Here's how to spot disinformation and how to protect yourself.
We have information coming at us 24/7, from every angle and every source—and sometimes those sources are not accurate, either because they are deliberately misleading us or because they have the best intentions but the wrong information.
That was the case earlier this month when a wave of mom influencers shared a debunked and false theory suggesting the homegoods website Wayfair is being used to traffick children (it's not).
A widely shared (and discredited) documentary-style video titled "Plandemic: The Hidden Agenda Behind COVID-19" also falls into this category. The 26-minute video was removed from several social media platforms because the video's thesis (that the coronavirus pandemic was planned) has been proven false. Another video, by a group calling themselves "America's Frontline Doctors" made the rounds this week. It was seen and shared by millions before Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube removed it for featuring false information about cures for COVID-19.
Many of the mom influencers (and regular moms) who shared these debunked and discredited theories on their social media platforms did it with good intentions—but carefully crafted misinformation weaponizes good intentions and even very intelligent people can fall prey to false information.
"Conspiracy theorists always managed to spread their theories in the past, but the internet has made this much easier," Kathryn Olmsted, a history professor who studies conspiracy theories at University of California, Davis tells the Associated Press. "If you believe in one, you believe in another. You start collecting them."
Here's what we need to know to protect ourselves and our loved ones from misinformation:
Why false information is spreading among parents right now
"During a global pandemic, it's kind of the perfect storm of uncertainty," says Joanne Miller, a political science professor at the University of Delaware and co-author of a study about conspiracy theories and gender. "And so when we feel a lack of control, uncertainty or powerlessness, we seek out explanations for why the event occurred that's causing us to feel that way. And what this can do is it can lead us to connect dots that shouldn't be connected because we're trying to seek out answers. And sometimes those answers are conspiracy theories."
The false Wayfair human trafficking story and the debunked "Plandemic" video are both conspiracy theories that use connections that seem possible to draw conclusions that are not based in fact.
Kate Starbird is an Associate Professor of Human Centered Design & Engineering at the University of Washington who studies how communications technologies are used during crises. She has studied the "Plandemic" video, which amplifies the views of discredited scientist Dr. Judy Mikovits, and says the way false theories like it are packaged makes people with online followings particularly vulnerable to spreading misinformation.
"I've found that this mix of information types makes it difficult for people, including those who build and run online platforms, to distinguish an organic rumor from an organized disinformation campaign," she writes. And this challenge is not getting any easier as efforts to understand and respond to COVID-19 get caught up in the political machinations of this year's presidential election.
A new study published in the journal Politics and Gender this week found that men are more likely than women to endorse coronavirus related conspiracy theories, but misinformation is still thriving in some traditionally female online circles.
As Rolling Stone reports, some mom influencers with vast followings on Instagram have recently begun peppering QAnon content into their feeds, spreading the Wayfair and child trafficking misinformation as well as anti-mask rhetoric.
How to spot a conspiracy theory or misinformation
It is harder than ever before to distinguish between facts and misinformation, but it is possible if we look at everything in our feeds (even the stuff we are shown by trusted influencers) critically.
According to researchers who study how to counter misinformation and conspiracy theories, we need to be on the lookout for the seven traits of conspiratorial thinking when sharing information.
Before taking something you see online as fact, examine the post for the following red flags:
- Contradictory beliefs: For example, the "Plandemic" video offers two different conflicting origin stories for COVID-19.
- Overriding suspicion: It is healthy to be skeptical, but an immediate distrust of any official or mainstream information is a red flag for misinformation.
- Nefarious intent: False information often assumes nefarious intentions before all other possibilities, a major characteristic of both the Wayfair controversy and "Plandemic."
- Conviction: When theorists change their mind about how the conspiracy works but remain convinced that the official or scientific account still cannot be accurate, that false sense of conviction is a sign of misinformation at work.
- Persecuted victim: If a piece of information presents those sharing as victims of a vast, organized deception but also paradoxically as heroes fighting victimhood, it's probably part of a conspiracy theory.
- Immunity to evidence: Conspiracy theories declare themselves irrefutable and self-healing—they cannot be challenged with evidence.
- Reinterpretation of randomness: If a piece of information suggests that unseen, scary connections exist everywhere, it's likely misinformation.
Moms are vulnerable right now to both disinformation + judgement
Moms who are spreading false theories online are most often doing it because they want to keep their family and other families safe. Judgement and name-calling is not the way to change their minds, say experts.
According to Jovan Byford, a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at The Open University, pointing out the holes in someone's theory is not likely to change their mind, because "conspiracy theories are, by definition, irrefutable."
Instead, Byford recommends people be patient with conspiracy believers and recognize the emotional element driving the spread of so much misinformation.
"Conspiracy theories seduce not so much through the power of argument, but through the intensity of the passions that they stir," Byford writes for The Conversation. "Underpinning conspiracy theories are feelings of resentment, indignation and disenchantment about the world."
Moms have a lot to be disenchanted with right now. Burnout rates are soaring and our social infrastructure has failed to protect families from COVID-19. Meanwhile, in the absence of clear communication from political leaders about the pandemic, the average person is attempting to sort through mountains of data and crunch dozens of numbers to make everyday decisions about everything from grocery shopping to going back to school. Empathy and compassion is needed.
"Many people come to conspiracy theories through genuine, albeit misguided, curiosity about how to make sense of the world," Byford explains. "They sometimes see themselves as healthy sceptics and self-taught researchers into complex issues. Avoid criticising or mocking this. Instead, present it as something that, in principle, you value and share. Your aim, after all, is not to make them less curious or skeptical, but to change what they are curious about, or skeptical of."
Bottom line: Less judgement, more empathy + education
We can't fight misinformation by hurting those who take it as fact, but we can do our part to view these theories more critically and offer an empathic and patient counterpoint to friends and family members who perceive them as truths.
Everyone is just doing their best to get through these trying times, but as we rebuild our post-pandemic world we need to remember what happened in 2020 to ensure our education system is arming the next generation with the media literacy and critical thinking skills they need to separate fact from falsehood.
As Dr. Peter Hotez, professor and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine of the Baylor College of Medicine recently told Rolling Stone, the spread of misinformation through mom influencer culture is "the price we pay for underpaying high school science teachers."