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When people are afraid, conspiracy theories offer answers to calm those fears – news literacy expert

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When people are afraid, conspiracy theories offer answers to calm those fears - news literacy expert

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Conspiracy theories need an outside actor to place blame, an actor who bolsters the us vs them aspects, and wealthy, influential figures like George Soros and Bill Gates fit the stereotype of a powerful, shadowy figure manipulating events.

EURACTIV.ro spoke with experts from the News Literacy Project, a nonprofit that seeks to develop smart news consuming habits and stop the spread of misinformation, about the enemy at the center of almost all conspiracy theories and how Bill Gates became the actor to blame for COVID-19 spread.

 

The answers were provided by John Silva, Senior Director of Education Training the News Literacy Project, and Charles Salter, President and Chief Operating Officer the News Literacy Project.

EURACTIV.ro: Why do you think it’s easier for many people to believe that Bill Gates can inject chips through vaccination than trust medical personalities who speak about the benefits of vaccines?

News Literacy Project: One of the reasons why people believe conspiracy theories is that they provide simple answers to complex problems and fears. Its important to first keep in mind that opposition to vaccines is a spectrum. Many people are hesitant about vaccines but generally trust them. The challenge is that once someone begins down a path of accepting anti-vaccine falsehoods, they become more susceptible to conspiratorial thinking. This leads to a breakdown of critical thinking and a prevalence of cognitive dissonance. Someone who is strongly anti-vaccine will believe almost anything that supports their views of the dangers of vaccines. This is called “motivated reasoning along with confirmation bias. 

In recent months, anti-vaccine conspiracy theorists have pushed beliefs that the COVID-19 pandemic was created in a lab as a way to force vaccinations on the public. As fears around the pandemic grew, other conspiracy theories relating to vaccines increased in popularity, spread primarily is closed Facebook groups. The belief about injecting microchips through vaccines was part of that along with the belief that COVID-19 was spread through 5G networks. 

When people are afraid, conspiracy theories offer answers to calm those fears in ways that address the emotional response. Medical professionals often appeal to reason and logic. When it comes to conspiracy theories, reason and logic dont work because people who believe in the conspiracy favor motivated reasoning over true critical thinking because they reject any evidence that does not support their beliefs.

EURACTIV.ro: Why some of the misinformation strategies are focused on personalities most people know almost nothing – Soros, Gates – and not on people the public might be more familiar and maybe already invested with negative traits – let’s say, Putin or even Trump?

News Literacy Project: At the center of many conspiracy theories is an “enemy. This person or organization is the powerful force that is driving the conspiracy. Mr. Soros is a popular target for conspiracy theories mainly because he is Jewish and very wealthy. In particular, far-right wing conspiracy theorists target him because of his financial and philanthropic support for democratic politicians and causes. Since he isnt a visible public figure, he fits the stereotype of the mysterious, wealthy man pulling the strings behind the scenes. 

Similarly, Bill Gates also fits this stereotype because of his wealth and where he puts his money. The less we know about a person, the easier it is for us to believe conspiracy theories involving them. In the US, there are many conspiracy theories that involved President Trump, as well as former President Obama. These though are usually part of larger conspiracy theories with people like Mr. Soros or shadowy, powerful organizations manipulating events behind the scenes.

EURACTIV.ro: Speaking of, at least in Europe, conspiracy theories replaced Soros with Bill Gates. Soros was already the world’s “public enemy”. Will Bill Gates become another public enemy or he is just a “regional product”?

News Literacy Project: Mr. Gates is certainly becoming a more popular figure in conspiracy theories, in particular relating to the confluence of anti-vaccine, 5G and COVID-19 pandemic related beliefs. In recent years, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has significantly increased their support for vaccine programs around the world. As conspiracy theories try to tie vaccines and/or 5G technology to the pandemic, the Gates Foundation fits the stereotype of the powerful organization, not connected to any government influencing events. This is especially likely because of the global reach of social media and how many people are affected by the pandemic.

EURACTIV.ro: How can one efficiently debunk the theories that Bill Gates and other billionaires want to control population growth through vaccination?

News Literacy Project: The first step is to avoid being confrontational. People who believe conspiracy theories have internalized their beliefs to the point where they are an integral part of their identities. Being confrontational, mocking or insulting will cause a “backfire effect causing the person to feel attacked and compelled to hold to their beliefs tighter. Instead, use empathy and questioning techniques designed to prompt the person to look at new evidence for themselves. The main challenge though is that the deeper into a conspiracy someone is, they are less likely to trust any evidence that contradicts their beliefs. In effect, we cant debunk such beliefs for people who truly believe in conspiracy theories, especially since they constantly have their beliefs reinforced in the echo chambers of closed social media groups. We can only work to keep people from starting to believe it.

People are drawn to conspiracy theories for a number of reasons. Among the most common is a sense of fear about something. Anti-vaccine conspiracy theories are an excellent example of this. Many people who become anti-vaccine do so from either a general fear and anxiety about being a new parent or because someone has suffered a vaccine injury. A common pathway is that they find a closed Facebook group focused on anti-vaccine beliefs. In such groups, they find an echo chamber driven by motivated reasoning and confirmation bias. Only information that supports the anti-vaccine beliefs is allowed and contradictory evidence is shunned. In this environment, believers also engage in “patternicity, an effort to create patterns from disparate facts or events to “prove a belief. An example of this is a post where a map of 5G networks is compared to a map of COVID-19 outbreaks. The similarities are used as “evidence to prove that 5G causes COVID-19. 

