaders of the opposition are not just well-meaning opponents we have to respect. They are villains who are seeking to destroy our world. This justifies any action against them. Ironically this might lead them to actions which are genuinely a threat to society, like opposing vaccines, blowing up abortion clinics, or, say, undermining democracy. But of course we have to stay true to principles of fairness, evidence, due process, and critical thinking. This means we are fighting an asymmetrical struggle where the purveyors of misinformation can use tactics that we should not.

Because at the end of the day what is worth defending is the system of rules and process, not any one end-result. We are seeing play out right now how important that system is.

No responses yet