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Kennedy School Hosts Webinar on Proliferation of Online Conspiracies

By Nina I. Paneque and Vivian Zhao, Contributing Writers

{image id=1343662 size=large byline=true caption="Media experts spoke about the outsize role conspiracy theories currently play in U.S. society and media coverage at a Tuesday event hosted by the Kennedy School.}

Journalists and media experts discussed digital misinformation, conspiracy theories, and their implications at a Harvard Kennedy School panel event Tuesday.

The event — titled “The Proliferation of Networked Conspiracies Online” — featured Brandy Zadrozny, an NBC investigative reporter; David S. Rohde, online news director for the New Yorker; and Brian T. Friedberg, a senior researcher for the Technology and Social Change research project at the Kennedy School's Shorenstein Center. Joan M. Donovan, the Shorenstein Center’s Research Director on Media, Politics and Public Policy, moderated the conversation.

Donovan opened the discussion by examining the relationship between the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and right-wing conspiracy theories.

Rohde said the insurrection highlighted the fallibility of the “can’t happen here” logic, which leads many Americans to assume that U.S. institutions are safe from the threat of conspiracies.

“I’ve written about this thought that our institutions were stronger, that conspiracy theories couldn’t lead to violence here — let alone an effort to reverse the outcome of a presidential election online and on live, cable TV — but we are no different,” Rohde said.

Zadrozny said the media industry recently experienced an “awakening” regarding the power of QAnon, militias, and similar networked conspiracies.

“That actually concerns me,” she added. “There’s a danger in giving too much airspace to what happened on the 6th and giving too much oxygen to these smaller communities.”

Friedberg also said he is concerned that conspiracy theories receive too much media coverage.

“Trump is out of office, and we have to read just what we center our media on,” Friedberg said. “It’s time to start taking this apart rather than reinforcing it.”

According to Friedberg, conspiracy groups exploit anti-Black racism, anti-Semitism, misogyny, and transphobia.

“All those are really animating cultural issues that have a conspiratorial underlay,” Friedberg said.

Friedberg said he believes the Jan. 6 insurrection highlights the growing power conspiracies possess over today’s contentious political landscape.

Panelists also shared ideas on how to combat misinformation.

“My main, simplistic answer is more transparency: more transparency from the news media, more transparency from the CIA, more transparency from Congress,” Rohdes said.

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PoliticsHarvard Kennedy School2020 Election