How to Talk to a Conspiracy Theorist

Dec 18, 2020 —

Not all conspiracy theories pose a risk, and as we say in other posts, sometimes paranoia is a reasonable response to the operations of power. However, the reality is that during the pandemic, conspiracy theories have at best distracted people from the real challenges facing us and at worst created obstacles to containment and recovery. In other writing, we have been more willing to consider conspiracy theorising as a creative form of worldmaking that responds to the cultural and political anxieties of the day. Here, we want to offer some practical advice about what to do if you find yourself in conversation with someone who offers a conspiracist account of events and you suspect that account is harmful in some way.

  1. Accept that it won’t be easy Even if you think their theories are laughable, you are not going to be able to quickly change someone’s mind with a few well-chosen facts. First, because conspiracy theories are rarely just a set of propositions that people believe: they are instead often an expression of a deeply held worldview that is tied up with a person’s sense of identity. And second, conspiracy theories are often irrefutable: not because they are right, but because there is nothing you can say against the conspiracy theory that could not be reinterpreted by a committed conspiracy theorist as evidence for the conspiracy theory. Try to avoid getting sucked into an argument as you’re likely to confront a barrage of factual claims that the conspiracy theorist will throw at you. Unless you do have expert knowledge in the particular area, you are never going to be able to refute the torrent of factoids. There are useful debunking sites that can give you some help, but you’re always likely to come off worse against someone who has invested hours online “researching” these theories. Instead, you could try asking them in a non-judgemental fashion more detailed questions about the theory, especially about the sources of evidence. If needed, move the conversation into a more general discussion about how we know what we know bringing in processes of research and peer review.

  2. Choose your battles There’s probably not much hope of changing the mind of committed conspiracy theorists, and trying to argue against them might simply backfire. But many other people find themselves in the grey zone of not really believing in a particular theory, but not fully disbelieving it either. You have to choose which battles to fight, and these strategies are aimed at trying to reach people who are still undecided.

  3. Find out what people actually believe Sometimes people share a conspiracy theory online not because they firmly believe it, but because they find it merely intriguing, or want to provoke a reaction. So it is important to find out whether the person you are speaking to genuinely believes what they are sharing. You also need to establish exactly which variation of the conspiracy theory they believe, what kind of things they’ve been watching and reading, and how the various theories they subscribe to fit together – or not. And we need to remember that many conspiracy theories are comparatively harmless, so it’s important to focus on those that promote hatred, undermine sensible health behaviours, or are damaging to the people who believe in them.

  4. Recognise that conspiracy theorists are not creatures from a different planet Research shows that conspiracy theorists are not victims of a bizarre psychology, but have cognitive traits that most people share to a greater or lesser extent. These cognitive habits include the tendency to find patterns amid randomness, and assuming that all effects must be the result of intentional agency. Likewise the underlying psychological motives for believing in conspiracy theories are shared by most people to some degree: anxiety about a loss of control (both individually and socially), a desire to make sense of how everything fits together, the temptation to think that you are special (in having seen through the lies), and the need to belong to a community of like-minded people. Understanding the latest research on the psychology of conspiracy theories can help us recognise that conspiracy theorists are not abnormal, and other research has shown how conspiracy theories are closely related to other ways of making sense of the world. And it is important to remember that the very label “conspiracy theory” is not a neutral and objective category, but is a comparatively recent coinage (from the 1950s) that marks out certain beliefs as fundamentally flawed.

  5. Use empathy Even if you think most conspiracy theories are demonstrable nonsense, ridiculing conspiracy theorists is unlikely to change their minds. If anything, it confirms their feeling of being marginalised, and makes them dig in their heels. Today conspiracy theories quite often emerge out of a sense of resentment against government authorities, scientific experts and the mainstream media. People who believe in conspiracy theories are likely to automatically distrust those sources of knowledge. We also need to acknowledge that there have been more than enough episodes of dubious official pronouncements and flawed expert advice to give people good reason to be sceptical. It can therefore be more useful to begin with empathy, and to listen without instantly condemning. In order to establish common ground, it is worth trying to understand what might be driving conspiracy theorists’ beliefs. This might involve considering their wider worldview, their deep-rooted fears – and even the sense of enjoyment they get from pursuing these theories. It can help to identify what you share: curiosity about world events, scepticism about official explanations, or anger at injustice. It can also be helpful to think of conspiracy theories like a religion: you can recognise how important these matters of faith are to some people, even if you don’t share their view of reality. One way of approaching the problem is to keep asking questions – not in a combative, point-scoring way – to find out what the conspiracy theorist imagines the ultimate purpose of the conspiracy to be. If, for example, they are convinced that there is a sinister plan on the part of the elites to curb the freedom of ordinary people, then it’s possible to empathise with the perception of a loss of control over our lives, without getting caught up in debating the details of the conspiracy theory. Sometimes it can turn out that people only have a hazy notion of the ultimate purpose of the imagined conspiracy.

  6. Recognise the emotional charge of conspiracy theories Conspiracy theories often work less by the power of argument than the intensity of the emotions that they evoke. They can involve feelings of resentment and righteous injustice, as well as cynicism about the corrupt nature of the world. In place of dispassionate logic, they often involve apocalyptic narratives about urgent struggles between good and evil. You need to recognise the emotional charge of conspiracy theories, and try to avoid escalating the argument. It can therefore help to take the discussion offline and in private, as social media lends itself to hot-takes and flame wars that are in the full glare of peer attention. No one likes losing face in public. It can be also be useful to adopt strategies developed by experts who have worked on radicalisation and cults. They find that people who have the authority of insider experience are more likely to be trusted and listened to than outside critics.

