Taking on the conspiracy theorists

Published on Wednesday, November 25th, 2020 by julian

Lighthouse Communications > News + Views > Taking on the conspiracy theorists

The ABC’s Four Corners recently aired a story about Australia’s 5G rollout. It was a fascinating look at how technological progress was meeting determined opposition that drew together fears around radiation, while also linking it to COVID health concerns.

Throw some foreign interference into the mix for good measure, and you’ve got a heady cocktail of issues that reflects both traditional fears and some very new ones.

What was particularly interesting was how some of the biggest issues of our time were brought to the surface, presenting real challenges to the telcos, governments, and anyone else looking to support 5G.

First, there is fear of technology, which has probably been around for as long as humankind itself. And not just any old technology – anything to do with radiation tends to exercise a frightening grip on people’s imaginations, bringing up images of Chernobyl, Fukushima and cancerous diseases that will bring untold misery to individuals and families.

Economic uncertainty also makes people feel vulnerable, and the shocks from COBVIS for many the worst they’ve ever seen in their lifetime. There are also secondary effects – if you’ve lost your job, you have more time to sit around at home researching conspiracy theories online and potentially buying into them.

Then there is distrust of government and big business, and an anti-establishment trend that has been growing for several years. The 5G issue brings these worries into stark relief, as some of the largest organisations in the country are telling people the technology is harmless and there’s nothing to worry about. As a conspiracy theorist might add: “Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they?”

It’s easy to dismiss the anti-5G crowd as delusional and irrational, but it’s one of those issues that appears to be garnering support from ‘ordinary’ people, who might see an element of truth in some of the claims.

It is, in short, a nightmare for the corporate communications teams having to work on this on behalf of their employers. People who believe in conspiracies tend not to listen to facts or reason, often discounting them as part of the conspiracy itself, so how do you address this?

Telstra has made admirable inroads recently, using humour to counteract some of the claims, debunking them by using a mixture of a comedian and highly competent expert. It’s a good way to address the issue, because it adds the unpredictable element of comedy into the mix, and doesn’t rely on straight facts and scientific explanations alone.

But will this be enough to convince some people, albeit as part of a wider campaign? One could argue that when dealing with irrational opponents, another strategy might be to slowly chip away at their underlying assumptions by casting doubt on them, but not confronting them directly.

A slow and patient campaign that seeds uncertainty into the minds of the 5G crowd may be a useful weapon in the arsenal, as it removes the need for the establishment figure to simply tell the opponents that they are wrong – which may not go down well – and instead focuses on creating internal contradictions in their thought processes while highlighting significant knowledge gaps.

For example, if you believe that 5G causes COVID, can you explain how that works in practice? Can you describe, in detail, how the disease is actually transmitted via 5G technology? It’s a simple question, and one that every proponent of this theory should hypothetically be able to answer if their claims are to have any validity.

Similarly, one could ask what evidence the anti-5G people can provide for the effect on human health? The claims they are making are serious, and they should be able to defend them because, at the extreme end of the argument, they are accusing governments and companies involved in 5G of damaging human health to possibly fatal levels. That’s a very severe accusation, and potentially an outrageous one if it has no basis in fact.

Taking a step back, the problem of how to deal with seemingly irrational conspiracy theorists is probably going to be an ongoing challenge of our time for communications professionals around the world. These type of theories seem to be growing, especially as the internet becomes more sophisticated in its ability reach people and disseminate information, whether accurate or inaccurate.

A whole new specialisation may arise, focused around developing specific techniques to undermine and mitigate the damaging impact conspiracy theorists can have on different types of organisations. This could bring together skills and insights from many other professions – everything from social media and opposition research to behavioural economics and psychological warfare – to produce compelling counter-conspiracy theorist campaigns.

Today the conspiracy theorists have growing momentum, but a counter punch from the proverbial big end of town is inevitable at some point. Ludicrous claims and infantile rationalisations cannot remain unchecked forever.

Julian Elliott

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