Immune therapy against conspiracy myths

Extremism is booming and, in many countries, threatening democracy. The good news is that you can train resistance to propaganda and disinformation.

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  • Text: Marlene Halser
Saturn-ähnliches Dekortationsbild

Cynthia Miller-Idriss

Professor Dr Cynthia Miller-Idriss isis an extremism and radicalisation expert. She teaches and conducts research at the School of Public Affairs at the American University in Washington, D.C. In summer 2022, the former German Chancellor Fellow took on the leadership of the Humboldt Residency Programme on “Social Cohesion”.

Humboldt Residency Programme
German Chancellor Fellowship

The future of democracy is what drives Cynthia Miller-Idriss. And the biggest task of our times, she believes, is to maintain social cohesion. “In social terms, we are facing greater challenges to democracy today than we did some 20 years ago,” says the US American extremism researcher. “The stability of democratic systems and social cohesion are being undermined by the spread of disinformation and propaganda,” she says. 

With far-reaching consequences: “People’s susceptibility to conspiracy stories influences election results and erodes trust in state institutions as well as in research and science.” This, in its turn, reinforces systemic racism and misogyny or makes some people unwilling to believe the climate crisis is real or to show solidarity in a global health crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic. This all leads to increasing divisions in society, she notes.

No return for believers in conspiracy

In the Polarization and Extremism Research & Innovation Lab (PERIL) she founded at the American University in Washington D.C., Miller-Idriss therefore investigates the issue of how to make people more resilient to conspiracy stories. “I am not aware of any evidence to suggest that you can re-convert someone who already believes in conspiracy myths,” says the political scientist. “But in our experiments, we can clearly show that information can prevent people from believing such stories and becoming radicalised in the first place.”

In social terms, we are facing greater challenges to democracy today than we did some 20 years ago.
Cynthia Miller-Idriss, Professor at the School of Public Affairs at the American University

To this end, says Miller-Idriss, it is paramount to provide people with the right tools to see through the propaganda. Together with her team, she develops and tests 30-second videos, for example, designed for the public sphere, explaining the mechanisms of propaganda and disinformation. Scary music, colours and images that trigger fear and discomfort, but also rhetoric designed to manipulate and specific slogans can be identified much more easily, says Miller-Idriss, if you know what to look out for. She calls this concept “videobased inoculation”. Videos like this can be disseminated on social media platforms but also on public or semi-public screens and digital advertising billboards such as on public transport.

Miller-Idriss’s ideas and expertise are highly valued outside of academia, too. She regularly addresses the US Congress and informs politicians, educational institutions, the security and secret services in the United States and other countries as well as the United Nations about new extremist developments and potential prevention strategies. As recently as September 2022, Miller-Idriss was invited to the White House to give an expert presentation at the United We Stand Summit, initiated by Joe Biden, to fight violence fuelled by hate.

Miller-Idriss describes the Humboldt Residency Programme as an important source of inspiration for her work. It brings together researchers sponsored by the Humboldt Foundation and other researchers with actors in civil society, journalists, entrepreneurs and artists to work on a common topic. In summer 2022, Miller-Idriss led the programme on “Social Cohesion”.

When cohesion is damaging

“One important point that emerged in the discussions was that – notwithstanding the importance of social cohesion – you can also have too much of it,” says Miller-Idriss. On the one hand, she states, social cohesion is currently under acute threat from conspiracy stories, propaganda and disinformation. On the other, too much homogeneity in a society can also be damaging because society thrives on the non-conformance and diversity of various groups. “Social cohesion must integrate minorities without wanting to force them to assimilate,” the researcher emphasises. 

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