I wrote this op-ed back in June, but Gov. Shapiro rebuilt I-95 too quickly and kept making the piece less relevant.
There's been an interesting rise in conspiracy theories during local crisis events. It presents an interesting challenge for crisis communicators and crisis managers.
How do you fight fake news, misinformation, disinformation, and conspiracy theories? Why is disinformation and misinformation becoming more common even for relatively mundane events and topics?
Your organization must be prepared to monitor social media and the news. You must build this process into your communications plan. Crisis PR firms and organizations must identify ways to flood the zone with accurate, timely information and content while working with local news and influencers to get out correct information.
It's a new challenge for many organizations involved in crisis management, but something that all crisis communicators and managers must adapt to so they can mitigate crises.
Fake News, Misinformation, Disinformation, Conspiracy Theories and Crisis Management
Last Friday, the first vehicles drove across a newly rebuilt I-95 after Gov. Josh Shapiro and his
administration restored the roadway in a head spinning 12 days after many experts predicted a months-long closure.
A little over two weeks ago, Philadelphians woke up to the news that a main artery for motorists had collapsed after a tanker fire compromised the structural integrity of I-95. The northbound road fell, and the southbound lanes suffered significant damage, enough to close them.
What happened in the next two weeks will be studied in communications and engineering classes for years to come. Gov. Shapiro put on a masterclass of marshaling resources and leading a response.
But one interesting aspect of the crisis bubbled up early on and simmered under the surface
It’s the proliferation of conspiracy theories and disinformation for localized crises and
Almost as quickly as the road fell, conspiracy theories began circulating. Theories that originated on social media drifted quickly into mainstream coverage.
We’re used to seeing this happen with national events, but an immediate conspiracy spiral is a
somewhat new phenomenon for a relatively local, contained event.
When I worked for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and led responses to events like the
2015 Amtrak derailment in Philadelphia, we did not face the same deluge of conspiracy theories for localized events. Sure, there was some speculation about the cause of accidents, but it seemed more like innocuous curiosity.
Today, you must be prepared for the most local story – and conspiracy theories surrounding it – to turn into a viral event that moves from Tik Tok to Facebook to Reddit to national news and then local news. News directors and editors are attuned to what is getting attention online. If a local story gets views and clicks, it will be pulled into the national cycle with incredible speed.
Why is this happening, and what changed?
COVID-19 Changed News and Information Consumption
The COVID-19 pandemic changed people’s relationships with news and facts.
Conspiracy theories that would have otherwise stayed beneath the surface spread quickly through social media, especially Facebook. Closed groups and impenetrable algorithms made it difficult to track the latest theory. Only after it had circulated on closed groups for days or weeks did discussion threads begin to emerge on platforms like Reddit or larger, conspiracy-heavy media sites like that of Alex Jones. Some see figures like Jones as being on the cutting edge of these theories; in truth, they act more as a microphone or accelerant of an already-popular theory.
During COVID, people from all political persuasions and walks of life became comfortable
dabbling in conspiracy, from liberals who theorized about Trump to conservatives who attacked vaccines.
Some Conspiracy Theories Were Accurate
Sometimes, the guy wearing a tin foil hat is right.
Over the last few years, we’ve seen some of the craziest-sounding conspiracies proven correct.
For decades, a subculture of people insisted that the CIA was conducting mind-control
experiments on Americans. It sounded completely unhinged. Then MK Ultra was revealed, and it turns out that your nutty uncle was right.
In this new context, the risk-reward calculus of participating in a conspiracy theory has changed.
Sure, if you’re wrong you might look foolish, but with attention spans being shorter than ever,
much goes down the memory hole. And if you’re right, you get to wear it like a badge of honor.
For Some, Facts Are Now Fluid
As national news outlets, the scientific community, and higher education have become less
trusted, people have become used to relying on new sources of information with less academic or research vigor. There is a cottage industry of organizations producing research of questionable value, and people have become more accustomed to “doing their own research” and falling back on less-than-credible sources.
Whether it’s an industry-funded study, a lightly reviewed journal, or simply a favorite YouTube
channel, many people have access to bad information. They’ve become used to consuming it
without relying on formerly trusted sources to fact-check it.
Social Media – Especially TikTok - Rewards Conspiracy
It’s easy to blame everything on social media. But when it comes to the acceleration of local
conspiracies, social media really is to blame.
What a few neighbors used to whisper over a fence is now shared across a local Facebook group or on Nextdoor. Maybe your Reddit page on Philadelphia is the home of the newest conspiracy.
It depends on an unpaid moderator’s discretion as to whether it stays up.
Facebook has played a big role, too. Closed Facebook groups nurture and grow conspiracies,
involving everything from COVID-19 to election misinformation. The platform recognizes that
misinformation is a problem, but it has not handled the problem effectively.
Conspiracies and misinformation primarily spread as organic news - information that an
individual posts on their own; in response, Facebook blocked political advertising, including
government advertising. These blocks impede legitimate organizations from getting important
messages out – for example, local election boards, which cannot put up postings to say that they are diligently counting votes.
TikTok poses an even more significant problem for conspiracies. Videos on the platform move
extremely quickly and can get fed directly into a user’s For You page.
In all these cases, the conspiracy performs much better than the debunking. Getting traction for explanations is much more challenging than gaining attention for the original conspiracies.
These factors have conspired to move conspiracy culture from a national focus into more local
How do you fight conspiracy theories?
Combating conspiracies and misinformation in local crises is more challenging than ever, but
many of Gov. Shapiro’s communications tactics showed how you can fight back.
There are a few barriers to success for many organizations.
First, most practitioners just aren’t used to dealing with a conspiracy spiral. They’re accustomed to working directly with local media sources, in whom they retain confidence, even as trust in national media has eroded.
Second, conspiracies are challenging to track as they bounce across social media channels.
Organizations need a process in place to track conversations across mediums.
Third, many organizations, especially government and smaller organizations, often must catch up on social media strategy.
The best approach for any organization is to build conspiracy-monitoring and tracking into its
planning, even for the most seemingly benign scenarios, and have a multi-channel
communications approach with holding statements and a content strategy ready to go.
The Shapiro Administration executed two textbook responses by connecting with local
influencers and flooding the zone with the traffic cam.
They built relationships with local influencers. Even though conspiracy rebuttals don’t get the
traction of the conspiracy itself, you need to get your content out on an equal medium or
platform with trusted messengers.
Finally, you need to overwhelm and flood the zone with accurate information and content, from press conferences to videos to statements to partnerships with influencers. For the I-95 collapse, the Shapiro administration’s live cam as well as a constant stream of annotated videos gave people something to consume in place of errant conspiracies.
Many local officials are probably surprised to learn that they’ve been sucked into the conspiracy cycle and that something as innocuous as a car accident can feed conspiracies that move from Nextdoor to Facebook to the local news. But as the I-95 collapse shows us, everything can be conspiratorial, even a local story. We all need to be prepared for it now.