The Dangers of Debating Disinformation

Why going up against conspiracy spreaders isn’t always in your business’ best interests.

As the dangerous impact of disinformation continues to grow, a chorus of voices calling for direct challenges to false information on public platforms is rapidly increasing in number.

For instance, recently Joe Rogan (US comedian, podcast host often found giving platform to guests touting conspiracy theories) invited Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (Democratic presidential candidate, environment lawyer and member of the now infamous Disinformation Dozen, a group of twelve anti-vaxxers responsible for almost two-thirds of anti‑vaccine content circulating on social media platforms as identified by the Centre for Countering Digital Hate) onto his show. 

Together they indulged in a three hour conversation covering conspiracy theories about 5G technology and Wifi, vaccine misinformation and Rogan’s endorsement of Ivermectin – a purported COVID treatment proven to be ineffective in a 2023 study by researchers at Nuffield Department of Medicine’s Mahidol Oxford Tropical Medicine Research Unit.

What followed was a significant ripple effect that sparked heated discussions in online communities, where several prominent personalities – including former Twitter CEO, Elon Musk – offered substantial donations to charity if Dr. Peter Hotez (renowned vaccine researcher, Dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine and Professor of Pediatrics and Molecular Virology & Microbiology at Baylor College of Medicine) agreed to face Kennedy and debate the safety of Covid vaccines. Musk even went so far as to attempt to lure the researcher in by stating that Dr. Hotez was “afraid of a public debate, because he knows he’s wrong”. Dr. Hotez didn’t take the bait. 

So was Dr. Hotez’s decision, as Elon Musk may say, the result of cowardice, or timely wisdom? 

Regardless, we have come to know that debunking misinformation requires a careful and nuanced approach in the battle against falsehoods, with hidden risks to addressing false claims directly thanks to the continued niche media shaping of public discourse.

The Complexity of Debunking Disinformation

Contrary to the belief (and rules) of some, a public debate between Dr. Hotez and known anti-vaxxer, RFK Jr. is not the right approach. Indeed, according to the UK Government Communications Service (GCS) Wall of Beliefs (a framework developed by UK GCS to help communications professionals fight misinformation), common strategies like mythbusting and offering rebuttals are often employed to counter disinformation, but their impact is limited and worse, can backfire. 

Moreover, as Wall of Beliefs explains, the hidden risk that comes with publicly challenging false information comes in the form of unintentional, yet hugely damaging amplification of the 

Misinformation. This is because as a result of social media algorithms, misinformation is then exposed to a wider audience, increasing its potent negative impact on the debate in question.

This unintended consequence often occurs when false claims are directly addressed on official channels, making them more memorable and seemingly credible. Which in an already polarised political climate, can provide further fodder and sound bites for rightwing influencers to push their agenda. Indeed confronting myths head-on can inadvertently create the illusion of a legitimate debate which fuels perception there are two valid sides to the issue at hand, and more alarmingly, two ‘truths’. 

Therefore, rather than default engagement in blanket debates, it is hugely important to evaluate the existing narratives and beliefs already at play. Without understanding the core of the misinformation, it is not possible to develop an effective response strategy. But, by carefully assessing the impact and prevalence of the false information, organisations can improve their chances of mitigating this growing threat to reputations.

The New Age “Truth-tsellers

What are the true motivations behind Joe Rogan’s actions? Is he genuinely focused on sharing truth or are his actions designed to put himself in the spotlight? Perhaps, like many others, money has a bigger part to play in his narrative. In fact, it’s worth noting that Joe Rogan himself has a deal worth over $200 million with Spotify to host his show exclusively.

In her article in Noema, disinformation researcher Renee diResta, discusses the rise of niche media (influential independent creators who cater to niche audiences) and how it factors into propaganda and changing public perception. DiResta specifically highlights the emergence of these “persecution profiteers,” individuals, who from railing against corporate media, Big Tech, and elites on social media platforms like Twitter are making big bucks. In fact this niche media ecosystem – driven by platforms such as YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok – have made it possible for content creators with millions of followers to shape culture and influence public discourse. 

Put that together with a factionalized public that increasingly distrusts mass media and institutions and the speed, breadth and depth of propaganda reach is transformed and not in a positive way. Indeed, DiResta explains how media-of-one outlets catering to specific subcultures are targeting susceptible audiences to serve only the creator’s objectives.

So what’s next?

Joe Rogan’s guest should cause you to feel alarmed. For individuals and organisations tackling health misinformation, granting Robert F. Kennedy Jr and his vaccine conspiracy theories a public platform, including potential participation in public debates – not only legitimises the misinformation but also perpetuates the cycle of toxic debate that has far-reaching consequences for public health and societal trust. 

Is there hope to be had?

In the midst of our complex information landscape, disinformation thrives and demands strategic responses that must go beyond a spectacle of public debates and challenges to have the remotest chance of succeeding. 

At Lynn, we understand the importance of understanding, navigating, and effectively responding to mis and disinformation in a proactive manner. Our expertise lies in supporting organisations before, during, and after crises or disruptions, ensuring they are equipped to tackle the challenges posed by misinformation. If you are interested in learning more about our approach and how it can support your organisation, please reach out to us. We are here to assist you in safeguarding your reputation and maintaining trust in the face of misinformation.

– Written by Kasturi Girme, The Misinformation Cell

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