Disinformation and Conspiracy Theories

By Daniel Darling

Conspiracy theories have always existed in American life and have especially risen during election seasons. But in these times, during a global pandemic, racial tension and an unusual presidential contest, it seems belief in outlandish and disproven narratives is reaching new heights.

Easy communication via digital platforms, access to seemingly unlimited content online and deep distrust of key institutions in public life have created a toxic brew that many of our fellow citizens are willing to imbibe in times of fear and uncertainty.

So how can we combat misinformation? Many are pressuring the social media platforms to be aggressive about moderating content, a job that is both increasingly thankless and seemingly impossible. Others are rightly urging faith communities to work to push back on false information with the truth. But while these efforts are vital, there is work all of us can do to combat lies with truth and facts.

First, we should work to persuade those in our sphere of influence when they are tempted to go down a rabbit hole of misinformation. We do this, not by elitist condescension, but by humbly pushing back and providing facts, by loving our conspiracy theorist friends and not engaging in endless arguments that alienate rather than inform.

Second, we should work, in the areas in which we have power, to provide clear and transparent leadership. Belief in conspiracy theories rise when trust in key institutions is low.

In the past several decades every institution in American life, from the government to the media to the church, has failed us in some way. When people can’t trust those who lead them, they are prey to outlandish ideas that explain away the discomfort of their disappointment. Let’s work to be trustworthy in the areas under our control and create atmospheres of trust and goodwill.

Third, we should do our part to resist the urge to spread disinformation. If you’ve read this far, it’s unlikely that you believe the moon landing happened on a stage lot in Phoenix or that Bill Gates cooked up COVID-19 to enrich himself, but you may have played a part in spreading disinformation if you have recently posted sensational stories without context.

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