This is a guest blog written by Media Measurement, a leading digital research consultancy that pairs data-driven technology with insight-led human analysis to help organisations filter through the increasingly noisy spaces of online and offline media.
In the early months of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has dominated news headlines and public conversation, resulting in a saturated communication environment replete with confusing, contradictory, and often outright false information.
In this general context, social media platforms host alternative modes of online participation in civil discourse - from honest engagement in debate to disruptive or subversive communication - which compete in an open forum. With governments and public health bodies battling this growing ‘infodemic’ while simultaneously beset by the actual epidemiological emergency, conspiracy theory, in particular, threatens to disrupt the effective transfer of information and erode popular confidence in public institutions.
Media Measurement’s latest white paper explores the scale, density and interconnectedness of the various conspiracy theory communities mobilising in response to COVID-19, in particular anti-5G and anti-vaccination communities, and the risks that they pose for trust in public institutions.
Key research takeaways
Anti-5G and anti-vaccination communities have grown significantly on Twitter. That process accelerated after the UK lockdown, when an influx of new participants appeared to migrate towards the controversial truth claims of conspiracy theory more readily than to the information response promoted by public health professionals.
This evolution is partly caused by a strategy of interconnectedness between different discourses, which supports the cross-pollination of ideas between different topics and audiences driven by network hubs that act as "super-spreaders".
Community cohesion is an important factor in this equation, but there is a kind of asymmetry in RT behaviour on Twitter which benefits conspiracy theory. Misinformation generally spreads more quickly, partly because of the architecture of social media, which incentivises shocking or controversial content.
Conspiracy theory communities have proven adept at building this kind of cohesion, which helps in the promotion of their narrative and truth claims.
Networks of professionals with a shared interest can develop strong communities that consolidate a strategic narrative.
This is a necessary approach – because with an interactive and collaborative digital presence, public institutions will be better able to develop an information frontier that offers a viable response to misinformation and disinformation online.
To find out more, you can access Media Measurement’s white paper ‘Tinfoil Trust: Mapping Conspiracy Theories During COVID-19’ here.