An editorial by Hannah Moreno
It’s been a disconcerting few months. Rising COVID-19 numbers hitting right before Christmas were a particularly cruel reminder that this pandemic is far from over.
But there is another growing trend that has many of us increasingly alarmed too.
The rise of Covid denialism and use of conspiracy theories is spreading through online forums – including right here on the Northern Beaches.
We are increasingly seeing Northern Beaches Facebook community groups hijacked by false, misleading, and dangerous information presented as fact.
Private groups are even emerging to encourage dangerous behaviours. Members of these newly created Facebook group (many of whom are not even from Manly) encourage Northern Beaches locals to meet with strangers, eschew masks, and ignore health warnings of those seeking to keep us safe.
We like to think of ourselves as an intelligent and loving community.
But the growing number of people rejecting the opinions of scientific, medical, and epidemiological experts in favour of the outrageous opinions of debunked and disgraced “experts” is truly extraordinary.
To clarify, it is crucial to critically examine information as it is presented to us. But throughout history, it has been the work of investigative journalism, whistleblowers, and state-sponsored inquiries that has uncovered actual acts of conspiracy.
Conspiracy theorists have not been responsible for uncovering a single scandal to date. In fact, they seem solely fixated on creating or promoting anti-facts.
So how can we protect our community in the wake of this alarming online trend?
1 Speak to the silent observers
If you must get involved in online discussions, know that you will never convince a conspiracy theorist using logic, reasoning, or facts.
It takes 10 seconds for a conspiracy theorist to make a false claim. But you can sink hours of labour into fruitlessly trying to convince them of the gaping holes in these claims with valid research, expertise, and science – all of which they bizarrely reject.
And so the conversation goes around and around, with one party acting with absolutely no goodwill at all.
No one should feel obligated to waste their time in such a pointless endeavour.
There are, however, some undecided and silent observers to these debates. So if you must engage, don’t try to address each and every erroneous point made by the conspiracy theorist.
Instead, construct your own credible, evidence-backed position on the broader topic, and post that instead. Your argument will stand firm on its own, and you won’t get lost in the infuriating word salad, red herrings, and “what aboutism” arguments of the conspiracy theorist.
2 Learn how to spot trolls and conspiracy theories
There are a number of ways you can identify a troll or a conspiracy theory.
Visually, trolls typically have an avatar or a picture of an inanimate object as their profile picture. They rarely use their own name and their profile is usually extremely sparse, or populated only by political posts, instead of photos of family or friends.
Ideologically, the views they espouse are typically highly paranoid and misaligned with public consensus or history.
As an example, there have been many instances of virus outbreaks that were the result of man’s intrusion on nature. It follows that the most commonsense explanation for COVID-19 is in line with history.
It is wildly unlikely that COVID-19 is a “deep state” liberal-led conspiracy for population control aimed at getting us all microchipped, unseating Donald Trump, or any number of the other more ludicrous conspiracy theories.
Because, to be clear – genuine conspiracies do exist. Examples include the Watergate scandal in the 1970s, and the poor behaviour of our big four banks that led to the Hayne Royal Commision.
But actual scandals are usually quite boring in nature. And in 2020, it is inconceivable that a conspiracy could be architected and coordinated across almost the entire world, all their various governments, and both private and public health systems, simultaneously.
As the world moves to more democratic governments and increased transparency, real conspiracies are also becoming significantly harder to perpetrate.
3 Understand that not all opinions are created equal – and some are dangerous
As the saying goes, “Every man has the right to an opinion – but no man has a right to be wrong in his facts”.
And not all opinions are created equal. Not even close.
Some opinions are fact-based and rely on sources applying the scientific method, or drawing from peer-reviewed studies. They are espoused by experts, or guided by their expertise. They are robust and align with the lived experience of relevant parties.
On the other hand, conspiracy theorist opinions hinge on blatant untruths, the opinions of discredited and debunked “experts”, and outright paranoia.
This second category of opinion is currently being spread across the Northern Beaches to encourage locals to ignore public health guidance, and put others at risk.
These two opinions are not even close to equal. And one is outright dangerous.
We shouldn’t pretend the baseless opinions of conspiracy theorists are equally as valid as the informed opinions that debunk them.
And we certainly should not be offering equal airtime to the former.
4 Online community moderators need to step up their game
In this same vein, it is the responsibility of online community moderators to provide a safe community for the good of all members. Doing so requires an unwavering ‘no tolerance’ policy against those who put the community at risk.
Conspiracy theorists who cast doubt on public safety measures are putting the community at risk.
And to be clear – shutting this down is not a breach of anyone’s ‘freedom of speech’.
Not only does Australia not have freedom of speech enshrined in any legislation, but there are still a multitude of consequences for abuses of the spoken or written word in countries that do.
Try making a joke about a bomb at an international airport, being blatantly racist, or making a false and defamatory statement of fact, and see how that works out!
There is a reason people peddling hate speech are often denied entry into Australia to put on conferences. We have protections against such people for the safety of the broader community.
No one is obligated to give a microphone or a platform to those who spread damaging misinformation or hate speech.
It is the responsibility of moderators of online community groups to protect the community by removing those causing harm.
5 Switch off the insanity
Conspiracy theorists use a number of the argument techniques synonymous with emotional abuse.
These include gaslighting, bullying, projection, pathological lying, harassment and, in particular, word salad. This last tactic involves circular arguments and repetition, a complete lack of logic, over generalisations, projection and blaming, cognitive dissonance, and denialism.
These behaviours can be extremely disorienting and distressing for those exposed to them.
As a community, we must urgently identify and prevent conspiracy theorists from derailing rational, informed, and proactive health directives.
Let’s not ignore the learnings of the U.S., and allow Australia to become beholden to the ill-informed screeching of the paranoid few.
Those in influential positions must speak out and take action against these harmful narratives. And we as citizens must reject the insanity, for the good of ourselves and our communities.
This article was written by Manly resident and Communications specialist Hannah Moreno. Hannah is the founder of PR firm Third Hemisphere