Short report on Counterpoint and Slate.fr’s “media and conspiracy theories” seminar

On November 8, 2013, a seminar was organised by Counterpoint (Joël Gombin) and Slate.fr in la Gaîté Lyrique, Paris’ space for digital arts. The focus of this seminar was the relationships between the media and conspiracy theories. What should be done about them? Should they be ignored, at the risk of fueling the idea that the media take their orders from “the system”? Should conspiracy theories be the topic of stories, at the risk of giving them more credit and publicity than they deserve? And how should journalists report real plots?

Joël Gombin (Counterpoint/CURAPP-Université de Picardie), Tristan Mendès-France (blogger and journalism professsor, CELSA), Jean-Yves Nau (scientific journalist, Slate.fr), Robin d’Angelo (journalist, Streetpress.fr) and Jean-Laurent Cassely (journalist, Slate.fr) took part in the seminar, which was held in public and broadcast online. Moreover, the debate was live-tweeted and ‘storified’, thus allowing for a lively discussion, both in the room and online (including interventions by conspiracy theorists, such as ReOpen911).

After a general introduction, a first round of heated debate discussed the relationship between freedom of expression and conspiracy theories. Indeed, some journalists, like Patrick Cohen, argued that “sick brains” should not be invited on public radio or television, whereas others, such as Frédéric Taddéï, maintained that they should be allowed to express themselves. Tristan Mendès-France argued that while conspiracy theorists should benefit – like any citizen – from freedom of expression, so should their opponents. This liberty may stretch up to the freedom to ridicule conspiracy theorists, as indeed he did himself. Jean-Yves Nau stressed that not everything should be labeled “journalism” or “information”. In particular, he advocated a distinction between “spectacle-media” and “journalism-media”.

Robin d’Angelo argued that while conspiracy theories per se may be harmless, they become dangerous when they have political consequences. For example, he wrote a story about the reach of chemtrail theories: their proponents managed to get questions asked about these theories inside the European Parliament. Another example several speakers talked about, and that also stirred up interest in the room and online, is the case of vaccines. Jean-Yves Nau explained how subtle that history is: the States have upheld a strong pro-vaccine discourse, but have sometimes made great mistakes that have then fueled an anti-vaccines discourse, which in turn could sometimes (but not always) become conspiratorial.

Some then argued that Internet has been a means through which conspiracy theories have spread more quickly than ever before. In particular, Twitter was cited as a medium that eases hate speech.

Several speakers also talked about the sociological and psychological works explaining the mechanisms behind the success of conspiracy theories, such as cognitive dissonance (L. Festinger) or confirmation bias, strengthened by the way the Internet works. For example, if one looks on Google for whether man landed on the Moon, one mainly finds websites arguing in favour of the theory that no man has ever landed on the Moon. Some also call it an “information ghetto”.

Next, the social and demographic characteristics of those who tend to believe in conspiracy theories were discussed. In particular, the survey by Counterpoint was extensively discussed, and comparisons were made to data in other countries, especially the United States. Participants also raised the links with far-right and populist political parties, such as the Front National. The economic dimension of conspiracy theories was also raised. It was noted that several conspiracy theory “entrepreneurs” make a (rather good) living out of spreading these ideas.

Finally, the debate included a discussion about the course of action to be taken. A consensus emerged on the importance of fact-checking and sourcing for journalists. Some also underlined how important it is to make the debate a dispassionate one, by treating all political and non-political players the same way and by insisting on facts. Some also argued that, besides journalists, it was also the citizens’ task to engage with conspiracy theories. The role of psychiatry and the role of humor to tackle conspiracy theories were also debated – the feeling being that a psychiatric approach probably leads to deadlock, while a sense of humor may be valuable. Tristan Mendès-France also suggested that proponents of conspiracy theories may be treated as trolls and handled as such.

Categories France, News, Pilot projects | Tags: | Posted on November 10, 2013

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