Brooke: Welcome to the Automated Decision-Making and Society podcast. My name is Brooke Myler and today we are discussing the spread of conspiracy theories in the news and media with Professor Axel Bruns from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Automated Decision-Making and Society. Axel is the leader of the news and media focus area in the Centre of Excellence and specialises in studying the movements and trends of the news industry.
Intro: In 2020 the world was diagnosed with COVID-19 and everyone was desperate to know more. Questions about the virus led to numerous conspiracy theories encouraged by celebrities and tabloids. One notable theory was the link between the new 5G cellular network and the virus. In April the theory went as far as the United Kingdom, where conspiracist groups set fire to dozens of telecommunication towers to stop 5G. Then in May, Australian conspiracists organised rallies in major cities, arguing that nearby telephone towers were causing outbreaks of the virus. Australian Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy has assured Australian’s that there is no link between 5G and the Corona Virus. He is entirely correct and there have been no discoveries proving otherwise.
Brooke: So, Axel, is the spread of conspiracy theories a new phenomenon?
Prof. Axel Bruns: Not really. It’s actually quite well established that conspiracy theories are more prevalent in times of crisis. So whenever major crises or major news events happen people search for any information they can find and sometimes in all the wrong places. Conspiracy theories were prominent during previous pandemics including the Black Death and the 1918 flu pandemic as well. The difference now is that information can be shared more quickly and widely on social media, enabling the rapid spread of news but also of rumours, gossip, and misinformation.
Brooke: If we look at the 5G conspiracy theory, where exactly did it come from and how did it spread around the world so quickly?
Prof. Axel Bruns: As far as we know the first appearance of the conspiracy theory was on the 19th of January 2020, when someone posted on Twitter a link to a Russian News article that falsely connected the rollout of 5G in Wuhan with the coronavirus. The next day it appeared on a French conspiracy blog and a German alternative health Website. But these fringe outlets never gained much traction, on Facebook for example, they were shared mainly in small groups that already had considerable links with conspiracist views.
Things then changed considerably when celebrities from music, movies, and sports got involved. In mid-March, US pop singer Keri Hilson tweeted a link to a COVID/5G conspiracy video to her 4.2 million followers. Later on, rapper Wiz Khalifa posted something about COVID and 5G to his 36 million Facebook followers, and other celebrities also got involved. And this way in a sense, celebrities became the super spreaders of the COVID, 5G conspiracy theory.
Brooke: How did these posts on celebrity’s social media accounts then filter into mainstream news?
Prof. Axel Bruns: One of the problems that we’ve seen is that as conspiracy theories and problematic information spread on social media, they appear more and more often in the mainstream media as well. This is especially if celebrities have endorsed such ideas, shared them without necessarily quite knowing what they’re sharing or whether the information is reliable.
As they share this material, then it becomes particularly visible in entertainment media, in tabloid media, in celebrity outlets and so on. And of course, unfortunately that’s not necessarily where you find hard hitting journalism, where you find carefully researched stories. Those outlets tend to cover anything that celebrities say or do, without much fact-checking or consideration of the further impacts of that coverage. In fact, some of the tabloid coverage that we’ve seen, even embedded full-length videos from notorious conspiracy theorists themselves, alongside the celebrities endorsing their claims.
So, as a result, those conspiracy theories and other misinformation circulate unchecked through entertainment and celebrity media, and are shared on again via social media, too. And that way they reach a much larger population than the original conspiracy theories themselves, because they are now being published in popular media sources.
Brooke: So why doesn’t critical journalism effect the circulation of those celebrity views and popular media?
Prof. Axel Bruns: I think that the problem here is that the conflict is asymmetrical. On the one side you have conspiracy theorists and their niche and social media platforms. You’ve got gullible celebrities, populist politicians, and influencers, tabloid and entertainment media reporting on them, covering the conspiracy theories. And on the other side you have governments. Establishment politicians, medical and tech experts, NGOs, and quality media and journalists who are reporting on the real story.
So, depending on the individual user’s media diet, they may see only one or the other side of this, and even then, perhaps only infrequently. Government and expert statements dismissing the conspiracy claims, when they finally appear, are reported in political and general news outlets and sections – but they don’t seem to reach those people who would benefit the most from hearing them.
Brooke: You have previously mentioned that there are two different sides to news conspiracies. The conspiracy theorists and their supporting celebrities and influencers, and the experts ranging from medical professionals to investigative journalists. Both appear in the news but in completely different publications. What can be done so that these two groups make one?
Prof. Axel Bruns: The best way to address this would be to make sure that reliable information is covered by the same media outlets that reported on celebrity views. But that would require entertainment journalists to take a much more responsible approach, or official spokespeople to get their points across in a far more engaging and entertaining way. Both are difficult. More critical and responsible coverage in entertainment media might drive audiences away; more engaging official communication might be seen as cheapening the official message.
Brooke: Aside from these groups, the Government also has a say in the news, but is often slow to debunk theories. Should they be doing more to counteract conspiracy theories? For instance, do you think the Government did enough in the anti-5G movement?
Prof. Axel Bruns: This is a genuinely difficult challenge, unfortunately. Respond too early, and you may be giving the conspiracy theory more amplification than it already had, respond too late and you’ve missed your chance to protect ordinary citizens from getting exposed to these debates. So, the challenge is to hit that spot where you can deter the wider spread of conspiracist claims by making it clear to ordinary people that there’s no merit to the claims, and that spreading them would cause harm to others.
