The coronavirus pandemic has spawned highly contagious, unsubstantiated conspiracy theories that have led to real-world harm. One of the most widely disseminated claims is that 5G cell towers are responsible for the virus’ spread. It is a prevalent idea around the world. The United Kingdom has seen over 60 attacks on cell towers and 80 cases of harassment against telecom maintenance workers. There have been at least two dozen arson attacks on cell sites across continental Europe. Telecom companies in New Zealand recently warned of the possible interruption in emergency cell service if the dozens of strikes on cell towers there continue. And the U.S. Department of Homeland Security advised the U.S. telecommunications industry that the dangers of coronavirus conspiracists “inciting attacks against communications infrastructure…will probably increase as the disease continues to spread.”
Similarly, according to a Yahoo News/YouGov poll, half of Americans for whom Fox News is their primary television news source believe that Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates is plotting to use a mass COVID-19 vaccination campaign as a ruse to implant people with microchips. It’s not just Fox News watchers: Twenty-eight percent of all U.S. adults believe that conspiracy theory, regardless of where they get their news. Only 40% of all U.S. adults say that allegation is false; 32% are unsure. This discredited falsehood could imperil widescale adoption of a coronavirus vaccine when one is brought to market.
Seemingly every day, the news carries more evidence of the power of what The Atlantic has called “the rise of mainstream conspiracism” -- paranoid fictions untethered to empirical reality commanding broad adherents across the globe and moving from the fringes to the center of social discourse. For example, in the last few weeks, conspiracists have circulated claims that the furniture maker Wayfair is involved in human trafficking because of the coincidental overlap of the names of some of its pieces and of missing children.
Conspiratorial thinking is like water -- it seeps into perceptions about everything. It warps views on matters as far-flung as telecommunications infrastructure and pharmaceuticals. It is a lesson businesses of all stripes would do well to learn: In our interconnected era, where social trust in all institutions is at low ebb. Businesses can become collateral damage to conspiracy theories. Off-the-wall, yet widely shared claims can harm corporate brands, the perceptions of products, and even hard assets.
What can the private sector do?
First, conspiracy theories and disinformation are a business risk like any other, and smart companies need to prepare for them accordingly. Game out vulnerabilities. Develop possible responses, build a crisis team, and assign responsibilities to different officials.
Second, research shows that proactive messaging can establish sturdy defenses to bogus claims. For example, a recent peer-reviewed paper by Professors Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Dolores Albarracín in the HKS Misinformation Review about COVID-19 disinformation observed that a very high percentage (87%) of the public believed that handwashing and social distancing inhibit the spread of the coronavirus. Jamieson and Albarracín argue the public accepted this truth because the public had already absorbed messages about the efficacy of handwashing and social distancing in preventing the spread of the seasonal flu. By contrast, more than 1 in 5 people surveyed believed that Vitamin C was a remedy for the coronavirus in part because of longstanding misperceptions that Vitamin C cures the common cold, they wrote.
These findings suggest that, in the business context, a company should take steps to establish its brands and its messages in the public’s mind early on, before misinformation starts spreading. If a company creates durable public perceptions about its business, it will be less likely to lose the information war to tendentious tweets.
Third, understand that not all claptrap needs to be corrected. Debunking disinformation that has not spread very far can have the ironic effect of furthering the lie’s reach. Jamieson and Albarracín’s research suggests that a company can wait until disinformation reaches at least 10% of the population before correcting it. Businesses can hire companies that specialize in tracking the spread of untruths online to help them understand when that threshold is crossed.
Finally, when a conspiracy theory becomes sufficiently prevalent, businesses should respond with speech of their own and enlist trusted third parties to validate and amplify fact-checks. A victimized business can also work with social media companies to remove posts if they violate the platforms’ terms of service, particularly if the disinformation misappropriates a business’ intellectual property -- like a copyrighted image or a trademarked brand name. Such companies will want to discuss with counsel whether to involve regulators and what legal options they have against the propagators of the disinformation.
None of these steps is an outright cure to virulent conspiracism, but they can help lessen disinformation’s impact on businesses’ bottom lines and build a society more resistant to charismatic deceits.
Matthew F. Ferraro (@MatthewFFerraro), an attorney and former intelligence officer, is a visiting fellow at the National Security Institute at George Mason Law School and a term member of the Council on Foreign Relations. The views expressed are the author's own.