"Pre-bunking" and debunking conspiracy theories

Submitted by AWL on 16 February, 2021 - 6:39 Author: Jay Dawkey
Covid vaccines

Readers of the “Diary of a Tube Worker” in Solidarity will have noticed that since the beginning of the pandemic I have spent a lot of my time arguing against Covid-19 conspiracy theories in my workplace. More recently the shift is to anti-vaxx conspiracies and vaccine-hesitancy.

I don’t think I have been entirely successful in my endeavour. I have been a known sceptic about “nonsense” since I started on the job, being the first to say vocally, I don’t believe in any God, I don’t take notice of any horoscopes, I don’t believe in juju or ghosts, etc.

I don’t think I am wrong in being strident about what I think in the workplace, but the prevalence of the conspiracy theories and vaccine-hesitancy has led me to read more into how best to tackle them.

Fight conspiracies but remain sceptical!

I find most of what is written by mainstream academics and researchers on this fairly compelling, but with one major caveat. Much of their material is produced to try and reinforce trust in institutions, in government, in science, etc. In an era of fake news and some younger people more likely to believe their peers than scrutinised news sources, that is not an unreasonable goal.

But we do want to maintain a healthy scepticism about established institutions. We are in favour of asking questions and challenging established wisdom. We do not want to throw out the baby with the bathwater. It’s true that the tobacco industry funded fake doctors to tell us smoking wasn’t bad for us. The oil and other polluting industries pumped vast sums of money into climate change denial. Volkswagen faked the level of emissions from its cars

Those conspiracies by big business, often backed by governments and bought “experts”, aimed in their own way to make people question the veracity of information they are getting. The Phillip Morris corporation knew that it wouldn’t convince everyone who smoked that their illnesses had no relation to smoking, but it could make enough people suspend judgement.

How best to tackle conspiracies

The authors of The Debunking Handbook 2020 hold that “pre-bunking” and prior inoculation against conspiracy theories are more effective than “debunking”. They have slightly revised their views since their first edition in 2012.

In that first edition, Stephan Lewandowsky and the 15 other authors were much more cautious about the idea of starting with a particular conspiracy theory and repeating as a useful starting point to “debunking” it. Repetition of information is an important factor in taking it onboard, and so repeating a falsehood, even as a preliminary to debunking, may make us more likely to understand and trust the falsehood than to absorb brand new information in the debunking.

In the 2020 edition the authors are more relaxed about the risk of repeating conspiracies to those who believe them in order to disprove them, but they still see dangers there. “While debunking conspiracy theories can be effective with the general public, it is much more challenging with people who believe the conspiracy theories. Rather than basing their beliefs on external evidence, conspiracy theorists’ belief system speaks mainly to itself, and each belief serves as evidence for every other belief.

“As a consequence, when conspiracy theorists encounter debunkings on Facebook, they end up commenting and liking conspiracist content within their echo chambers even more...

“Conspiracy theorists also have an outsized influence despite their small numbers. An analysis of over two million comments on the subreddit site r/conspiracy found that while only 5% of posters exhibited conspiratorial thinking, they were responsible for 64% of all comments. The most active author wrote 896,337 words.”

I will return in the next article to the challenges of arguing with already-engaged conspiracy theorists. I will mention just one issue here: what Lewandowksy terms a “motivated rejection of science”.

Some people reject science not just because they believe they know better. The rejection is the foundation for something else. A lot of my colleagues at work based their attitudes on suspicions about the “real” motivations of governments across the world to encourage widespread vaccination.

Also, it is much easier to maintain a belief that the vaccination is actively harmful or ineffective if you question how dangerous Covid-19 really is, or what causes it.

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