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Spread of conspiracy theories offline 'must also be considered' by policy-makers

Conspiracy theories and misinformation spread offline must also be considered by policymakers alongside efforts to tackle the spread online, according to new research.

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Dr Dacombe examined the impact of offline misinformation. Picture: STOCK IMAGE

As part of a wider project exploring conspiracy theories and democracy, Dr Rod Dacombe, from King’s College London, carried out research into the spread of misinformation about the global pandemic in offline formats.

In particular, Dr Dacombe together with Nicole Souter and Lumi Westerlund, from Mansfield College, Oxford, looked at how conspiracy theories are structured and presented in a newspaper which is published and distributed by activists in the UK.

Their analysis found that readers of the publication encountered conspiracist content embedded within a wide range of other material – articles, opinion and paid advertisements - in a format that closely resembled a conventional newspaper, thereby lending it credibility.

They also found that a significant proportion of content was intended to prompt an active response in the reader. Articles did not treat readers as passive recipients of information but adopted methods aimed at directly engaging them in conspiracy theories and ‘further research’ of a conspiratorial nature – such as calling for them to attend rallies.

Publishing information offline in this way, the researchers found, “confounds attempts at moderation and fact-checking focused solely on online media”.

Dr Dacombe, from the Department of Political Economy, said: “Our analysis showed that conspiracy theories related to COVID-19 were included alongside a range of other, non-conspiracist content and that readers encountered these ideas in a format which closely resembled a conventional newspaper.

“We also found evidence that the publication included content aimed at prompting participation and activism amongst adherents of conspiracy theories, rather than simply presenting information.

“These findings have real-world implications for policymakers aiming to mitigate the effects of COVID-19 misinformation and provide a corrective to the focus of recent research on online dissemination of conspiracist material.”

You can read the findings in full here.

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Rod  Dacombe

Rod Dacombe

Reader in Politics