by Dr Orna YOUNG (11 December 2020)

Any discussion of COVID-19 and the development and introduction of vaccines to combat it invariably gives rise to talk about conspiracy theories.

“Is it part of a global ‘plandemic?’ Are the vaccines being introduced to track us?”

We have all seen these types of comments and discussions taking place online.

What happens when these discussions happen over your Christmas dinner, at the school gate, or in a usually friendly WhatsApp group? In this article we explain how you can talk to people in your life about conspiracy theories and keep the focus on the evidence to ensure the safety of everyone in our communities. 

Conspiracy theories come from a place of fear

Before we discuss how to challenge conspiracy theories, it is important to understand why people believe them and how they gain traction. A belief in conspiracy theories is a very normal response to difficult issues. 2020 has presented us all with huge challenges — from limiting our social contacts and opportunities, to the economic and financial fall out — there have been huge changes in how we live our lives.

COVID-19 only came to light just over a year ago, and with it came a whole host of unknowns (many of which we are still making sense of): where did it come from?; how does it affect different people?; and how is it transmitted? Understandably, many of us were, and are still, afraid of things which cannot be easily explained. This fear is the common thread between different reasons why people believe in and share conspiracy theories. They may have a need for understanding; a need for a sense of control over a situation; or indeed, a need for a sense of belonging. 

The emotional pull of conspiracy theories explains their “stickiness”, and why you probably know more than one person in your life who holds these beliefs. Conspiracy theories provide simple stories for complex issues. So how can we approach difficult conversations with family and friends about them?

Dismissing is not the right approach 

How you talk to someone about a conspiracy theory is key. Dismissing their claim as ridiculous will often simply re-affirm their position and add to the “story” they have been telling themselves about an issue. 

More difficult still for us fact checkers is the realisation that evidence or data on their own often won’t change the minds of people who believe in conspiracy theories. The tricky part is that many of these theories contain some kernel of truth and any attempt to debunk them can be explained away as someone simply attempting to undermine a person’s position.  

As fact checkers we’re often conscious that the process of publicly addressing conspiracy theories can have the unintended consequence of promoting, rather than minimising, them. Challenging conspiracy theories can enrage those who disagree with the evidence we point to and result in the further spread of the disinformation which we’re attempting to minimise. Therefore, “real world” engagement affords us an opportunity to have open and respectful conversations with friends and family — which are often all too lacking in the online world. 

Have empathy 

In a real life situation where you are dealing with a person who believes in a conspiracy theory, empathy is key. After all, their belief is often born from a place of fear. By meeting that person where they are at on a specific issue, you are more likely to be able to ask questions which are not deemed threatening, but in the course of discussion may reveal inconsistencies in their beliefs.

It is also important to think about the intention of the conversation with someone about a conspiracy theory. Are you having it to simply prove that you’re right and they are wrong? If so, the impact of this could be to put even more distance between you and your friend/family member. However, if the intention is to understand their perspective, and not belittle them, then perhaps the impact will be finding more common ground and openness. 

Another consideration is the potential entanglement of the theory with an individual’s sense of identity. For example, a person who passionately believes and expresses that governments have too much influence on our individual lives, may in turn relate this to a conspiracy theory relating to COVID-19 and government control. Similarly, a wellness influencer may reject calls for a COVID-19 vaccine, having espoused a particular way of eating and living. This goes some way to explaining the passion with which many conspiracy theories are defended online. 

This clash of emotion and identity with complex information, reveals the importance of putting an accessible and human face on high quality data and evidence — and telling the story of it.

Ask these questions

The challenge in relation to conspiracy theories is that raw facts and data won’t necessarily change the beliefs and behaviours of those committed to these theories. However, three central — and crucially, non-threatening — questions can help us when chatting through these conspiracy theories with our friends and family members in our daily lives.

Where did you read this / hear this from?

A simple source check may stop someone in their tracks. If they heard a particular theory on a Facebook thread or a WhatsApp forwarded message, perhaps they could double check the source, and robustness of it. This will often reveal inconsistency in that story. 

What’s missing from that information?

Encourage people to open another tab! As fact checkers, we say people should read across sources, as this often provides a much fuller picture of a particular issue or story. Conspiracy theorists often use imprecise language to tell their story, ensuring that they are broad enough to potentially be true. Simple questions regarding the detail of this language can also reveal the holes in the plot. 

How does the story make you feel?

Have a conversation about how the theory made the person feel. If a piece of information makes someone feel sad, afraid or angry, it may have been engineered to do just that. Stories and theories which evoke a strong reaction are also shared more. If a theory that a friend or family member has shared or has read does this, suggest that they do a quick search to see what others are saying. Encourage them to get outside of their Facebook or WhatsApp bubbles and ask questions. 

What next? 

Changing the minds of convinced conspiracy theory supporters is difficult. The COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown has been isolating for many of us and provided fertile ground for conspiracies to gain traction. However, while any conversations we will have with friends and family to challenge them will be difficult, they are important. They will put a human face to evidence and facts, and remove the distance that extreme views thrive in. It is important to keep having them, as the more high quality and accurate information that is out there, hopefully the less likely people are to make poor health decisions on the basis of them. 

Image: Conspiracy theories phrase by Pedro Antonio Salaverría Calahorra used by license

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