Conspiracy theories have roots in the 19th century and have been popular for decades. Until recently, conspiracy theorists have lived in the margins. They are often convinced the earth is flat, Lee Harvey Oswald didn't act alone, and the moon landings were faked in a Hollywood sound stage.
More recently, with 9/11 and the coronavirus pandemic, these conspiracy theories have become more mainstream, with celebrities and politicians sharing them over their official social media channels. From the evil machinations of Bill Gates, the rise of QAnon, to the conflation that 5G is responsible for spreading coronavirus, it's hard to ignore the impact they have in creating misinformation which undermines attempts at effective communication from governments and public health bodies.
Despite reams of facts, logic and critical thinking, those that follow conspiracy theories will not be budged from their positions. They trust their sources implicitly, and a mountain of research disproving the argument does not interest them.
The number of people that succumbs to these narratives grows every day. When you consume the content shared by the primary sources of this misinformation, it's easy to see why.
Conspiracy theories are created and shared in a way that is engaging and irresistible to many seeking stability in a confusing world. Whatever your position is on these conspiracy theorists, you can leverage these tactics to make your own content more engaging and shareable.
Lesson 1: Make it emotive
Human beings have two distinct and independent thinking centres in the brain. One works on emotion (the limbic system) and the other on logic (the neocortex).
The emotional brain works much faster than the logical brain. It is what has kept us alive as a species. If you hear a loud bang, your emotional brain processes this first and triggers the urge to move before your logical brain kicks in and deduces the bang was from a book expertly pawed from its shelf by your cat.
The emotional brain is continually processing the world, and even though it's part of you, you do not have much control over it. Your logic brain, however, works on facts, truths and analysis.
When you watch harrowing whistleblower testimony telling of their suffering in a conspiracy theory video, your emotional brain is powerfully stirred.
It's why challenging conspiracy theorists who are emotionally committed to the point of view with just logic often fails. The emotional commitment is incredibly powerful, and when you challenge them, the logic brain is short-circuited, and the emotional brain becomes defensive. In fact, the more logic and evidence you provide, the more the emotional brain digs in and refuses the new evidence.
How can you use this to your advantage?
Work on creating an emotional response with your content. Don't purely rely on facts and logic to persuade your audience. Try and evoke an emotional reaction through imagery, metaphors and similes.
President Obama was a powerful orator and used emotion often to create a strong message. When he spoke of investing in education, he invokes emotion by saying "We believe that when she goes to school for the first time, it should be in a place where the rats don't outnumber the computer."
Lesson 2: Tell a story
Conspiracy theory videos don't just reel off a list of events and facts, they tell a story. Some of the more complex theories are akin to a sprawling TV series with several characters linked by circumstance.
Humans have always been curators of stories. From religious texts to morality fables, we learn and process the world through stories. Stories are memorable. Most adults can recite fairytales read to us when we were children.
Use a story to link together critical points within your content.
Consider how "Gamification has been proven to make communities more sticky and encourage more engagement" reads compared to "It was 3am, the flicker of the TV set was the only light in the room. My palms, slick with sweat, fought to keep the controller sticks moving. Even though I had a 6am start, I couldn't put the controller down. I had to finish the quest and collect the reward. Your community is no different."
Take your reader on a journey, and they're more likely to finish your content. Try and make it personal. When we read, we always try and put ourselves in the shoes of the author or the protagonist.
Stories and emotion go hand in hand. Recently, the Huffington Post ran a story with the headline "One death a minute" which is a very emotive and powerful alternative to the raw fact that 1,461 Americans lost their lives to COVID-19 on the 29th July.
Lesson 3: Make it easy to consume
A key strength for any content creator is to know when to create long-form content and snackable content.
A single meme is more potent than 300 links to PubMed. A single YouTube video can be more persuasive than an expert in her field.
Conspiracy theory creators use over-simplification to reduce a complex issue into an easily digestible entertaining snack. A meme generally contains a single idea that is easy to grasp and engaging. You don't have to work very hard to understand it, your visual brain processes it in 1/10th of a second, and it triggers a moment of delight.
Infographics and memes are often smart ways to create an entrance to your content. If an image containing a straightforward idea from a more complex piece of content is digested quickly, it can leave your audience wanting more, and therefore more likely to involve themselves in your more complex work.
When creating long-form content, consider the use of iconography, infographics and photography. Visuals help us remember and understand content quickly. I could say that 63% of this blog was written on an iPad, but a piechart would make this easier to process and more memorable.
No tin foil hats required
Creating compelling content is key to building your community. Your content sets the tone, helps drive re-engagement and positions you as a key expert in your field. Using the techniques many conspiracy theory creators use to spread their narratives will help your content be more memorable and shareable
A well-created story with emotional cornerstones made more accessible by key points simplified into snackable quotes or images will help your content find a wider audience, whether you believe Neil Armstrong landed on the moon or not.