When conspiracy theories strike, how do you respond?

Simple question: When misinformation is spreading on social media – can it be stopped?

Simple answer: No. As Churchill (edit: apocryphally) said,  “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.” But, if you catch it early enough, you can potentially limit the damage.

Along with the tragedy of the Marathon bombing last week came the instant but well-worn conspiracy theories – none of which I am going to link to. Suffice to say, if you can dream up an improbable scenario someone has a webpage and a YouTube video dedicated to proving it is true.

One of particular interest here was pegged to a Boston Globe tweet sent at 3:53pm on April 15, an hour after the bombing:

Due to the vagaries of timezones and a lack of media literacy this was almost immediately seized upon by conspiracy theorists who thought it was sent hours before the actual bombing. (See below for details.) After intermittently responding on Twitter for a day or two, I compiled a timeline in Storify and began somewhat aggressively linking to it.

It is tough to quantify the success of those efforts. But, I did learn a few things along the way. These specifically apply to Twitter, but can extend to any platform.

First, I found five different types of users who were discussing the myth. Roughly categorized they were:

  1. Passers-by
  2. Questioners
  3. Trolls
  4. Accusers
  5. Conspiracists

Passers-by were people who simply got caught up in the conversation of friends and had little or no passion about the topic. Questioners had no particular reason to believe in a conspiracy, but were troubled by what others were saying about it. Trolls are just trolls – tough to say if some of them actually believed in anything aside from causing trouble. Accusers were the easiest to spot and respond to. Their tweets typically read  “@BostonGlobe why did you <fill in the blank>?” They tended to be skeptical of any answer, but may be reasoned with. Conspiracists were probably the smallest, but most vocal group. They are also the least likely to believe any evidence that contradicts their world view. They often responded with “Yes, but what about <link to conspiracy website> that was confirmed by eyewitnesses?”

In every case, the key is to respond honestly and directly and to stay on topic. Aside from some fairly amusing reactions (one person tried to report me to the FBI for spreading the myth) the effort seemed to be worth it. There are no fewer conspiracies floating around, but this particular one seems to have at least lost some traction. If there is a next time there are a few tips I would follow from day one:

  1. Before you respond, have something (in this case Storify) you can link to that tells your story.
  2. Track @ responses, but also check for keywords (in this case Globe, controlled explosion, drill)
  3. Prioritize responses to users who have large followings or numerous retweets
  4. Engage with individuals – but assume innocence. Some people are honestly confused and are just trying to make sense of events.
  5. Respond carefully, stay on topic and stick to the facts, avoid ANY extraneous detail.
  6. Humor does not work, sarcasm does not work. Use a few short words and a link.
  7. Everyone gets one back-and-forth but then disengage. This is fact-sharing not a debate. Stop while you are ahead.
  8. Don’t expect people to respond, correct their mistake, or even RT your link. The best you can hope for is they stop spreading the myth further.
  9. Look for allies already arguing with the conspiracists. They will be more likely to retweet the link and fight its spread for you.
  10. In the face of abusive responses say, “Thanks, sorry I could not be of more help.” or something similar. Then block those accounts as necessary.

You certainly can not “win” in these situations. There is no gatekeeper available to make a ruling on truth vs fiction. Some people will continue to believe whatever they want to believe. But, we can’t pretend that the spread of misinformation is not worth fighting. The more people that believe in a fiction, the fewer people will believe anything factual we do report.

Links are the currency of the Web. By staying out of these arguments we cede the field to the fantasists. By specifically addressing the truth (which many have this week) and then spreading the message on social media, we can fight fire with fire. We won’t convince everyone, but we can at least assure that a Twitter or Google search of the subject provides some facts, not just the fantasy.

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