2020 has seen an explosion of conspiracy theories populating social media and online spaces, challenging mainstream discourse. With information more easily accessible than ever before, COVID-19 now presents itself as an opportune time for conspiracy theorists to exploit community fears for political motives.
In 2020, new actors such as celebrities on social media have increased the prominence of such theories, framing themselves as activists against a repressive state. The rise of conspiracy theories thus raises significant questions about how alternative ideas have been utilized by new actors to disrupt dominant discourse.
Celebrities as a New Actor
Increased connectivity on social media has meant that information has become more available than ever before. Importantly, certain voices are amplified and legitimized more than others. One of the most prominent new actors that have emerged in the conspiracy theory space during COVID-19 has been that of celebrities on social media. An example of this is Madonna in July 2020 when she posted a video suggesting that the COVID-19 vaccine was being withheld by governments and corporations in order to control the masses through fear, allowing the “rich to get richer.” Whilst quickly removed from Instagram, this video was shared with 15 million global followers and widely reported on celebrity news sites.
Madonna is not alone. Woody Harrelson, Lewis Hamilton, and Jason Cardiner are just three more celebrities that have taken to social media to suggest that health authorities have ulterior motives for researching potential COVID-19 vaccinations. What is arguably most alarming about these media posts is the fact that celebrities often generate increased engagement in online spaces, holding significant influence over followers. This increases the reach and spread of conspiracy theories whilst also appearing simultaneously harmless and ordinary entertainment news. This is particularly threatening because it popularizes and legitimizes conspiracy theories into the mainstream, providing greater opportunities for theorists to advance their ideas.
To make matters worse, conspiracy theory supporters not only capitalize on those celebrity posts, but they also use advanced marketing techniques to increase the reach of those statements. As celebrities are now posting these theories online, it is more easily transmittable information. An example of this has been anti-vaccination movements that have exploited social media algorithms to target individuals fearful of government interference or those interested in alternative medicine. Conspiracy theorists in 2020 are more than capable of using the same techniques, sharing and reposting celebrity comments to generate increased engagement in their theories. With COVID-19 placing movement restrictions on millions around the world, online mediums such as social media posts are a new and highly effective tactic to increase support. Therefore, celebrity posts themselves not only promote alternative theories but can be utilized by conspiracy theorists to popularize and legitimize certain ideas.
How can we counter conspiracy theory narratives?
Dismissing conspiracy theories as trivial and ludicrous can often alienate theory believers, marginalizing them from society even further. Characterizing supporters of theories as irrational frequently plays into conspiracy theory assertions that public institutions and the state play critical roles in suppressing the movement. The more the media demonizes these ideas, the more conspiracy theorists are convinced that news corporations seek to suppress their “knowledge.” Rather than countering narratives, this instead feeds into public mistrust of governments.
Instead of sidelining and dismissing theories, it may be important to increase engagement with individuals and conspiracy theory believers. One must recognize that 2020 has proved a frightening year for many, resulting in increased isolation. To prevent the influence of conspiracy theories from proliferating, awareness must be raised about why individuals may be turning to these ideas, addressing their health concerns. Rather than presenting confrontational arguments with an air of disbelief, asking serious questions about the theory, its scientific basis and origins will often provoke debate and reflection.
It is essential that misinformation and false theories do not become mainstream. Encouraging widespread mistrust of public institutions threatens the very foundations of democratic systems and legitimate governments. So long as they remain effective on social media, conspiracy theorists will likely continue increasing their influence, thriving on online spaces despite significant backlash from mainstream society. Rather than dismissing health anxieties as trivial, proactive engagement with marginalized groups will enable greater and more open discourse. It is therefore crucial that societies recognize existing community concerns, understand how conspiracy theories gain influence, and counteract them in the public health space.