For online conspiracy theories, 2020 was a blockbuster year.
Whether it was QAnon, older notions of a New World Order, or one of many nebulous suspicions surrounding Covid-19, a wide array of false and discredited fringe theories found footholds on internet forums and social media websites, growing in the fertile ground afforded by political upheaval, the pandemic and lockdowns.
The PA news agency spoke to Tommy Shane, head of impact and policy at First Draft, a global non-profit organisation tackling misinformation, about how to talk to friends and family falling down the conspiracy theory rabbit hole.
– Work out whether to be worried
Most people would encourage critical thinking, and it can be difficult to distinguish healthy scepticism from internet-fuelled conspiracies. Mr Shane says any conversation should involve probing – gently pushing back on someone’s views to see how deeply they hold them.
“If you receive strong pushback,” says Mr Shane, “and someone seems well-prepared to counter your points, it suggests a high degree of immersion in and commitment to a community. Others might say things semi-ironically, and they might just be trolling or trying to wind you up.”
The hard truth: as long as wild conspiracies spread more rapidly on the internet than mundane facts – and are propagated by political leaders – we can only expect more destabilizing events as more people genuinely believe them & turn to extremism.
— Dave Wasserman (@Redistrict) January 7, 2021
Specific warning signs are inevitably context-dependent, but there are a few red flags common to a lot of online conspiracy subcultures. “The key ones are thinking that completely unconnected things are connected to each other,” says Mr Shane, “and thinking that everything happens for a reason – that everything is somehow intended.”
It is also important to recognise – “and this is the tricky thing about conspiracy theory discourse at the moment” – Mr Shane notes, that a lot of the more radical conspiracy theories tend to attract people in dire personal circumstances.
– Establish your own motivations
Once you have established the extent of someone’s beliefs, it is worth considering whether it is actually worth engaging. Changing entrenched points of view is notoriously difficult, and if you are expecting to dissuade someone quickly and entirely, you’re almost certain to be disappointed.
“I would say there are two main bases for starting a conversation,” says Mr Shane. “First, (pandemic restrictions allowing) if you’re in a public space, and it’s important to correct claims because of the people watching. If you have an uncle who’s a serious conspiracy theorist, and he’s got children, it might be really important to show them a credible counterpoint.
“Second, when you have the closeness, trust and access to actually change someone’s mind. The first thing I would do is check you’re in one of those two situations, because otherwise it can be an exhausting and fruitless task.”
Even then it is crucial to limit expectation, as there is almost certainly no silver bullet, and your best-case scenario may be to simply sow doubt.
– Put yourself in their shoes
If you decide a conversation is worth having, try to intellectually empathise with your subject, rather than ridiculing or undermining them. Conspiracy theorists, Mr Shane says, are not a definable bloc that is somehow separate from society, and all of us can be a bit conspiratorial in our thinking.
“We all have conspiratorial tendencies occasionally – we suspect the government of lying about something, or we think what we see isn’t the true reality – and almost every theory, however outlandish, has a grain of truth in it somewhere.
“If you start from, ‘I could be where you’re at, we’re not different species’, you can begin to understand how someone might come to their conclusions, rather than treating it as a psychopathic illness. There are key differences – many theories can be racist or anti-Semitic – but that starting point of, ‘We’re all a bit conspiratorial’, can really help.”
Establishing intellectual common ground is really important, and Mr Shane suggests using phrases like, ‘I can see where you’re coming from’, or, ‘I was suspicious about that too’, before making your own point.
– Value their argument
It is tempting to play the role of fact-checker, but this is not always the best strategy – even with matters of public record. “Coming at them with evidence from institutions they don’t trust won’t work,” says Mr Shane. “Use sources they might find credible, if they exist, because if you go in with, ‘The World Health Organisation and Centres for Disease Control and Prevention say this’, you might as well be talking a completely different language.”
Try to target the logical fallacies of a position, rather than bombarding it with external information. If they believe, for instance, that evil, powerful people are secretly pulling all the strings, consider skating over the specifics and asking whether people are really competent enough to pull that off.
“Conspiracy theorists generally view themselves as good critical thinkers,” says Mr Shane, “so you have to show them their logic is flawed without undermining their sense of identity and pride.”
He adds: “Finding common ground, making the other person feel listened to – these are common tactics for dealing with difficult conversations, and apply here just as much as they do elsewhere.”
– Be prepared to walk away
By their very nature, these conversations require you to exert energy and patience without any guarantee of progress, and getting angry or frustrated will probably be counter-productive.
“If you care about these things you’ve got to focus your efforts where they’ll make a difference,” says Mr Shane, “and worry about fatigue, burnout and demoralisation. It’s important to feel empowered to not have the conversation if you don’t want to, and stop it if you’re not getting anywhere.”