Conclusion and policy implications

Explanations provided by conspiracy theorists and extremists about most human challenges are often built upon underlying master narratives that have a clear storyline, are expressed in general terms, and trace the issue at hand back to ancient origins. They meet the human need for cognitive closure and certitude, are conveyed in familiar and established narrative structures, and ride on cognitive vulnerabilities and biases. Evidence-based explanations of the same challenges, if a compelling explanation exists at all, are often diverse, complex, and difficult to frame into narratives, and in most of them a historical continuity does not exist. For the human brain, which strives to find the most cost-effective solutions that require less cognitive processing, narratives of conspiracists and extremists win.

The transformation of the media landscape from its domination by traditional big players to the internet and online social media has disproportionately intensified these inherent vulnerabilities. Without the existence of mechanisms of oversight, verification, or fact-checking, these media have turned into a hotbed of misinformation, disinformation, conspiracies, and extremist narratives. When supported by malign state players, these targeted information operations can turn into weapons of mass manipulation or a “narrative arms race”.50 Several studies have pinpointed how conspiracy theories about Covid-19 have been disseminated by news outlets or social media accounts affiliated with China, Russia, and Iran.51

Based on the studies consulted for this article, governments need to enhance critical thinking skills across the population to empower people to overcome cognitive biases that underlie most narratives of conspiracists and extremists. Training in critical thinking is the most significant long-term solution: it needs to be consistently integrated within the educational system from early childhood to adulthood. Studies have demonstrated that belief in conspiracy theories is lower in people with higher levels of analytic thinking.52 Given the negative correlation between the study of humanities and social sciences and the tendency to join extremist groups, an effective strategy is to invest in public humanities, especially for vulnerable demographics.53

A similar strategy is to communication health and anti-extremist content in ways that are easier to access, process, and remember. This requires an effective and evidence-based use of narratives, stories, metaphors, and models, simplifying and framing messages. Implementing insights from the behavioural sciences in guiding public action has shown promising results in the last two decades, and these insights need to be applied to health and counter-radicalisation communications.54


[50] Digital Forensic Research Lab (The Atlantic Council), Weaponized: How rumors about COVID-19’s origins led to a narrative arms race, 2021 https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/weaponized-how-rumors-about-covid-19s-origins-led-to-a-narrative-arms-race/

[51] Whiskeyman, Andrew and Michael Berger, Axis of Disinformation: Propaganda from Iran, Russia, and China on COVID-19 (report), The Washington Institute, 2021. https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/axis-disinformation-propaganda-iran-russia-and-china-covid-19

[52] Viren Swami et al., “Analytic thinking reduces belief in conspiracy theories”, Cognition 133.3 (2014): 572–585.

[53] It is also important to acknowledge the limits and imperfections of human knowledge and avoid epistemic arrogance. Most of conspiracy theories are meaningful and get traction only against a backdrop of assumption of the perfection of science. Rather we need to focus on science as the only available evidence-based and pragmatic option.

[54] For a few relevant and practical cases see Hengchen Dai et al., “Behavioural nudges increase COVID-19 vaccinations”, Nature 597.7876 (2021): 404–409; Local Government Association, Applying behavioural insights to improve COVID vaccination uptake: A guide for councils (2021),https://www.local.gov.uk/publications/applying-behavioural-insights-improve-covid-vaccination-uptake-guide-councils;S. Merriam and H. Behrendt, Increasing Vaccine Uptake in Low-and Middle-Income Countries. Opportunities for Behavioural Science Research (The Behavioural Insights Team, London, 2020), https://www.bi.team/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/Opportunities-for-behavioural-insights-research-on-vaccines-uptake-in-low-and-middle-income-countries.pdf; Jay J. Van Bavel et al., “Using social and behavioural science to support COVID-19 pandemic response”, Nature Human Behaviour 4.5 (2020): 460–471; Linda Schlegel, “Storytelling against extremism: How fiction could increase the persuasive impact of counter- and alternative narratives in P/CVE”, Journal for Deradicalization 27 (2021): 193–237.

Executive Summary

Foreword

Introduction

Analysis

Conclusion