And even if we do treat the myth as a relevant news topic, it’s not clear, as Seitz-Wald suggests, that mainstream media coverage will help prevent it from spreading. My research suggests that factchecks may not convince people to believe unwelcome factual information and in some cases may make misperceptions worse. This finding and others like it do not mean that we should abandon coverage of misinformation altogether (particularly for specialized factcheckers like PolitiFact or Snopes), but it is important to be realistic about the limitations of journalism and the potential for creating further damage.
As a general posture, I’ve argued that the media should cover myths using approaches that do not encourage misperceptions and name and shame irresponsible elites. But that advice refers to myths that are already in widespread circulation beyond the fringe due to tacit or explicit endorsements from well-known figures. Within days of Sarah Palin’s post on Facebook in August 2009, for example, 86 percent of Americans reported having heard her false claims about a “death panel” in President Obama’s health care plan. If the Sandy Hook myth reaches that level of prominence, then the media should of course weigh in, but we’re not there yet—or even close.
Is it possible that debunking myths earlier in their life cycle will prevent them from spreading, as Seitz-Wald argues? Perhaps. Criticizing false claims might help to deter elites from endorsing them in future, for example.
But there are reasons for concern about making the problem worse. Early coverage of these myths could encourage elites to try to capitalize on them in order to attract media attention or support from credulous believers (as we saw with death panels). Broad coverage might also attract new adherents who would not otherwise have been exposed to or persuaded by false claims—a group that is not necessarily limited to people who are inclined to believe in conspiracy theories. In particular, even people who are not predisposed to believe in a false claim may be more likely to perceive a claim as true as it becomes more familiar.
Finally, it’s worth remembering that most conspiracy theories will wither and die if left alone. Extensive mainstream media coverage of fringe theories might therefore be counterproductive overall. Even if CNN’s Cooper prevents one obscure myth from spreading with his “Keeping Them Honest” features, for instance, he might expand the audience for five more.
A lurking danger here is that, as the audience for even many “mainstream” media outlets becomes politically polarized, news organizations face strong incentives to cover bogus claims more from the opposite fringe, which allows journalists to posture as truth-tellers while suggesting that the adversaries of their readers and viewers are extremists or cranks. Just as Fox promotes little-known left-wing groups like the New Black Panther Party, outlets with heavily Democratic audiences like CNN or Salon may increasingly flatter the prejudices of their readers or viewers with coverage of conspiracy theories circulating among fringe conservative groups. This freak show strategy could be profitable, but it might also provide oxygen to conspiracy theories that would otherwise fizzle. Don’t feed the trolls!