Effective Debunking in Forums

Mick West

Staff member
There’s a lot of online discussion about conspiracy theories. Some takes place on Facebook pages, some on the comments to YouTube videos, some on Twitter, and some comments to news stories.

But the place where the most in-depth online discussions takes place is in discussion forums. There are several general conspiracy themed forums, such as Above Top Secret, or Godlike Productions, where the majority of participants are firm believers in one conspiracy theory or another. Then there are general skeptical and debunking forums, such as the James Randi Educational Forum (JREF), or my own Metabunk.org. Here the debunkers are in the majority, and the discussion hinges around debunking theories rather than promoting them.

In both of these type of general forums however, there are generally people from both sides of any argument. There’s a surprising number of debunkers on Above Top Secret, and there’s quite a few conspiracy theories (of various flavors) on JREF and Metabunk.

Besides the general purpose forums, there are also dedicated single issue forums for most conspiracy theories, and even for most individual aspects of those conspiracy theories. There’s several 9/11 forums, and some for other topics like chemtrails, fluoridation, gang stalking, moon lands, etc. Some of these are hyper specialized - promoting either a very idiosyncratic theory (such as gang stalking), or a very particular minority take on a broader subject (such as the “no planes” 9/11 theory).

From a debunkers perspective, forums are a mixed blessing. On the one hand they provide an endless stream of things to debunk. Should you view debunking mostly as entertainment, as a pastime, then online forums are the equivalent of online crack. There’s always someone promoting one theory or another, and they are usually quite willing to have a go at defending their theory, and get into the nitty-gritty details. One can quite easily get caught up in threads with hundreds, even thousands of posts, wheeling freely from one subject to the next, endless streams of bunk being debunked to one extent or another.

But if you view debunking partly as the opportunity to do some good, then that type of thing is really a waste of time. What does it benefit the world if you write a brilliantly worded explanation of how contrails form, if it’s lost half way down the twelfth page of a thread that started out with the title “Red wine test for Morgellons”, and the first seven pages barely mention chemtrails at all.

People generally do not read long threads in forums. After the first few posts, the thread is basically just a conversation between a few people - often just between two people. People read the title of the thread. They might read the first post. Possibly they might read the last post. But literally only a handful of people besides the actual participants are likely to read the entire thread.

If you put effort into debunking, and you’re not just doing it for entertainment, then you need to make it count. There’s a saying in many crafts: measure twice, cut once. For debunking I’d rephrase that as “think twice, debunk once”.

We debunkers have all had the experience of seeing someone bring up the same old tired argument that we’ve seen literally hundreds of times over many years. We wearily get our fingers into gear and type out a response explaining why the argument is wrong. Well, wouldn’t it be better if, instead of typing variations on a debunking a hundred times, you step aside after the first few times, and make an effort to write a clear and concise debunking, something accessible, with references, with clear illustrations. Nothing too long, just something that debunks the argument really well. So next time the argument comes up, you can just point to the explanation.
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Indeed. As long as that first post or 2 (3?) clearly spell it all out and summarize the bunk...

its when the humans get involved after that when the thread goes all to heck :)