Eavesdrop on Experts, a podcast about stories of inspiration and insights. It’s where expert types obsess, confess and profess. I’m Chris Hatzis, let’s eavesdrop on experts changing the world - one lecture, one experiment, one interview at a time.
Conspiracy theories are usually seen as cute and funny, that is until they spill over into real life. Sleuths trying to prove Paul McCartney is dead or that the moon landings didn’t happen: amusing. People vandalising telco towers or communities not taking vaccines: not so amusing.
Dr Robin Canniford is Senior Lecturer in Management and Marketing in the Faculty of Business and Economics, University of Melbourne. Dr Canniford is also part of an international research team studying the spread of conspiracy theories online. He says that people are particularly susceptible to believing these theories during heightened times of anxiety such as the coronavirus pandemic. The world’s mass uptake of social media hasn’t helped either. Conspiracy theories that once existed on the fringes of society have now been given a mainstream platform.
Dr Robin Canniford sat down for a Zoom chat with Dr Andi Horvath.
Robin they say the information age is really a misinformation age. Can you please explain a term I've heard you use which is infodemic?
Yeah, Andi, it's a term that I'm not even quite sure where this has come from, but it's something that seems to have cropped up recently, and it's something which seems to be resonating with people. I think the idea of an infodemic really describes the situation in which we've found ourselves perhaps in the last few decades, where the idea is that we are bombarded with more information than any of us have ever encountered in human history, and secondly, I think perhaps more importantly, more information than any of us can cope with.
So with increased numbers of news sources and unlimited data available through the internet, the idea is that we're all bombarded with almost any kind of information from any kind of source that we could ever hope for.
This is really a consequence of social media and it's almost creating echo chambers.
Well I think that's been one of the arguments. I personally wouldn't reduce it entirely to social media, because if we think about let's say national news, that used to come to us perhaps from two television channels. Then it was four television channels. Then there was all kinds of satellite television channels. So even the number of news programs, the number of news websites et cetera, those have also grown exponentially just as social media's grown.
Indeed you're right to say that we tend to select, or many of us select news media according to our own points of view and biases. One of the key things that psychologists have pointed out to us in recent years is the idea of a confirmation bias, which is to say we select information in such a way as to confirm what we already know, confirm our own values, our own ideologies, and of course this can lead to a situation where people only listen to information that supports their own world view. As you say, an echo chamber.
I notice some of the various social media platforms like Twitter are now introducing fact check.
Well the fact check - I'm not quite sure where this is going, and the manner in which information has proliferated in recent years leads to a number of social effects, one of which is the availability firstly, of conflicting information and, secondly, perhaps more importantly, what I would call bad faith information. That is it's information that's put out there for reasons of politics, power and control.
Certainly with a platform based in the United States there's very little chance to shut down people's use of that platform obviously because of the United States Constitution and its various amendments. So I think that with this infodemic, with the amount of bad faith information, with many of the social problems that we face which can be exacerbated by inaccurate political information of various kinds, I think there are various actors who feel compelled to try and take on some of the issues that spring up from an infodemic.
Now that's difficult because this is a new problem, it's a complex problem and we're only just beginning to understand firstly, the challenges we face and then secondly, the ways in which we can intervene to meet those challenges. It's a new area.
Let's talk about conspiracy theories because I know you like a conspiracy theory. How does it work? At the moment we have a conspiracy theory about 5G towers and COVID-19.
Yeah, it's an interesting one. There's always been various conspiracy theories, I mean this is nothing new to any of us, but I think one of the points that interest commentators at the moment is the manner in which conspiracy theories seem to have flourished under the conditions that we face in respect of the COVID-19 pandemic. There's all kinds of stories - that is was started in a lab in Wuhan or that - the one that we're particularly interested in with my colleagues, Tim Hill and Stephen Murphy in the United Kingdom, is this idea that 5G masts are able to spread the virus and remove oxygen from the air causing the symptoms associated with COVID-19.
Now what's going on? I don't think any of us are quite sure and to answer that question, it doesn't really matter what's going on. What matters is that there are increasing numbers of people who believe that 5G masts could be causing problems. They believe that that could be a possibility. Now that's what's interesting to us.
So what's going on here? Why are they so tenacious? What is the psychology behind it?
Well that's a good question. The psychologists tend to reduce this problem to the individual level, which is to say that people who believe in conspiracy theories exhibit a certain number of personality traits, shall we say, such as they tend to like to contradict arguments; they're in general suspicious of information. This is an important one: people who believe in conspiracy theories tend to believe that there is a nefarious group of evil people, rather like some kind of pyramid selling scheme - there's a small group of people of immense power who are organising the world around them.
Equally, people who believe in conspiracy theories have been said to exhibit traits of victimhood, an unwillingness to believe in evidence, a willingness to connect dots that shouldn't be connected. These are the psychological traits of people who believe in conspiracy theories.
