What to do when you encounter a strange story on the internet

This article is part of Conspiracy theories

The earth is flat, the coronavirus vaccines contain microchips, and the climate crisis is a fabrication: you’ll encounter countless conspiracy theories on the internet. What if you read or see something and you doubt whether it’s true? And what should you do when you know it isn’t?

Ask yourself questions

Everyone knows that not everything you see on the internet is true. And yet, conspiracy theories can be very convincing. Make sure to ask yourself these questions before you get sucked into a strange story:

  • Why is someone saying/sharing this? Someone who is a staunch anti-vaxxer is likely to actively look for proof that getting vaccinated is a bad idea.
  • Is the story based on fact? Conspiracy theories are often an amalgamation of suspicions and coincidences. Does the story also offer facts and evidence?
  • Is the source trustworthy? Who is the author of the article or the creator of the video? What sort of website hosts the story? What information can you find about the author and the source?

Also be aware that likes and reactions on social media tell you nothing about the trustworthiness of a message. Polarising messages and conspiracy theories often elicit strong emotions and lots of response. And not every ‘like’ is necessarily legitimate:

“Likes, views and shares are often artificially generated to create the impression that many people are interested in the message.”
Piaa Varis
Prof. dr. Piia Varis
Tilburg University

How to recognise a conspiracy theory

Conspiracy theories often have the same structure and characteristics. Learn how to recognise one easily.

Double-check information

There are several trustworthy organisations that do fact-checking: they investigate whether recent rumours and stories are true or not. Good sources include the CHECK page of the VRT, or factcheck.vlaanderen.

Doing research via a search engine isn’t always the best idea: because the algorithms behind them try to predict what you’ll be interested in, they might pull up information in the search results that confirms the conspiracy theory. That’s why it’s better to go straight to sources that you know and trust.

What if the story is wrong?

If you are sure that a message contains false information, but also if you’re in doubt, the most important thing is to avoid sharing the message - not even to clarify to others that it’s untrue. That way you avoid others seeing the message and potentially believing it. 

What you can do is post a response that links to a fact-checking source that disproves the message. On websites and blogs you could contact the author directly. If the message appeared in traditional media, you can contact the board of editors or the Raad voor de Journalistiek (Council for Journalism).

Should you debate conspiracy theorists?

We may be tempted to try to convince conspiracy theorists that their opinion is wrong by entering into debate. Is that a good idea? 

Published on 18 October 2023