  7. Talk about the difference between conspiracy theories and actual conspiracies It can be useful to discuss actual, proven conspiracies, to tease out ways in which conspiracy theories are different. Agree with the idea that sometimes conspiracies do indeed happen. But then go on to identify some of the common traits of those actual conspiracies, such as revelations coming about through inevitable leaks and careless mistakes by participants. If most examples of real conspiracies have been exposed by experienced investigative journalists and professional historians, what are the chances that the crime of the century would only get uncovered by amateurs on social media? Get them to talk through the implications of a particular conspiracy theory. Who else would have to be involved in covering it up? What is the likelihood of so many people collaborating in the first place, or keeping the plot secret? With large organisations or government agencies, do we tend to encounter incompetence or ruthlessly efficient planning? What evidence would lead the conspiracy theorist to change their mind? This last question can be particularly revealing, because a theory that is unfalsifiable is no theory at all, merely a matter of blind faith.

  8. Acknowledge that there is often a kernel of truth Conspiracy theories might end up in wildly exaggerated conclusions, but they are often based on a kernel of truth. For example, it is not at all likely that Bill Gates is planning to control the whole world’s population by implanting a microchip in the coronavirus vaccine. But there is scientific research, funded by the Gates Foundation, into developing a way of recording a vaccine record by including readable imprints under the skin using a novel method of vaccine delivery using a patch with microscopic needles. It is driven by the problem of keeping accurate vaccination records in poor countries around the world. There indeed should be an important conversation about the ethics and the practicalities of this proposed research, but that is not the same thing as debating whether Gates is in league with a global cabal to turn everyone into slaves. Be patient, transparent and clear about limits to our knowledge, and acknowledge the possibility of mistakes on the part of the authorities.

  9. Encourage scepticism If conspiracy theorists pride themselves on being suspicious about everyone, and never taking anything at face value, then it makes sense to encourage them to be sceptical about their own beliefs. Encourage them to consider who might benefit from promoting particular conspiracy theories by talking about the motives of individual conspiracy entrepreneurs (e.g. Alex Jones and David Icke) and the financial incentives of the social media platforms, which profit from stoking controversy.

  10. Teach people to recognise manipulation If the default assumption of conspiracy theorists is that ordinary people (“sheeple”) are being manipulated by powerful forces behind the scenes, then it can be fruitful to ask them to think about how their own beliefs might have been manipulated by powerful groups and social media platforms. Research has shown that an effective strategy of combatting the proliferation of fake news and conspiracism online is to show people the mechanics of how media manipulation works, e.g. through GoViral!, an immersive game in which the player learns how to manipulate Coronavirus misinformation. Other researchers have shown that making people aware of the history of actual misinformation campaigns (e.g. Big Tobacco calling on rogue scientists and fake experts in the 1970s) can help them resist such tactics in their own lives. Likewise “pre-bunking” (priming people in advance about likely kinds of misinformation) can be more effect that debunking after the fact.

  11. Promote critical thinking and awareness about conspiracy theories Although research has shown that a higher level of analytical thinking reduces people’s tendency to endorse conspiracy theories, it is important to recognise that conspiracy theories have much in common with critical thinking, at least at the surface level. The rallying cry of the QAnon movement, for example, is “do your own research,” and most conspiracy theorists pride themselves on their independence of thought. Instead of directly attacking conspiracism as irrational, it can be helpful to cultivate a self-reflexivity about the rhetorical devices and modes of reasoning that are common to conspiracy theories. Often they involve “special pleading,” because a reason can always be found why counter arguments don’t apply. This leads to theories becoming ever more convoluted, as the explanation needs propping up with an even more fanciful speculation. Occam’s Razor (the idea that simple explanations are more likely than complex ones) in itself might not be sufficient to demolish a conspiracy theory, but it is a useful rule of thumb that most people are happy to apply in their daily lives. It’s also important to beware false analogies, which often underpin discussions of imagined conspiracies. Even if you don’t dive into the details of a particular theory, it can be worth unpicking some the implicit comparisons people make (for example, just because the dossier about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was deeply flawedmistaken doesn’t mean that all government accounts are false; you need to look at each case on its merits). Finally, it’s important not to mistake coincidence for conspiracy, even if that is a common human trait to see the world in that way. Sometimes it really is just a coincidence. It can also help to develop a self-awareness about history of conspiracy theories on the part of true believers. This might involve discussing how conspiracy theories do not have convincing track record of being proven right. Or it might involve discussing the dubious origins of some prominent conspiracy theories (e.g. the kind of Illuminati theories that circulate today were made up as a spoof in a 1970s novel, but then came to be taken seriously; the QAnon conspiracy theory also emerged in part out of online role-playing games that some people took for real).

  12. Develop media literacy, and don’t take credentials at face value Although media literacy education is a vital component in the larger campaign against dangerous forms of conspiracism, we need to recognise that conspiracy theorists are often quite savvy about media manipulation – at a superficial level, at least. After all, many contemporary conspiracy theories insist that we should distrust the mainstream media. But if you can get beyond conspiracy theorists’ initial default rejection of all mainstream media, it can be profitable to discuss whether their scepticism can be equally applied to their own sources of information. In that regard, it is also worth discussing the role of experts in how we form our opinions. Although many conspiracy theorists now dismiss scientists, journalists and historians as all part of a vast, corrupt conspiracy, they are often still willing to cite authorities sympathetic to their position, championing experts who have been dismissed as cranks by the mainstream. Often, though, the credentialled scientists they draw on do not have expertise in the particular specialism they are pronouncing on, or they have been disgraced for a good reason.

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