(AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

3 ways to avoid amplifying conspiracy theories

When a new outlandish conspiracy theory crops up online, a journalist’s first instinct is to write about it.

Over the summer, QAnon, a complex pro-Donald Trump conspiracy, went from the fringe internet platforms like 4chan to campaign rallies and billboards. In the fall, misinformation about the migrant caravan was rampant on social media — and it often helped drive some of the mainstream news coverage.

But only some conspiracies merit that kind of broad coverage from the media. In a May 2018 report titled the “Oxygen of Amplification,” Whitney Phillips of Syracuse University wrote that, by objectively covering every piece of false information online, journalists could do more harm than good by exposing more people to misinformation.

“One of the big problems is reporting that essentially just points at something,” Phillips told Poynter in a December podcast episode. “But if you’re taking that same content and you are situating it within much broader cultural conversations ... I think that then becomes a different conversation.”

For journalists and fact-checkers covering the seedy underbelly of online misinformation, it’s important to make news judgments about what to cover and what to ignore so that false narratives don’t get more oxygen than they deserve. Here’s a list of tips.

1. Establish newsworthiness. This sounds obvious to most journalists, but when reporting on misinformation, news judgment should include questions other than just, “Will people read it?” Claire Wardle wrote for First Draft that there’s a tipping point when false content moves out of niche platforms and into the mainstream — and that’s the only time that reporters should start writing about it.

“Reporting too early gives unnecessary oxygen to rumors or misleading content that might otherwise fade away. Reporting too late means the falsehood takes hold and there’s really nothing to do to stop it.”

Claire Wardle, First Draft

2. Determine what the impact of your work will be. Is there a public health takeaway? Is there an action point for politicians or technology platforms? Is there evidence, according to metrics tools like CrowdTangle and BuzzSumo, that a wide swath of internet users believe the hoax? If the answer to those questions is yes, then there’s a good chance you’ll want to report on the misinformation.

3. Don’t just be a stenographer — always place false information in context and explain how it moved across the internet. Be aware that there are communities on fringe platforms that aim to dupe reporters into amplifying bogus narratives. If you can’t explain the origin, purpose and spread of misinformation, reconsider reporting on it.

"“I think it’s really helpful for reporters to step back and kind of go meta a little bit — and talk about cycles of amplification and essentially model thoughtful self-reflection."

Whitney Phillips, assistant professor of communication, culture and digital technologies, Syracuse University

For more tips on how to avoid amplifying false narratives, check out “The Oxygen of Amplification” in full. Have a tip that didn’t make either list? Send it to us at factchecknet@poynter.org.