Fighting Conspiracy Theories Using Social Values

Conspiracy theories are ubiquitous. In one recent U.S. study, about nine in ten Americans expressed some level of agreement with one of the 22 conspiracy theories the researchers asked about. With so many theories in circulation, perhaps it’s not surprising that such a large share of the population finds at least one or two to put some stock in.

Many conspiracy stories, such as the belief that Elvis is still alive, are essentially harmless. Others can cause real harm by spurring believers to harmful action or inaction – such as vaccine refusal or the recent torching of 5G cell towers. In these cases, it’s worthwhile for leaders to try to find ways to combat misinformation, to keep people from harming themselves or others.

But is it possible to change the minds of those who have bought into harmful conspiracy theories? Some true believers likely can’t be moved, but others are capable of weighing the facts and being persuaded by sound evidence.

Environics’ Social Values research sheds light on the underlying beliefs and attitudes associated with belief in conspiracy theories. Understanding the wider outlooks of believers can help inform strategies to engage them with more accurate information.

Just over half of Canadians agreed or totally agreed that conspiracy theories have something to them.

We asked a sample of Canadians if they agree or disagree that “most so-called conspiracy theories you read about have more than just a hint of truth and plausibility to them.” Just over half of Canadians agreed (44%) or totally agreed (10%) that conspiracy theories have something to them; the remainder disagreed (35%) or totally disagreed (12%).

We began by looking at the slim majority (54%) of those who agree or totally agree that conspiracy theories have some merit. An examination of their values reveals that these Canadians tend to be cynical and distrusting, and at the same time curious about the unknown. When it comes to their decision-making styles (which we measure in a separate battery of questions fielded along with our Social Values research), they tend to rely on feelings, shortcuts and simplifications. They also give more weight to information they saw recently or found memorable. The fact that these Canadians tend not to assess information on its merits, but based on other factors, can cause them to be more accepting of theories that others might recognize as questionable or false.

The 10 percent of Canadians with the strongest belief in conspiracy theories might be hard to reach and change. But what about the four in ten who agree that most conspiracies have plausibility, but don’t agree strongly? While this group appears to be willing to entertain conspiracies, they are not nearly as committed to their position as the group that strongly agrees. Their view is more in the realm of: that makes sense, that might be true.

Key social values defining this group of moderate believers include high Fatalism, low Personal Control and weak commitment to Emotional Control. Taken together, these values suggest that this group doesn’t feel they’re really in control of their lives, so it’s not a big deal if they let themselves act on impulse and go with the flow. Their consumer values also support this outlook: they say they make impulse purchases and don’t mind – or even enjoy – letting advertising guide their choices.

Other values suggest they like getting on the wavelength of a group or idea; and once they find kindred spirits, they can be prone to reinforcing each other in an activity or belief. These Canadians are strong on a cluster of values associated with mystery, intuition and strong emotion; high scores on Intuition and Impulse and Pursuit of Intensity are just a couple of examples. Together, their values suggest an orientation toward being swayed by feeling and instinct, as opposed to hard reasoning. Notably, their low scores on a number of values associated with introspection suggest that their intellectual life is less about contemplation than seeking outside stimulation.

There is another notable pattern in the values of this group of moderate conspiracy believers. They express greater confidence in big business than in government or the political process, suggesting a belief that what serves the interests of big business also serves the interests of society, and vice versa.

We also analyzed the values of groups that disagree with the general plausibility of conspiracy theories. Among those who are moderate non-believers, we find an outlook that is a combination of indifferent and dismissive (“I don’t have time for this nonsense”). This group tends to make decisions by defaulting to habit; they are low on the more impulsive, short-cutting behaviours and they don’t share the values (e.g., interest in mystery) that underpin their acceptance of conspiracies.

Among those who strongly reject conspiracy theories, there is a more rational and analytical outlook. This group is strong on self-reliance and taking charge. They are willing to put in effort to find accurate information or solutions. In many ways, they are the antithesis of the most conspiracy-minded group.

As is often the case in communications and marketing, using segmentation to identify a target audience will be useful in combatting conspiracies and misinformation. A push-back strategy should focus on the “agree not strongly” group described above. At more than 40 percent of the Canadian population, this group is too large and susceptible to ignore.

Since this group has likely not made much investment in whatever conspiracy-minded positions they may hold (recall that they decide quickly and go with their gut: “Sure, sounds possible”), they’re likely less committed to their position than hard-core believers and are probably more “reachable.” Just as these moderates can be convinced to accept conspiracy theories, with the right messaging – persuasive information from a trusted source – they might just as easily be swayed in the other direction.

Their social values suggest that a direct, easy-to-understand approach would connect, potentially along the lines of, “Don’t believe that nonsense; here are the facts.” Since they trust large business for leadership, depending on the topic of the conspiracy, they might even be receptive to straightforward messages from business leaders who deliver the facts and debunk the rest.

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