I thought I’d discuss our ‘rules of engagement’ with the people we meet on Social Media. These are the people distributing or promoting the unsubstantiated conspiracy theory, quack remedy, etc.
This blog documents the steps we took to debunk and make informed decisions about the evidence presented to us on our social media accounts and those of our children. Our personal experiences of engaging with the original poster have yielded the following insights.
What might happen when we engage with the original message poster?
- PROMOTION – When we engage, by replying to a social media post, that post gets inadvertently promoted by the company (E.g.: Facebook/twitter/etc).
- INCREASING PLAUSIBILITY – If we unsuccessfully challenge a post that theory can look more plausible to our friends, even if the only reason we weren’t able to challenge properly was because we were too busy!
- FRUSTRATION – People who push conspiracy theories can be frustrating to argue with because they struggle with evidence. Where we have engaged, we have met such arguments as: ‘I have no evidence and you have no evidence, so haha my conspiracy theory is correct’ and ‘I am telling you I know and you don’t just believe me, so haha my conspiracy theory is correct’. We can’t challenge these arguments because they are just beliefs, not grounded in evidence.
- LEGAL – Many countries have laws that include ‘libel‘ and ‘slander’. Statements made on social media are covered by libel laws. A recent high profile example of these laws occurred in 2019, when Vernon Unsworth sued Elon Musk, the tech billionaire, over his comments made via social media about a caver from Thailand. Elon Musk used his billions to defend the case and won. Our pockets are not so deep and we are careful to drop out of any conversation that might be libel as soon as a problematic posts occur (we don’t even point out they are libellous, we just quit).
- TIME – It takes a great deal of time to engage well. When we engage we read EVERY link, we watch ALOT of videos made by the same presenter, not just the video posted, we look for background on the topic written by other conspiracy theorists and written by conspiracy theory investigation sites.
- TENSION – Finally, engaging can not only lead to tensions in your own social group but may not have the desired consequence and result in reinforcing their beliefs.
We follow some simple rules of engagement when we respond to misleading posts on social media.
- We have a 36hr time limit, comments made towards the end of this time limit are less focused on the original post and have started going down rabbit holes or just proving Godwin’s law.
- We stop engaging when the additional evidence provided comes from less & less trustworthy sources. We use a media bias and fact checker when we check a source and when they say ‘tin foil hat‘, we stop commenting.
- It can feel overwhelming to argue with people on social media who aren’t reading your replies or looking at the evidence you provide. Sometimes we need to concede the battle, to ensure we can win the war on critical thinking and ‘Live to fight another day’.
We created this blog to show the steps we used to debunk specific posts on social media. There are some great resources on the internet about checking and challenging conspiracy theories such as; Michael Shermer’s Baloney Detection Kit. But you need not be an investigative journalist to make your own informed decisions.
If you want to read more about how to challenge conspiracy theories and where conspiracy theories come from, we recommend Michael Shermer’s audible course, Conspiracies and Conspiracy Theories. Shermer’s audiobook discusses conspiracies that were true, such as Watergate and untrue conspiracies that led to tragedy, such as Pizzagate. Chapter 7 provided an excellent toolkit for questioning conspiracies. Chapter 2 provided some very useful tags that we have used to reference our posts.
We also love this article, ‘How should we respond to people who spread conspiracy theories‘, published in May 2020 in Psychology Today, it discusses ideas about why and how you can engage.