Missing info

Published March 31, 2024
The writer is an instructor of journalism.
The writer is an instructor of journalism.

IS there such a thing as unprecedented conspiratorial thinking? I feel the word ‘unprecedented’ is often abused, especially by Pakistanis unaware of their history and/ or prone to believing this is the first time XYZ is happening. But something strange happened a fortnight ago when “the whole world fell down the rabbit hole” as Wired magazine rightly wrote about Kate Middleton. They were referring to the brouhaha following the release of that photo, then her video announcing her cancer and then everything that followed.

I also fell down the rabbit hole and emerged wondering whether we’re in a moment of unprecedented conspiratorial thinking. No amount of evidence seems to satisfy the disbelievers. In the case of Middleton, naysayers insist her video was created using AI and there are hundreds of explainer videos ‘breaking down’ the palace’s claims.

Social media has made everyone a forensic expert.

Interestingly, the speculation around Middleton’s whereabouts aka ‘Kategate’ have not been restricted to her home country — the biggest reach for the hashtags came from accounts in India and Dominican Republic last week. A Pakistani daily also featured in media coverage when The Guardian described the paper as one that covers the British royal family “extensively” and noted how its writer Wells Oster had written 50 articles on the subject the week of March 20.

Social media has made everyone a forensic expert.

To clarify, conspiratorial thinking is not a new phenomenon. For a long time, people thought Elvis Presley faked his death; people still think the moon landing is a hoax, and more recently, there’s a mini-industry trying to prove 9/11 was an inside job. Let’s not even start on what people thought during the pandemic. I’m not here to comment on the claims themselves as much as I’m curious about people’s attachment to their theories. And, I wonder what opportunity there is for journalism to play a role in debunking these stories.

On a personal level, I can, at the start of a new term, now identify those students who do not want to engage in the other side, even after participating in fact-checking exercises. They struggle to believe the evidence.

We all report on the widening polarity in society but what if news organisations tried to understand why people believe the things they believe, instead of just labelling them as a lost cause.

There are several studies to show how conspiracy theories meet people’s “motivational” needs and help them “make sense of distress and impairment” according to research published by the American Psychological Association in 2023. They found that people were motivated to believe in conspiracy theories “by a need to understand and feel safe in their environment and a need to feel like the community they identify with is superior to others”.

The research also identified certain personality traits as more likely to believe conspiracy theories. They were likely to be “insecure, paranoid, emotionally volatile, impulsive, suspicious, withdrawn, manipulative, egocentric and eccentric”.

It may seem like a Herculean task to bring audiences back to the mainstream media fold, but if journalistic principles are applied and audiences not treated like idiots, news organisations can win back lost credibility. It won’t do it by giving airtime to conspiracies or treating them as entertainment. That is a disservice to audiences, lazy and runs the risk of giving credence to myths. Media needs to avoid feedback loops, which is where a lot of people believe Kate’s video is AI (for example). This gives other people reason to believe it and then more people think there’s reason to believe it.

In Pakistan, the me­­dia needs to amplify how social media and its algorithms work. Rea­­ders here may be well versed in how echo chambers work, or how Big Tech keeps audiences in silos, but many users don’t understand these points. Propaganda and misinformation have long existed. But with social media, there is more of a monetary incentive in spreading ‘fake news’ than truth. People must understand how one click on a video by their favourite vlogger sitting in Washington, D.C. earns him/ her dollars while causing unrest in Pakistan. Journalists, at least, abide by fairness guidelines.

Conspiracy theories ‘thrive’ on YouTube, according to a study by the University of Sydney. YouTube doesn’t have the moderation features needed to detect the strategies employed by conspiracy theorists. There is much work to be done to counter this industry of falsehoods that creates storms like ‘Kategate’ or the cipher case, and that take up so much space at the cost of coverage of social issues. The media can’t fix things alone; it needs help — not regulation or bans — from the government and Big Tech. We also need to remember our lives are more than X, which shouldn’t be allowed to gobble us up whole.

The writer is an instructor of journalism.

X: @LedeingLady

Published in Dawn, March 31st, 2024

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