Now personally I find this rather reductive because it doesn't explain why more people are turning to conspiracy theories at the present moment. It's important to understand that in addition to the possibility for psychological traits that certain kinds of knowledge flourish under changing social conditions. Basically that society is actually important in providing a more or less fertile soil for the production and spread of conspiracy theories.
So my answer to why this is happening now I think would draw on multiple levels, and the first of those would be a climate of fear that people are experiencing. Now in addition to the fight or flight response that we know again psychologically as a response to fear, I think one thing that humans tend to do is to make up stories, okay, to rationalise that which they afraid of, to rationalise that which they can't control. We could call them myths from an anthropological perspective, or we could call them indeed theories, okay. So people make up theories as stories that explain events that they find difficult, challenging or problematic.
So in some ways the production of a conspiracy theory is an entirely rational and normal response for a group of people to make in order to understand something that troubles them. The problem comes in of course is when we ask the question what kind of stories are we making up. Of course the theories that science produces to explain the current pandemic situation, and the theories that conspiracy theorists produce to explain the pandemic situation, are quite different, both in their form and in the content.
Right, so there's a distrust of authority by the sounds of things, and it sounds like there's almost a little bit of paranoia about who's in control, but there also sounds like there's a real desire to make sense of the world, to have an answer, an absolute truth so to speak. So is a conspiracy theory like reverse healthy scepticism and is it a distrust of the body of science?
Yeah, I mean that's - there's a few issues to be unpacked in that question, Andi, and I think you're right. There is a distrust of institutions and in the way that conspiracy theorists are making these theories, there is some kind of proto-scientific method. But I think this partly stems from, as you say, a distrust of scientific public health and government institutions, and in some ways I think we can understand that.
If we take the United Kingdom as an example, the SAGE Committee, the group of scientists who were put together to advise on the response to COVID-19, remained a closed shop. Now the questions then immediately come about well why can't the public know who's on a committee that's making decisions about their livelihood, which I think is a fair and relevant question.
That then introduces an element of paranoia. Now couple that with people's knowledge that governments tend to award contracts to certain people that there are conflicts of interest in the world, that business doesn't always act in the best interests of society, and the word paranoia I think becomes too strong. I think, as you say, it is a general scepticism of institutions and a questioning of the morals, values et cetera of those institutions.
Now that's critical thinking, okay. What we need to put this together with, however - and this is where the problem begins - is the way in which conspiracy theorists make up stories to explain let's say - a popular one at the moment is that Bill Gates has commanded and controlled the pandemic because he is also producing the vaccine. So Bill Gates benefits by spreading the problem and then coming up with the cure and increases his wealth exponentially, right. That's one conspiracy theory that's going around.
The problem is of course is that where a scientific theory would be always subject to contradiction and then subject to what the philosopher Bruno Latour calls trials of strength. That's to say we come up with a theory and then the scientific community rips it down, and what's left - if it's strong enough what's left will then be accepted as truth in inverted commas.
Conspiracy theorists don't do that. First of all they see contradiction as weakness rather than a strength, and secondly, they tend to believe what is compelling. Some of this stuff is fun. There is an emotional aspect to conspiracy theory that raises up our feelings of fear, outrage and then makes us feel that we're part of some kind of secret.
That's really interesting because you can sort of see how corporate and organisational criminality when the bottom line drives everything they do at the expense of society starts to leak into our news and it is a reality, it does happen. So you can see how that can be taken even further.
But you're right; conspiracy theories are so tantalising. I mean in some ways who doesn't love a conspiracy theory, whether it's to laugh at or just get misinformed about and even question what's going on in society. But it's those that have a dogmatic belief that that's really going on can cause other people problems. We see this is in the anti-vaxxers which is of concern as well - which I think is a conspiracy and I have to state my position on that one.
Yeah. I mean I think we can accept that you and I talking about this we do so from a distance point of view and we are taking a fairly detached point of view to the problem, but the problem is I think when we get down onto the level of people who believe in this stuff, because we need to take into account that many of the communities in which these kinds of stories are spreading are indeed alienated communities; people living in post-industrial towns that are looking for some kind of reason to explain why life isn't going quite as well as it should be.
We live in a society that - Hartmut Rosa talks about this idea of accelerationism; that technology moves faster, transport moves faster, life moves faster and we get a shrinking of the present, which is to say that we have no idea what's coming up next. That places people under what we might call a threat of lack of ontological security and lack of knowing what the world around us is going to look like.
That triggers people's fear and when your fear is triggered you look for ways to soothe that fear. If some kind of salve can come along which is simple, shareable, in some ways secret but is known to you, that can make people feel good. It's almost a form of occult knowledge if you like, and by occult I mean an esoteric kind of sense-making for alienated people.
