Abbie Richards on the wild world of conspiracy theories and battling misinformation on the internet

At Mozilla, we know we can’t create a better future alone, that is why each year we will be highlighting the work of 25 digital leaders using technology to amplify voices, effect change, and build new technologies globally through our Rise 25 Awards. These storytellers, innovators, activists, advocates, builders and artists are helping make the internet more diverse, ethical, responsible and inclusive.

This week, we chatted with Abbie Richards, a former stand-up comedian turned content creator dominating TikTok as a researcher, focusing on understanding how misinformation, conspiracy theories and extremism spread on the platform. She also is a co-founder of EcoTok, an environmental TikTok collective specializing in social media climate solutions. We talked with Abbie about finding emotional connections with audiences, the responsibility of social media platforms and more.

First off, what’s the wildest conspiracy theory that you have seen online?

It’s hard to pick the wildest because I don’t know how to even begin to measure that. One that I think about a lot, though, is that I tend to really find the spirituality ones very interesting. There’s the new Earth one with people who think that the earth is going to be ascending into a higher dimension. And the way that that links to climate change — like when heat waves happen, and when the temperature is hotter than normal, and they’re like “it’s because the sun’s frequency is increasing because we’re going to ascend into a higher dimension.” And I am kind of obsessed with that line of thought. Also because they think that if you, your soul, vibrate at a high enough frequency — essentially, if your vibes are good enough — you will ascend, and if not, you will stay trapped here in dystopian earth post ascension which is wild because then you’re assigning some random, universal, numerical system for how good you are based on your vibrational frequency. Where is the cut off? At what point of vibrating am I officially good enough to ascend, or am I going to always vibrate too low? Are my vibes not good? And do I not bring good vibes to go to your paradise? I think about that one a lot.

As someone who has driven through tons of misinformation and conspiracy theories all the time, what do you think are the most common things that people should be able to notice when they need to be able to identify if something’s fake? 

So I have two answers to this. The first is that the biggest thing that people should know when they’re encountering this information and conspiracy theories online is that they need to check in with how a certain piece of information makes them feel. And if it’s a certain piece of information that they really, really want to believe, they should be especially skeptical, because that’s the number one thing. Not whether they can recognize something like that or if AI-generated human ears are janky. It’s the fact that they want to believe what the AI generated deepfake is saying and no matter how many tricks we can tell them about symmetry and about looking for clues that it is a deepfake, fundamentally, if they want to believe it, the thing will still stick in their brain. And they need to learn more about the emotional side of encountering this misinformation and conspiracy theories online. I would prioritize that over the tiny little tricks and tips for how to spot it, because really, it’s an emotional problem. When people lean into and dive into conspiracy theories, and they fall down a rabbit hole, it’s not because they’re not media literate enough. Fundamentally, it’s because it’s emotionally serving something for them. It’s meeting some sort of emotional psychological epistemic need to feel like they have control, to feel like they have certainty to feel like they understand things that other people don’t, and they’re in on knowledge to feel like they have a sense of community, right? Conspiracy theories create senses of community and make people feel like they’re part of a group. There are so many things that it’s providing that no amount of tips and tricks for spotting deepfakes will ever address. And we need to be addressing those. How can we help them feel in control? How can we help them feel empowered so that they don’t fall into this?

The second to me is wanting to make sure that we’re putting the onus on the platforms rather than the people to decipher what is real and not real because people are going to consistently be bad at that, myself included. We all are quite bad at determining what’s real. I mean, we’re encountering more information in a day than our brains can even remotely keep up with. It’s really hard for us to decipher which things are true and not true. Our brains aren’t built for that. And while media literacy is great, there’s a much deeper emotional literacy that needs to come along with it, and also a shifting of that onus from the consumer onto the platforms.

Abbie Richards at Mozilla’s Rise25 award ceremony in October 2023.

What are some of the ways these platforms could take more responsibility and combat misinformation on their platforms?

It’s hard. I’m not working within the platforms, so it’s hard to know what sort of infrastructure they have versus what they could have. It’s easy to look at what they’re doing and say that it’s not enough because I don’t know about their systems. It’s hard to make specific recommendations like “here’s what you should be doing to set up a more effective …”. What I can say is that, without a doubt, these mega corporations that are worth billions of dollars certainly have the resources to be investing in better moderation and figuring out ways to experiment with different ways. Try different things to see what works and encourage healthier content on your platform. Fundamentally, that’s the big shift. I can yell about content moderation all day, and I will, but the incentives on the platforms are not to create high quality, accurate information. The incentives on all of these platforms are entirely driven by profit, and how long they can keep you watching, and how many ads they can push to you, which means that the content that will thrive is the stuff that is the most engaging, which tends to be less accurate. It tends to be catering to your negative emotions, catering to things like outrage and that sort of content that is low quality, easy to produce, inaccurate, highly emotive content is what is set up to thrive on the platform. This is not a system that is functional with a couple of flaws, this misinformation crisis that we’re in is very much the results of the system functioning exactly as it’s intended.

What do you think is the biggest challenge we face in the world this year on and offline? 

It is going to be the biggest election year in history. We just have so many elections all around the world, and platforms that we know don’t serve healthy, functional democracy super well, and I am concerned about that combination of things this year.

What do you think is one action that everybody can take to make the world, and our online lives, a little bit better?

I mean, log off (laughs). Sometimes log off. Go sit in silence just for a bit. Don’t say anything, don’t hear anything. Just go sit in silence. I swear to God it’ll change your life. I think we are in a state right now where we are chronically consuming so much information, like we are addicted to information, and just drinking it up, and I am begging people to at least just like an hour a week to not consume anything, and just see how that feels. If we could all just step back for a little bit and log off and rebel a little bit against having our minds commodified for these platforms to just sell ads, I really feel like that is one of the easiest things that people can do to take care of themselves.

The other thing would be check in with your emotions. I can’t stress this enough. Like when you encounter information, how does that information make you feel? How much do you want to believe that information and those things. So very much, my advice is to slow down and feel your feelings.

We started Rise25 to celebrate Mozilla’s 25th anniversary, what do you hope people are celebrating in the next 25 years?

I hope that we’ve created a nice socialist internet utopia where we have platforms that people can go interact and build community and create culture and share information and share stories in a way that isn’t driven entirely by what’s the most profitable. I’d like to be celebrating something where we’ve created the opposite of a clickbait economy where everybody takes breaks. I hope that that’s where we are at in 25 years.

What gives you hope about the future of our world?

I interact with so many brilliant people who care so much and are doing such cool work because they care, and they want to make the world better, and that gives me a lot of hope. In general. I think that approaching all of these issues from an emotional lens and understanding that, people in general just want to feel safe and secure, and they just want to feel like they know what’s coming around the corner for them, and they can have their peaceful lives, is a much more hopeful way to think about pretty scary kind of political divides. I think that there is genuinely a lot more that we have in common than there are things that we have differences. It’s just that right now, those differences feel very loud. There are so many great people doing such good work with so many different perspectives, and combined, we are so smart together. On top of that, people just want to feel safe and secure. And if we can figure out a way to help people feel safe and secure and help them feel like their needs are being met, we could create a much healthier society collectively.

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