 

Conspiracy theories flourish when critical thinking is hijacked in favor of motivated reasoning, logical fallacies and confirmation biases and any evidence that can be manipulated to prove the belief is accepted no matter how strong contradictory evidence may be or how easily the belief can be proven false.

To further these beliefs, conspiracy theories need an outside actor to place blame. This “enemy bolsters the “us vs them aspects of people who believe the conspiracy theory fighting to prove their “truth. Wealthy, influential figures like George Soros and Bill Gates fit the stereotype of a powerful, shadowy figure manipulating events.

The most difficult aspect of conspiracy theories is that once someone truly believes it becomes almost impossible to change their beliefs and makes them more vulnerable to believing other conspiracy theories.

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Sanders and Schumer call on McConnell to hold hearings to fight election conspiracy theories – KTVZ

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Sanders and Schumer call on McConnell to hold hearings to fight election conspiracy theories - KTVZ

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Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer of New York are calling on Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to create a new bipartisan committee focused on election integrity and schedule hearings to reassure Americans over a process President Donald Trump has repeatedly sought to undermine.

There is growing anxiety among Democrats, and some Republicans, that Trump will not only continue to sow doubt over the legitimacy of the coming election but throw the subsequent count into chaos by declaring victory before all the votes can be tallied, including the millions that will arrive by mail.

In a letter to McConnell, Sanders and Schumer quote back the Kentucky senator’s own words, in which he attested to the reliability of mail-in voting by citing its successes in Oregon, Washington and Colorado, which have been using the system for years.

Trump has repeatedly questioned the validity of mail-in voting, promoted conspiracy theories questioning election security, called on supporters to act as unsanctioned “poll watchers,” and suggested that the absence of a clear result by the evening of November 3 would in some way cast doubt on the eventual outcome. Key allies in powerful positions, like Attorney General Bill Barr, have followed suit. Barr has persisted in puffing up a debunked claim that ballots received by mail would somehow strip the sender of their privacy — ignoring well-established safeguards.

By escalating the matter now, Sanders and Schumer are responding to growing concern, in partisan and nonpartisan spaces, that Americans are not adequately prepared for the potential of a longer-than-usual wait for results or Trump’s willingness to short-circuit the democratic process if he smells defeat.

“Democrats and Republicans in Congress must come together to ensure that we have a free and fair election where every vote is cast and counted without intimidation,” Sanders told CNN, “where no one has to put his or her health in danger to cast a ballot, and where we have full confidence in the results.”

The proposed hearings would invite a cross-section of election officials from across the country to testify to the security and reliability of mail-in, early- and in-person voting — subjects on which Sanders and Schumer, again, referenced McConnell’s own words.

“Despite the clear security of our vote-by-mail system, some have continued to undermine it with unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud,” they wrote. “As you have correctly said, people ‘can vote early, you can vote on Election Day, or you can drop it in the mail,’ and that voters should ‘not worry about your vote not counting.’”

The minority leader and Sanders, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, also want more detailed discussion about the fraught hours, or days, after the polls close and a real-time watch of the election horse race potentially swings from one candidate to another.

“We know a number of states may well be counting ballots for a period of time after Election Day, and that those votes may be determinative in this election,” the senators wrote to McConnell. “To avoid disinformation, conspiracy theories, and suspicion about results, we must understand the likely timeline for this process.”

The letter goes on to reference the recent war games-style preparations conducted by a group called the Transition Integrity Project, a bipartisan gathering of operatives and academics that made headlines when some of the outcomes of their exercises — including “both street-level violence and political impasse” — were reported on in late July.

“A bipartisan group of experts and officials have studied multiple scenarios where the outcome of the election was not immediately known. Some of these scenarios resulted in unrest and even violence,” Sanders and Schumer wrote, suggesting the Senate should elevate similar discussions and familiarize the public with the uncertainties ahead. “We would like to hear from the most knowledgeable people in the country as to how we can do everything possible to make sure that the election and the period afterward is secure and peaceful.”

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HHS official sorry for conspiracy theory video

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HHS official sorry for conspiracy theory video

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HHS supported Caputo, with a statement that called him a critical, integral part of the presidents coronavirus response, leading on public messaging as Americans need public health information to defeat the COVID-19 pandemic.

There was no immediate statement from the White House.

Attempts to reach Caputo were unsuccessful.

On Capitol Hill, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., called on Azar to fire Caputo, accusing the spokesman of trying to interfere with CDC reports to the medical and scientific community, as well as the public at large. And Senate Minority leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., called on Azar himself to resign, citing interference with the CDC as one example of what he termed the administration’s failures.

Officials at CDC have privately complained of recent efforts by political appointees at main HHS to try to edit or press for changes in the agency’s weekly MMWR publications, a go-to resource for public health professionals.

MMWR articles are technical, but they reveal telling details. One published earlier this year noted that while Trump’s travel restrictions dramatically reduced travel from China in February, nothing was being done at that time to restrict travel from Italy and Europe, where the coronavirus was spreading widely and rapidly. Analysis of virus samples from hard-hit New York in March suggested it was introduced there from Europe and other parts of the U.S., the CDC article reported.

Caputo is an unswerving Trump loyalist. His recent book, The Ukraine Hoax, claims the presidents phony impeachment was rooted in a vast conspiracy.

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unwinona:This is exactly what conspiracy theorists and anti-vaxxers have done with their HIV/AIDS…

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unwinona:This is exactly what conspiracy theorists and anti-vaxxers have done with their HIV/AIDS...

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My RSS Feedunwinona:

This is exactly what conspiracy theorists and anti-vaxxers have done with their HIV/AIDS and Polio narrative (among others), only we’re seeing it escalated to weeks and months instead of years or decades.

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