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Why do people deny facts and what has this to do with communications?
Denialism is one out of five trends identified by the Communications Trend Radar that we believe will change corporate communications. Denialists are people who deny facts and spread their own “alternative truths.” Their conspiracy theories threaten companies and even entire industries.
Denialists are on the rise, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Companies and above all their communications departments have to become more aware of this trend and need to adopt new strategies when dealing with internal and external stakeholders.
Pia Lamberty, Social psychologist at Johannes Gutenberg University, Mainz
“When people feel that they have no control, they try to find strategies – and conspiracy stories can be one such strategy.”
Conspiracy ideas are on the rise
Denialism is a psychological defense mechanism in which people deny universally valid facts and truths. This isn’t a new phenomenon. Belief in conspiracy theories and the rejection of facts have existed for over 800 years. But today, denialism is more prevalent than ever before – partly due to social media channels, but also due to the growing complexity and uncertainty in our world. In the last months, it has become clear that denialists are able to shape the public discourse, something which threatens the social consensus. Prominent examples are the 2020 US presidential election or the COVID-19 crisis.
Knowledge about who denies scientific facts, why the common consensus is denied, and how denialists build and maintain their picture of the world is utterly important for communicators.
Denialists – who are these people?
A survey by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation shows that older people, people with lower formal education and people with an immigrant background are more likely to believe in conspiracy ideas and distrust established facts (Roose, 2020).
Denialists try to create a world view that is coherent for them. They do so by reducing complexity, adding untruths, and believing conspiracy ideas. They often use five different tactics to develop and sustain their worldview:
Conspiracies are threatening corporations and entire industries
Conspiracy ideas are no longer a niche phenomenon but are booming and have entered mainstream society. Denialism has become a confusing and increasingly complex issue – for society as a whole, but also for corporations or entire industries. In the past, this was particularly true of pharmaceutical and food companies. However, an increasing anti-everything attitude ultimately leads to denialism affecting any economic sector or business.
Denialists aren’t necessarily external to corporations. As the number of denialists grow, so does the likelihood that employees might express denialist attitudes in internal meetings and impact organizational decisions. The situation is exacerbated because denialists often refuse to engage in real dialogue.
Communicators should take the lead
Denialism will become a very important topic for communicators in the next few years. It’s crucial for communication leaders and professionals to get to grips with denialists. First, they must monitor potential attacks in the social and public media and distinguish relevant from non-relevant comments. They must be able to understand the mechanisms behind conspiracies and the threat they pose for a company’s reputation. Communicators should be able to explain the effects of denialism to others, especially to the top management who might want to take a stand in public.
Above all, communicators have to find an effective communication strategy to respond to discrediting. That isn’t easy. Denialists who take action against companies are surprisingly diverse and so there is no one-size-fits-all communication. Changing a denialist’s mind takes time and resources, and sometimes is simply impossible. Facts are needed to challenge the constructed worldview that should be discussed on eye level as long as the denialists are still open to dialogue.
An additional task for communications should be to educate employees and become more cautious for conspiracy ideas within the organization. A worst-case scenario emerges if an employee acting as a representative of the company attracts attention by spreading denialist content. Communication leaders can help to mitigate such risks.
Christof E. Ehrhart, Executive Vice President Corporate Communications & Governmental Afffairs, Bosch
“We can expect Corporate Communications to find better ways to deal with denialism.”
More research is needed
Denialism is already being researched in many areas – in psychology and human behavior research, but also in journalism and political science. What is still largely unexplored, however, is its impact on corporate reputation, stakeholder communications, and managing communications in such situations. There is an urgent need to initiate more research projects in this field to help communication departments to find a suitable response to denialism.