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Stop the spread – of disinformation, lies and conspiracy theories

Introduction by Croakey: False claims started spreading about the Bondi Junction stabbing attack as soon as it happened, The Guardian reported this week, in an article that illustrated some of the forces involved in the spread of misinformation and disinformation, ranging from commercial incentives to ideological agendas, xenophobia, racism, and human error.

It’s a reminder that tackling misinformation and disinformation requires a whole-of-society response involving all levels of government; the issues involved are so pervasive that no single sector or discipline or government can be effective unilaterally.

Individuals too can make a difference, in becoming informed about the evidence and how they can be part of the solutions.

Alison Verhoeven, who has long experience working in health policy and also has a background in communications, recently undertook a free online course on tackling conspiracy theories and disinformation, and shares some of her take-aways below.

Her article is the first in a mini-series at Croakey on tackling misinformation and disinformation.

Readers may also be interested in two upcoming events that Croakey plans to cover:


Alison Verhoeven writes:

Making the headlines in The Guardian recently, former Health Minister and Prime Minister Tony Abbott is quoted as describing the Morrison Government’s COVID measures as a “grotesque overreaction” to a “relatively mild pandemic”.

Speaking on a podcast hosted by Graham Hood, a former leader of the anti-vaccine mandate movement, Abbott described his opposition to vaccine mandates as “my body, my choice” although clarified that he had received COVID vaccinations.

When questioned about ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine, two unproven treatments for COVID touted by former President Trump, Abbott avoided endorsing conspiracy theories, but referred to “vested interests” in the scientific community, and suggested Australia should not bind itself to the directions of international bodies like the World Health Organization.

While Australia was fortunate not to have science sceptics leading us during the pandemic, almost everyone formed views on how the pandemic should be handled and how health should be protected.

Stories were widely shared across both mainstream and social media, in private and public, often with little evidence and sometimes with malicious intent.

Disinformation (the deliberate sharing of false information), misinformation (sharing false information by mistake), and malinformation (information which is true but is shared with intent to cause harm or embarrassment) are striking features of the contemporary media landscape, and health information is not immune.

The association between conspiracy theories, anti-vaccine sentiments, and reluctance to follow public health directives has been widely canvassed in the academic literature. See, for example:

An opportunity

Public health and health promotion experts interested in countering conspiracy theories and disinformation may find useful a free course released this month by the Thomson Foundation with the support of Bellingcat.

The course, Rethinking disinformation: psychology, prebunking and other tactics to halt the spread, draws on social psychology research to explore why people believe lies and subscribe to conspiracy theories.

It proposes strategies to stop false claims from spreading, including how to identify those at risk of being exposed to conspiracy theories, prebunking or getting in early to counteract false information, using technology to identify false information, and a methodology quaintly described as the Truth Sandwich.

While aimed at journalists, this free course requires an approximate three-hour time commitment and is highly relevant to anyone interested and concerned about the overwhelming amount of misinformation, disinformation and malinformation appearing across all forms of media, including social and mainstream outlets.

Some key takeaways from the course include:

  • Tweets containing false information are more likely to be retweeted than accurate tweets.
  • Conspiracy theories often originate in periods of social unrest, but technology and social media help to spread them faster and further. This is particularly the case in languages other than English, where there may be a lack of platform moderators in those languages.
  • Interviewing antivaxxers, in the name of ‘balanced reporting’, is unlikely to achieve anything other than giving their unfounded views further publicity.
  • Don’t ignore conspiracy theories and false narratives – try to understand how and why misinformation and disinformation is being spread so it can be tackled early.
  • Be transparent about why the information may be false, and provide evidence to support your position.
  • Use open source intelligence tools such as Google Reverse Image Search to detect manipulated images and audio.

And the Truth Sandwich, proposed by Cambridge University Professor of Social Psychology Sander van der Linden:

  1. State the facts
  2. Briefly mention the falsehood
  3. Repeat the facts.

Test yourself

Finally, if you think you are immune to falling into the false information trap, you can test yourself out on the University of Cambridge Misinformation Susceptibility Test, a link to which is provided in the course, and can also be accessed here.

I was pleased to achieve a 100 percent score in identifying fake news stories, although perhaps I am becoming overly weighed down by the prevalence of fake news and too sceptical as my ability to correctly identify real news was lower, at 90 percent.

What really bothered me was that I was more resilient to misinformation than 89 percent of Americans, particularly given the forthcoming United States election and the dominance of the Trump candidacy.

Access the free Thomson Foundation course aimed at stopping the spread of disinformation, lies and conspiracy theories here.

• Alison Verhoeven is a director of Croakey Health Media


The next article in this mini-series on misinformation and disinformation will preview the World Health Summit panel discussion.

See Croakey’s extensive archive of articles on misinformation and disinformation