The work of professional fact checkers is a constant pursuit of evidence. We take claims, trace them, and weigh them against the evidence available, in an attempt to provide the public with the best possible information conducive to an open, transparent debate. But sometimes false claims just keep reappearing. And despite our human need for certainty, there isn’t always the evidence available to say if something is true or false.
In two new research briefings, Africa Check, Chequeado and Full Fact have teamed together to explore two major issues for fact checkers around the world - conspiracy theories, and communicating uncertainty.
Conspiracy theories: who, how, what next?
A conspiracy theory is not simply an alternative explanation of events, waiting for evidence to prove (or disprove) it. It is a way of theorising in spite of available evidence.
Conspiracy theories can cause serious harm when beliefs turn into behaviours, such as when vaccine hesitancy results in lower immunisation rates, or false claims about the 5G network leads to arson. But it is also harmful for the ways in which a rejection of evidence can shut down reasoned debate.
Who believes in them, and why do they do so? This depends on what we mean by ‘believe’. There is a difference between having doubts about certain issues, and a routine tendency to believe in a conspiracy theory.
The psychology of conspiracism too is complex - some researchers have found they allow believers to explain the unknown, and give people a sense of control, and place in their surroundings. The quality of public debate also plays a role, and moments of scandal which erode trust or heighten polarisation have been found to spur their spread.
When it comes to solutions, research is just beginning to emerge, and mostly from an Anglo-American angle – though scholars have reflected on the role of conspiracy theories in history since the 1950s.
Many of the studies in this area are based on small, non-representative samples, and lab experiments which are yet to be tested in the field. This cannot be generalised, and we need more nationally representative work - which has recently started to emerge. But there are still a few tentative conclusions we can draw.
How to communicate uncertainty
Transparency about the knowledge we hold and lack is one of the cornerstones of fact checking. As fact checkers, we help the public make sense of that evidence by summarising it and providing our judgement on where the weight of evidence lies.
Overall, Anglo-American academic literature shows us that the need to know is a widely prevalent feature of human psychology. Yet a level of uncertainty is unavoidable, due to the limitations of measurements which characterise data about the past and future, or due to the simple fact that any prediction about the future is plotted on a probability spectrum.
The format we choose to communicate uncertainty matters. It affects what the public understands, and it shapes trust in numbers and communicators themselves.
Take something as simple as a claim about the weather. If you were told, “rain is unlikely”, what would you consider to be the percentage chance of rain occurring: 5%, 10%, 30%? A numerical expression, such as “there is a 30% chance of rain” is very different from a verbal equivalent, such as “rain is unlikely”.
The evidence tells us that the right or wrong format can change the way the public understands what is communicated, and affect trust in communicators themselves.