Lies and misinformation: A primer on how conspiracy theories form
While journalists are chasing facts, some people are creating their own and spreading lies and disinformation designed to harm others.
New York Times writer and author Elizabeth Williamson is among the journalists confronting the rampant rise and spread of conspiracy theories. In her critically acclaimed book, “Sandy Hook: An American Tragedy and the Battle for Truth,” Williamson traces a throughline from the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School to QAnon to coronavirus myths and the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection.
“What I learned was that it is less politics or ideology than psychology that determines whether someone will be a conspiracy theorist and how committed they will be,” she said during a June 10 National Press Club Journalism Institute program. “It’s important for all of us as journalists to remember that people who embrace these theories are doing it for different reasons.”
Social media fuels the fire
People who already feel misaligned gather online to share what they have learned about a news event while picking apart the official story for anomalies. Contributing even a piece of information — fact or not — gives an individual a sense of belonging and ownership — and a community “conspiracy blob” grows.
“There’s a lot of psychic income that comes from embracing and spreading these things as a group,” Williamson said. “These people were once really isolated. … The internet — and social media in particular — has allowed them to find each other and find that group identity. And so it’s much more of a calling than it is a specific thing.”
Take a creative approach
Challenge your audience to play a game that tests its resistance to fake news.
Where fact-checking is a traditional way to combat disinformation, Williamson cautions that getting people to disabuse themselves of lies will always be tough given the psychology behind belief in conspiracy theories. Prebunking — also known as inoculation theory — is an important step to prevent the spread of false claims.
University of Cambridge social psychology professor Sander van der Linden created the Bad News Game to help build psychological inoculation against online disinformation. It works by asking players to become a fake news spreader.
“Once people participate in this, if they are conspiratorially minded, one of the things that they’re really interested in is having the inside track, like being the sole possessors of some kind of information,” Williamson said. “This uses that propensity for them to say, when they go online and they see actual conspiracy theories, that they’ll recognize, ‘Oh, I know how the sausage is made. I created a conspiracy theory on my own. I know that that’s not real.’ ”
When mistakes happen
A challenge for journalists and news organizations confronting the spread of disinformation is reporting through the chaos following a breaking news event.
After tragedies like the Robb Elementary School shooting in Uvalde, Texas, there’s a massive flood of coverage, which can lead to rushed stories, mistakes, or confusion.
“We’re sort of in this Catch-22 in our initial reporting,” Williamson said. “Basic on-the-ground errors tend to fuel people who have an interest in discrediting the official story.”
Even though some conspiracy theorists might latch on to these errors, it is crucial to correct inconsistencies as soon as possible.
The best prevention for this is to — of course — slow down as you gather the facts. But mistakes can happen, either in reporting or from sources themselves.
Try this: Acknowledge a mistake with full transparency, explain how it happened, and what steps your news organization is taking to prevent these in the future.
Disinformation strategies are hardening
Sandy Hook was one of the first high-profile mass shootings that generated a viral campaign of disinformation in which thousands claimed it was a hoax.
The reason for this, Williamson said, was that the timing coincided with an influx of social media use. Fringe individuals like Alex Jones of Infowars were joined by individual conspiracy theorists who actively helped spread lies.
Over time, such lies have been adopted as a strategy by people on the far right who oppose new gun legislation.
“That doesn’t really mean that they want to convince people that it didn’t happen,” Williamson said. “The goal here is just to muddy the waters.”
Try this: Recognize and report on the motives behind why a politician or other public figure might jump in on a disinformation campaign and participate in public arguments on social media.
“The more time you spend engaged in those kinds of fights, the less time we as a society are engaged in a more productive policy-oriented conversation around gun violence,” Williamson said.
- “Sandy Hook: An American Tragedy and the Battle for Truth” (Elizabeth Williamson)
- The Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma resources for journalists
- The staff of Uvalde’s local paper cover the worst day of their lives (The New Yorker)
- Local Story: A community newspaper covers a national tragedy. (The New Yorker)
- Primary victims of the Sandy Hook murders: “I usually cry when I say 26” (Joanne Cacciatore)
- No Notoriety
Games to help prevent the spread of disinformation
- GO VIRAL! | Stop Covid-19 misinformation spreading
- Cranky uncle
- Troll factory
- Harmony square
- Fake it to make it
About Elizabeth Williamson
Elizabeth Williamson is a feature writer in the Washington bureau, and a former member of the New York Times editorial board. She has worked at the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post, and spent a decade as a foreign correspondent in Eastern Europe. She is the author of “Sandy Hook: An American Tragedy and the Battle for Truth,” published by Dutton.
Before joining The Times in 2015, Williamson was a reporter in the Wall Street Journal’s Washington bureau. She wrote features about national politics and the culture of Washington, and covered the White House during President Obama’s first term.
Before joining Wall Street Journal in 2008, Williamson worked for the Washington Post from 2003. She has covered the federal government and Congress, lobbying, federal government contracting and the reverberations of Hurricane Katrina and the war in Iraq.
Williamson began her journalism career as a foreign correspondent in 1994, and for a decade reported from the Balkans, Russia, the Baltic nations and broader Eastern Europe. Her work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, International Herald Tribune, Miami Herald, Chicago Tribune and other outlets. In 2000 she became the Wall Street Journal’s Warsaw bureau chief, covering Poland and surrounding countries.
Williamson was born in Chicago and resides in Washington with her family.
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