Now I think the anti-vax movement - the anti-vax movement's quite complicated actually. In some ways I think this goes back to a neo-Gnosticism of modern hippies banging their shamanic drums around Byron Bay and trying to get back to the planet.
At the other end of the spectrum there's anti-vaxxers who believe that the government is going to put control chips in the vaccine which then get injected into your body and your freewill will be gone. So we can't really reduce any of this, but at root this goes back to an idea that there are a small number of people at the top of a power pyramid who are supposedly controlling the world around them.
The conspiracy theory in a different format could be seen as advertising - we've all been done in by the odd advertisement that is kind of conspiratorial. It's a reframing of something that seems to speak to our fears and desires or hopes. Isn't shoddy advertising much like a conspiracy theory or clickbait news?
I think shoddy advertising and clickbait news would be second cousins of conspiracy theory. Perhaps the poor cousins of conspiracy theory. But indeed what strikes me as interesting is how many instances of let's say - take the nutrition industry - so throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s we were all told that fat was bad for you and food producers took out fat from food and replaced it with sugar. Now more recently the opposite's come to pass and they're taking out the sugar and fat's back.
So this kind of advertising which is connected to production cycles and the interests of businesses, is actually one of the reasons why people have such scepticism of certain institutions, such as those that relate to nutrition and public health.
So indeed the climate of scepticism I think has been partly produced by unethical business communication practices. Indeed we can talk about those unethical communication practices as being applied to the political arena as well, and when voters are witnessing a set of global leaders, many of whom themselves are promoting what we can only call conspiracy theory, promoting cures to the virus that rely on bleach for example, there is no wonder that people are searching for nefarious groups who they believe to be controlling them. There is no wonder that there is a lack of trust at the moment and I think that is really fuelling and providing the fertile soil for this kind of conspiracy theory to grow.
Is the solution to our education system understanding more about how knowledge is constructed and how science actually works? Whilst it's not a perfect system, it's one of the better ones we have that's able to actually say you know what, we think it's not fat; we actually now think it's sugar.
It's like as if perhaps the audience don't understand that alternative views aren't always equal and that if something hasn't been shown to be correct it may be because the experiments weren't done or that it was done but it was inconclusive. It's like we don't quite understand how to do observation and interpretation. Is that the key to understanding knowledge of the future?
Andi, I think you're absolutely right. I think - I've seen commentators suggest that the antidote to conspiracy theory is the fostering of critical thinking amongst populations. Now personally I think that's far too simple a recommendation. Critical thinking is always done from a point of view. It's always partial in some way. Science is political. Facts don't speak for themselves. Scientists are like spokespeople for facts in the natural sciences, and for that reason the natural sciences, the social sciences, the political sciences always exhibit contradiction and multiple explanations.
Now from the conspiracy theory point of view those contradictions and multiple explanations are taken as a weakness and a sign that something isn't right. Whereas from a sociology or philosophy of science point of view the contradictions are only a natural part of the messy process of getting science done.
Now if somebody carefully explains that to your average 12 year old, that average 12 year old is going to understand. It's not difficult to grasp that conversation, debate and contradiction are part of scientific method, but unless people are educated early on to understand that that's the case and it's not a sign of weakness when scientists contradict each other and when things change around a bit, and that knowledge is partial, I think unless people understand that then these kinds of difficulties that we always face with making knowledge can be misinterpreted. They can turn into this nonsense connecting of the dots where the connections don't really exist.
Is it important to study not just the uncertainty of science but also the element of pseudoscience and how pseudoscience constructs its knowledge?
Yeah, that's an interesting idea. I mean one of the things that interests a lot of people at the moment is ideas that we might call part of a natural health movement. The rise of mindfulness - mindfulness meditation techniques, breathing techniques - these are things that have been taken on by clinical psychology departments around the world and subject to the scientific method of double blind controlled trials and so on and so forth to produce a body of evidence that suggests that these techniques can be good for a range of problems, from depression to anxiety, blood pressure et cetera.
Now at the same time those same or similar techniques have been taken on by an entrepreneurial body of wellness practitioners who set up various courses, online courses, where they charge quite a lot of money to do similar things under quite a different guise. Now what's interesting is we've got a similar set of core techniques of the body, care of the self being bifurcated, separated into on one hand the scientific evidence-based healthcare practice, and on the other hand we have an unchecked, unregulated, untested set of wellness industry practices. I'm thinking about Gwyneth Paltrow and her fondness of things like vaginal steaming as one example.
It's interesting; if we take the example of vaginal steaming, in the medieval period there was the idea that a woman's uterus could wander freely around the body and this was a bad thing. In order to restore the uterus back to its rightful home in the body, the wise practitioners would treat the woman with sweet smells around the vaginal area and bad smells to the nose in order to encourage the uterus away from the upper part of the body and back to its rightful place where the pleasant smells would be wafting.
