Don’t dismiss the tin foil hat: what communicators can learn from conspiracy theories

By Charlie Crossley, Account Manager 

Misinformation can do massive damage to an organisation’s name. Good reputations are hard-earned, but audiences can be quick to judge. Rumours or half-truths can undermine years of hard work in an instant.

Conspiracy theories are arguably the most extreme form of misinformation. These campaigns often start at the grassroots level, based on unfounded or unscientific claims, yet can grow to have global influence.

One theory currently circulating contends that the 5G network causes Covid-19. Scientists are certain this isn’t the case, but that hasn’t prevented network engineers being assaulted, and 5G masts burnt down. In Peru, an eight-person maintenance crew was even kidnapped for several days by people who believed 5G masts would make them ill.

It’s easy to dismiss this as fringe hysteria, but it’s the job of comms professionals to mitigate these kinds of risks. Take a closer look at these conspiracy theory trends and there are some vital lessons on how communicators can beat misinformation and protect reputations.

Tough subjects will always be a tough sell

The more difficult something is to understand, the more likely people are to fall for bogus claims about it. Anti-vaxxers are a case in point: immunology is complicated, so vaccination is fertile ground for untruths. Similarly, the physics underpinning 5G – which tells us bizarre things like some particles can be in two places at once – isn’t something you can understand using common sense alone.

When communicating something complex, keep the message simple. You only control the message you are sending out, so simplicity leaves less room for interpretation. And while it isn’t possible to completely prevent misinformation or scaremongering, it is possible to provide audiences with the tools they need to unpick it. Be proactive about informing audiences – transparency creates trust organically.

Tackle bad publicity early

5G conspiracy theories had been circulating the quirkier parts of the internet for years before coronavirus tipped them into the mainstream. Anti-vaxxers have an even longer history – way back in 1772 a clergyman in England gave a sermon on “The Dangerous and Sinful Practice of Inoculation”. Yet recent events have also turned these from fringe sentiments to something frighteningly common.

Comms professionals should not underestimate the explosive potential of a negative story. Today’s media climate is volatile – news is always on, breaking news is almost instant, and genuine scoops are rare. All of this creates an environment where it’s easy for something discussed on a niche internet forum one day to make its way to headline news the next. Pay attention to those smaller voices and make sure your monitoring is comprehensive. You can only use a fire extinguisher as a fire starts – after that, you have to use something bigger.

Beware that which is out of your control

5G is a technology rather than a single brand or company. Having multiple actors makes it more difficult to coordinate a meaningful strategy.

A comms professional working for a 5G-related organisation faces a dilemma: focus too much on your communications and you risk splintering the message. Give up too much of your autonomy and you weaken your brand’s contribution. And by associating your brand with others, you create the expectation that they will uphold your values, too.

No case will be the same, but it is always a good idea to agree on a simple core message across parties early on, then deliver that message through mutually agreed spokespersons. For the largest campaigns it may be necessary to set up a centralised body.

Being informative should be part of your purpose

Conspiracy theories are often portrayed as a bit of harmless fun. But misinformation presents serious threats to both business and wider society.

Last year the WHO declared anti-vaxxers one of the top ten global health threats, and climate change deniers continue to hold back progressive debate on energy. These groups are based on pseudoscientific beliefs easily dismissed by scientific studies, yet have become incredibly influential.

If your business believes in purpose, make beating misinformation part of that agenda. Misinformation will continue to present enormous challenges to society over the coming decade. Communications professionals must play their part in overcoming it.