All To Combat Conspiracy Theories, Create a Cost
Whether it’s the anti vaxx movement or Q Anon, only the most extreme proponents are willing to back up their beliefs with cash and inconvenience
W hen it comes to conspiracy theories, which are notoriously difficult to disprove, requiring adherants to put their money where their mouth is can persuade the less militant to move on. While it may not change deep seated beliefs, when rational discourse fails, economic incentives can compell behavior changes.
In California where strict new laws have eliminated non-medical exemptions for vaccines, anti-vaxxers face a potentially costly choice: comply with the schedules or pull their kids from public schools and licensed day cares. The prospect of paying for private care, or keeping kids home, has proved a valuable incentive. Vaccination rates in the state have ticked up (to 95% for kindergarteners). Message boards dedicated to getting around the laws have grown increasingly frustrated. But for every family that decides to leave the state or homeschool, plenty of others have chosen to vaccinate and move on. The net effect of this has been to help contain measles outbreaks in California where cases do occur, and put the onus back on those who would put others at risk.
Increasingly, states are looking at policies to shift the burden from the public back onto the individuals. While economic incentives are not always effective, they can provide a critical tool in cases where appeals to science and rational argument don’t matter. And those deterrents are no longer just taking the form of fines or tickets, which have long been used to gain compliance with laws requiring seat belts and carseats. Instead, access to the public good itself is being used.
When economic factors are insufficient, inconvenience can be equally persuasive. Much like smoking bans placed physical costs of smokers (requiring them to walk down several flights of stairs to smoke, or go outside in winter), companies like YouTube can reduce the influence of questional videos, making them harder to find. The case of Reddit booting Q Anon from the site meant proponents had to migrate to increasingly obscure sites, with the content less accessible to the general public.
While market incentives are ineffective at a large number of things, they have a role to play in addressing public policy problems where social pressure has been insufficient to combat significant public policy problems. Especially when it comes to conspiracy theories and misinformation campaigns that produce real social harm, it’s time to look at how to make these costs explicit to the people who perpetrate them.