But government campaigns are often slow to get started because of the approvals processes involved, while these claims themselves, demand an agile response. Some responses might well be drafted days or weeks before they are finally cleared for release by Government. There may also be a need here to invest in more media monitoring, of both social and mainstream media, in order to detect emerging misinformation and formulate responses early on, so they’re ready to be rolled out when the time comes. Also, the point of the strategy needs to be considered: nothing governments say or do will ever convince hardcore conspiracists that they’re wrong. So, the aim of these campaigns is to protect ordinary citizens from falling prey to these claims, and from sharing them on within their own online and offline networks, by giving them the appropriate counterinformation.
Brooke: What strategies, if any, can the Government adopt?
Prof. Axel Bruns: First, Government needs to insert its own messaging into those spaces where the conspiracist claims circulate largely unchecked amongst mainstream audiences. This doesn’t mean getting into hardcore conspiracist groups: they’re too far gone to be reached by fact-checks and similar content. But it’s critically important to ensure that tabloid, celebrity, entertainment, sports, and related media cover the correct information as much as they cover celebrities and influencers spouting mis- and disinformation, because that’s where ordinary, non-conspiracist people are most likely to encounter these conspiracy theories.
Brooke: It appears that what celebrities say on their social media accounts has a strong influence on what we then see in the news. Do you think the Government should enlist the help of celebrities and influencers to counteract damaging conspiracy theories?
Prof. Axel Bruns: Enlisting celebrities, influencers, and others on the government side, or creating humorous and heavily memeified, instantly shareable content — like Telstra tried to do when it produced a 5G information video with comedian Mark Humphries — that can help, because they can reach audiences that the Prime Minister or Chef Health Officer can’t.
Governments and other stakeholders cannot afford to see such activity as beneath them, because that just cedes the field to the other side. But, of course, getting this right is genuinely difficult, especially if your brand isn’t particularly well liked or trusted – which in the eyes of some Australians is the case both for some federal and state government institutions as well as for Telstra, I suppose.
Brooke: So, Axel, do you think Telstra’s approach with the use of humour was a good approach?
Prof. Axel Bruns: Look, to be frank, official statements are boring and no one is going out of their way to find them. They appeal to a very small range of users who want accurate realistic information and seek out the official sources. But most normal people don’t get their information that way, they become aware of official statements only second-hand, via news reporting or through their social networks.
So, entertainment and comedic content can engage such general users with the topic. Telstra tried this with Mark Humphries, producing a humorous and highly sharable video to provide information about 5G and COVID-19. This can be very effective, if you get the humour right.
Brooke: Do social media purges of conspiratorial accounts and content have any effect? Or do they simply drive the problem further underground?
Prof. Axel Bruns: That depends on what the aim is. It looks like de-platforming, which is what we are talking about, has two opposite effects: it drives conspiracy theorists further underground, as you say, where their ideas may fester, become more radical, and possibly less observable for law enforcement as well. But it also increases the distance between these fringes and the mainstream of society – it makes it more difficult for their content to be shared widely on mainstream social media platforms, and (ideally) also removes the key spokespeople from mainstream news coverage, though that will only work if tabloids, entertainment media, and other popular outlets with limited journalistic standards are also de-platforming them.
So, it can help protect ordinary citizens, but it doesn’t do anything to rescue hardcore conspiracists from their delusions – for that, long-term de-radicalisation efforts similar to those used with conventional neo-nazis, religious extremists, and other cult members will be required. But if it can at least reduce the spread of their dangerous and damaging information, then de-platforming certainly has a role to play in the overall response to disinformation.
Brooke: So, what can researchers do to address these issues? What is the Centre of
Excellence for Automated Decision-Making and Society planning in this area?
Prof. Axel Bruns: First, unfortunately the leading digital platforms have made many public statements about how they are addressing mis- and disinformation on their platforms, but exactly what they are doing and whether it’s having any effect has often remained unclear. Critical, independent research has a really important role to play in tracking platform activities and assessing their impact. Sometimes, this means investigating aspects that these companies are trying very hard to hide from us; sometimes it even means shaming them into providing better access to outside researchers.
Often, it also means developing innovative approaches to gathering the sort of data that the platforms themselves have ready access to. Some of our projects in the Centre of Excellence, for example, take a ‘data donation’ approach which invites ordinary users of platforms like Google and Facebook to provide snapshots of their own user experiences – anonymously and voluntarily, of course – so that we can see what search results Google provides on specific topics, or what ads Facebook displays for particular user demographics.
Internally, the platforms themselves already have such information readily available, of course, but since they’re not going to share it with us, we have to get inventive and find alternative ways to develop that picture. It’s a David-and-Goliath effort, no doubt, but with enough Australian users supporting us, we can hold these major transnational corporations to account.
But even beyond these data donation projects themselves, I think every one of us has a role to play in combatting conspiracy theories, mis- and disinformation, and other issues on digital and social media platforms. That’s why the Centre is also working closely with policymakers, civil society organisations, and other stakeholders to understand the current challenges and develop sensible, broad-based solutions. It’s way too easy to just blame the technologies themselves, or the companies that operate them. It’s what we all do with them, individually and as a society, and what standards of public discourse we aspire to, that will determine whether they benefit or harm our society.
Brooke: So, conspiracy theories in the news and media, are really more complex than we thought. We might need to reconsider the news outlets and stories we trust! Professor Axel Bruns thank you so much for helping us better understand the spread of conspiracy theories.
Prof. Axel Bruns: Thank you!
Brooke: I think we are all excited to encounter the research that the ARC Centre for Automated-Decision Making and Society is going to address in this field. You’ve been listening to a podcast from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Automated Decision-Making and Society. for more information on the Centre go to admscentre.org.au