Now of course it is absolute madness. I mean it's quite fun, but the wellness industry, led by the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow, celebrity who people trust, is taking practice and doing something deeply strange to it. So these conspiracy theories, as you're pointing out as a form of pseudoscience, these are flourishing as well and I think it's a fascinating phenomenon.
What have you found surprising in your research adventures so far?
Do you know Andi I'm surprised and shocked every day of my life, but the work on conspiracy theories surprises me every day, because I'm just shocked and deeply troubled at the general lack of trust in so many institutions, political, health institutions that have been trusted for a long time.
I think that the current infodemic, coupled with this tendency towards scepticism - a belief in nefarious power and a fragmentation of knowledge - is something that's going to be around for a long time, and I think it's something that politicians and educators and science and health practitioners - I think all of these people are going to have to learn to deal with this.
I think there's definitely a swell of distrust there of traditional institutions, but also under guise of civil liberties. People are suggesting that COVID is just a fake laboratory thing that's gone wild and that they have the right not to bend to the virus and to sensible public health measures, which I also find a bit disturbing. So no wonder you're disturbed every day.
I think that one of the issues which I have again found surprising is the manner in which a number of groups in the United States and indeed the President of the United States, have almost attempted to address the virus as if it were a human agency. That is to say, come on, enough is enough, right, and I've heard people speaking to the virus in those terms, as if we could socially construct or use language to get ourselves out of this situation. When in reality this is deeply indicative of human connection to other species and to the natural world.
In that sense I think it betrays a lack of thinking skills which exhibit this human exceptionalism that we exist in a separate world sealed off from nature. I think that's another thing which we're going to have to deal with - is the deep interconnections to other species and the earth and the sites around us, which of course is deeply engrained in the cosmology of the first nations in this country, and I think that's an important thing that we consider.
Wow I think that's really spot on, because it is odd to watch the Americans negotiate with the virus as if it's a civil liberty issue that's infringing on their lifestyle and yet it's a public health issue, and as you say, an issue of the natural world, which we seem to have become distant from.
Robin, next time we smell a conspiracy theory what would you like us to think?
[Laughs] Well, yes, you've done your research, Andi. I'm very interested in the role of smell in society and one of the interesting things of course about smell, as Marcel Proust pointed out, was its ability to immediately transport us to other times and places. Smell seems to operate on our minds and the nose is linked to parts of the mind that function before cognition begins.
So I suppose the thing we have to do is learn to follow our noses and to smell a rat when there is a rat and to trust instinct.
Dr Robin Canniford, thank you very much.
My pleasure Andi. Nice to talk to you.
Thank you to Dr Robin Canniford, Senior Lecturer, Management and Marketing, Faculty of Business and Economics, University of Melbourne. And thanks to our reporter Dr Andi Horvath.
Eavesdrop on Experts - stories of inspiration and insights - was made possible by the University of Melbourne. This episode was recorded on May 28, 2020. You’ll find a full transcript on the Pursuit website. Production, audio engineering and editing by me, Chris Hatzis. Co-production - Silvi Vann-Wall and Dr Andi Horvath. Eavesdrop on Experts is licensed under Creative Commons, Copyright 2020, The University of Melbourne. If you enjoyed this episode, review us on Apple Podcasts and check out the rest of the Eavesdrop episodes in our archive. I’m Chris Hatzis. Join us again next time for another Eavesdrop on Experts.
“The work on conspiracy theories surprises me every day because I’m troubled by the general lack of trust in so many institutions – political and health institutions – that have been trusted for a long time,” says Dr Robin Canniford, Senior Lecturer in Management and Marketing in the Faculty of Business and Economics at the University of Melbourne.
“As to why this is happening now, I would draw on the climate of fear that people are experiencing,” Dr Canniford says. “In addition to the fight or flight response that we know psychologically as a response to fear, I think one thing that humans tend to do is to make up stories to rationalise that which they afraid of and that which they can’t control.”
But Dr Canniford adds that some of the questions raised by the public are fair and relevant.
“If we take the United Kingdom as an example, the SAGE Committee –the group of scientists who were put together to advise on the response to COVID-19 – remained a closed shop. Now the questions then immediately come about, well why can’t the public know who’s on a committee that’s making decisions about their livelihood?”
“And when voters are witnessing a set of global leaders, many of whom themselves are promoting what we can only call conspiracy theory – promoting cures to the virus that rely on bleach for example – it is no wonder that people are searching for nefarious groups who they believe to be controlling them.
“It is no wonder that there is a lack of trust at the moment and I think that is really fuelling and providing the fertile soil for this kind of conspiracy theory to grow.”
Episode recorded: May 28, 2020.
Interviewer: Dr Andi Horvath.
Producer, audio engineer and editor: Chris Hatzis.
Co-production: Silvi Vann-Wall and Dr Andi Horvath.
Banner: Getty Images