Sticks and Stones: Why Ignoring Hoaxers and Conspiracy Theorists isn’t the Answer

The old adage, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” is still a quaint way of suggesting that we all ignore the mean things that people say. In the social media rich world, where people who post photos of their family vacation, the latest attempt as sourdough bread, or selfies with their pets, are often attacked as being fat, ugly, or worse, there is a degree of ignoring online comments that is an essential component of having an online life. So, why don’t we simply ignore hoaxers or conspiracy theorists? Sticks and stones….right?

Hoaxer and Conspiracy Theory activity is used to harass and torment targets, on a large scale.

If someone comments that I look fat in a poolside picture that I post on Facebook, it may annoy me or hurt my feelings, but it doesn’t damage my reputation or generally leads to strangers attacking me on and offline. But, one of the unsettling hallmarks of a hoaxer or conspiracy theory campaign, is the request made by hoaxers, that their followers “hunt” the target to gather information or “get the truth.” This can and does lead to threats of violence or death, doxing (releasing personal information like social security numbers, addresses, etc.), stalking, and general harassment by multiple people. Allowing that behavior to occur puts people in real danger.

Transparency is the best way to protect both the individual and the community.

Louis Brandeis once said, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.” This famous quote concerns the idea that corruption and criminality flourish in darkness, but when people can examine word and deed in the “light of day,” manipulations and lies are easier to recognize. Hoaxers and conspiracy theorists often provide their theories under the guise that they have a secret, insider information. Of course, when challenged to reveal that insider information or their sources, they can’t. Exposing that their claims are nothing more than unsubstantiated opinions helps to disarm and minimize the effects of their attacks and help the community at large recognize their methods and motivations.

The damaging results of being targeted by a hoaxer or conspiracy theorist can last a lifetime.

Lawyers and public relations people used to tell victims of negative media attention, “today’s newspaper headline is tomorrow’s birdcage liner.” That meant simply that even negative attention, faded with the next news cycle. Today, online, negative attention, defamation, and conspiracy theory can last forever, can be shared endlessly, and have far-reaching effects on victims, their families, and even people with the same name as the victim. Setting the record straight can be one of the few avenues of recourse that victims have to defend their reputations.

Unchallenged, Conspiracy Theories can become mainstream and accepted as fact.

Hoax and Conspiracy Theories tend to focus on newsworthy events; COVID, major crimes, and mass casualty incidents. As such, lots of people are looking for information and answers about these major events. Many people find it very difficult to distinguish between opinion sites and factual news sites, especially when the conspiracy narrative coincides with their existing beliefs. That, coupled with the fact that some journalists, eager to get the story first, do little independent research and end up spreading and amplifying, false and dangerous information. Once that happens, it can be difficult, if not impossible to correct.

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