transfer 27(2) » Rezeptions- und Wirkungsforschung

Dealing with the emergence and dissemination of conspiracy narratives

Sustainability of debunking

Research on conspiracy narratives/theories and how to react to them has increased within the recent years. At the centre of possible reactions lies debunking which assumes that given information is false and can be corrected. Usually, this is not done based on the available evidence for a certain conspiracy theory but on the premise of it being labelled a conspiracy theory. This thesis explores the sustainability of that reaction by asking what goals shall be reached through it and if these can be met in practice.

The usefulness and societal value of debunking has been questioned before by scholars like Harambam (2021) Dentith (2021) and Hagen (2020) who see problems both with general functionality and on an epistemic level. Cassam (2023), amongst others, has described different academic positions towards conspiracy theories, namely “generalism” (conspiracy theories should not be regarded in general) and “particularism” (the value of conspiracy theories has to be decided upon based on evidence). This literature review concerns itself with both positions and the implications they have for the question of whether to debunk or not to debunk, as well as the general efficiency of debunking.

Out of a perspective of particularism, debunking is hardly a sustainable concept, as it disregards available evidence upon the inherent “false nature” of conspiracy theories. For generalists, on the other hand, debunking is a logical answer. The self-sustaining nature of conspiracy theories, however, makes it doubtful if debunking can actually reach the goal of lowering conspiratorial belief or if it is merely a way to position and distance oneself. Thus, both perspectives have different problems that come with the concept of debunking which suggests that its sustainability is questionable and that new reactions to conspiracy theories should be evaluated.