Australia’s recent Indigenous Voice referendum was marred by baseless allegations about what it actually meant, including the claim that a successful ‘Yes’ vote would lead to land grabs by the United Nations.
In the United States, Donald Trump has consistently led polls in the race for the Republican presidential nomination, even though he has continued to broadcast the ‘Big Lie’ about the 2020 presidential election being rigged – despite overwhelming evidence it wasn’t.
Conspiracy theories are flourishing in today’s political environment. The reach of social media, increasing misinformation and a loss of faith in political elites and mainstream news are heightening the threat that conspiracy theories pose to governance, debate and the public interest.
Research on tackling conspiracy theories has largely focused on creating new laws, institutions and policies. But these approaches risk placing too many restrictions on speech or creating aggressive monitoring mechanisms, which can ultimately undermine the goal of enhancing democratic debate.
Politicians and other opinion leaders could engage with conspiracy theories through discourse — for example, when they field questions at press conferences or write opinion columns in newspapers or online. How should they use such opportunities to counter conspiracy theories and support the conditions for rational democratic debate?
There are three main discursive approaches to challenging conspiracy theories: ignore, rebut and embrace. Each can be effective if used in the right circumstances.
Sometimes, it may be best to deny the conspiracy theory any airing and, where possible, ignore it, in hopes that it may help suppress it.
During the 2008 US presidential election campaign, a speaker at a Minnesota town hall debate said she didn’t trust then-US Senator Barack Obama because he’s “an Arab”. His opponent, Senator John McCain, seized the microphone and denied the conspiracist any opportunity to elaborate on a theory that was false and bigoted.
After taking away the speaker’s microphone, McCain shut the conspiracy theory down and moved the debate on, curtly replying that his opponent was “a decent family man [and] citizen” who he “happen[ed] to have disagreements with on fundamental issues”.
Sometimes, it’s not possible to stifle a conspiracy theory because it has already spread widely. In that case, direct confrontation and rebuttal may be the best course, especially when armed with substantial evidence that runs counter to the conspiracy.
Trump’s claims of a stolen election are undermined whenever someone points to the 63 lawsuits filed by the former President and his allies — all of which either collapsed or were dismissed due to lack of evidence.