Faked moon landing, #PizzaGate, September 11 was an inside job, Vince Foster was murdered by the Clintons to cover up Whitewater, the Sandy Hook massacre was a hoax – the list of conspiracy theories is long and bizarre.
Side-show paranoid nonsense becomes alarming and enraging, however, when ordinary people base important decisions; how they vote, for example, on whatever fevered internet story best supports their own personal world views.
It’s enough to make you crazy, especially if you have conspiracy theorists among your loved ones (or even your liked ones). It feels irresponsible to not address their cuckoo pet theories, especially when they’re putting people in danger: Vaccine deniers do real harm, for example. But how to engage without simply yelling “it’s not true it’s not true it’s not true” over and over again?
Consider the Motives
People who are stand to actually benefit from conspiracy theories are a lost cause, so don’t bother: Brett Kavanaugh, when working as a supposedly impartial associate independent counsel investigating Whitewater in the 1990s, asked Kenneth Starr to re-open the Vince Foster investigation, even though Foster’s 1993 suicide had already been investigated and the murder theory debunked several times.
This harassment was obviously enormously painful to Foster’s family and proved nothing. Is it worth arguing with, say, Brett Kavanaugh or any other political operative? Obviously not – they stand to benefit from fanning the flames, and rational conversation wouldn’t be productive.
But you can have a conversation with your friend or dad or cousin who thinks the Foster conspiracists, or the Sandy Hook Truthers, might be onto something.
Initiate Patient Discussion
For a story on how to spot fake news, I interviewed Faith Rogow, an educational consultant who specialises in media literacy for children. She encourages a patient questioning of the conspiracy’s underpinnings, to “follow that train of thought to its natural conclusion.”
For example, if your friend thinks that there is a vast conspiracy to pay women to make up sexual assault stories about powerful men, ask a few gentle probing questions: Where is this money coming from? How is it transferred? Is there evidence that women have received this money? Is there any paper trail or IRS records of payments? How much money would be worth upending your life and safety for?
A good one, Rogow mentioned in our last conversation, is to ask “How many people would have to be in on the story for it to hold?” All those Sandy Hook families are all paid actors? Never cracking on their stories? All the first responders, the doctors, the community who knew and played with and cared for those children, the extended families, the local and national media – all keeping this massive secret for six years? Even though you might not get your conspiracy theorist to admit that it’s all very unlikely, you can still plant a seed of doubt in their brain.
Understand What Makes Conspiracy Theorists Tick
Some people seem more inclined to believe far-fetched stories than others. These people, according to Elizabeth Svoboda, writing for the Washington Post, “often consider themselves part of a select in-group that – unlike the deluded masses – has figured out what’s really going on.” It might work to appeal to their sense of smarts by encouraging them to do further research – from reputable sources.
Review Basic Media Literacy Skills
This will likely work better for you if you’re in a teaching role for this person – if you’re the parent, for example. Rogow’s site offers good pointers (good for everyone, not just kids) on how to see if an image has been manipulated, how to look for reporting that has been “independently verified” rather than just re-posted from another site, and to consider the evidence, not the bias of the reporter.
If you’ve got someone who considers themselves smarter than everyone else, knowing how to use these tools will reinforce their self-image as a super-sleuth.
Svoboda reports on a study that showed that people can be nudged out of their conspiracy theories by 1) showing them the facts and 2) implying that anyone who would think otherwise is ridiculous. She points out that this may or may not work – but at least other people within earshot will get some solid facts.
A friend of mine says that standing up to harmful nonsense, like racism at the Thanksgiving table, might not change the mind of the racist, but it will have an effect on sway-able people (like children) within earshot. So you might not reduce the number of conspiracy theorists or racists in your midst, but you might, at least, stop a new one from forming.
And if all else fails? Take a deep breath and walk away. I had a long conversation with an anti-vaxxer who kept repeating “I’d just be really curious to see the data”. Eventually I had to hang up the phone. Conspiracy theories are an unfortunate part of American discourse, and the best you can do is keep repeating the truth. On some days, that might make you feel like, well, a member of the select few.