‘Ukraine Biolabs’: How Attempts to Debunk a Conspiracy Theory Only Helped It Spread

However, for the biolabs conspiracy theory, the narrative began on alt-tech platform Gab and gained traction on Twitter due to the efforts of a fringe QAnon account. But as discussion was building on Twitter the theory was picked up by Chinese and Russian foreign affairs ministries, culminating in a segment on the Fox News program Tucker Carlson Tonight.

This is how a conspiracy theory becomes “news.” The audiences filter the news through their own world views, which are already influenced by the media they regularly interact with. The audiences build, change and promote these interpretations in their own social networks.

“Grassroots” participants pick up the disinformation going round in their communities, augment and disseminate it; the process recurs in a self-reinforcing feedback loop.

By the time political players such as Psaki or Russian government officials tweet about a conspiracy theory, it doesn’t matter whether they’re trying to dispel it or boost it: they only end up giving it oxygen.

The New Conspiracism
If working to debunk false narratives only continues the feedback loop, what else can be done?

Participatory disinformation cycles have helped land us in a crisis about how we as societal groups make sense of the world.

American political scientists Russel Muirhead and Nancy L. Rosenblum call the result of this crisis “new conspiracism”.

Where old-fashioned conspiratorial thinking relied on complex theories to justify its claims, for new conspiracists an idea can be true simply because it’s getting a lot of attention.

The spread of new conspiracism has intensified with the erosion of trust in traditional institutions over recent decades.

Donald Trump and other politicians around the world have worked to accelerate this erosion, but they’re only part of the problem.

A bigger part is that misinformation is lucrative for social media companies, and social media is integral to how we socialize and form opinions.

What Can Be Done?
Time and again we have witnessed conspiracy theories spread on social media, contributing to political polarization and undermining democratic authority.

It’s time we rethink our media ecosystem and how we regulate it, before trust in democratic institutions and principles decline further.

Addressing this is a Herculean task and it’s not enough for countries to individually legislate and regulate platforms. It needs to be a global effort. Financial sanctions are no longer enough – there needs to be systemic change that disincentivizes platforms profiting from mis- and disinformation.

Likewise, politicians and communicators such as Psaki need to be better informed that giving oxygen to these conspiracy theories can have unintended effects; attempts to raise awareness or debunk them can result in worldwide amplification.

For regular users of social media, the advice as always is to think twice before sharing or retweeting.

When a piece of content evokes a strong emotional response this can often be a sign false information is at play. If you really want to share something, taking a screenshot of the content is preferable to further amplification of the source as it cuts the disinformer out of the chain.

Daniel Whelan-Shamy is Senior Research Assistant, Queensland University of Technology. Timothy Graham is Senior Lecturer, Queensland University of Technology. This article is published courtesy of The Conversation.