These days it seems as if harmful conspiracy theories are running rampant, and no topic is off-limits. From the Covid-19 vaccine to climate change and even the validity of the 2020 election, it seems as if misinformation is an epidemic in its own rite.
There’s real potential for lasting damage if we do not manage the flood of false and misleading theories threatening our democracy and our future. It’s a complicated matter because, in order to debunk these conspiracy theories, you have to also understand why they exist, how they persist, who believes them, and what we, as a society, can do to try and minimize the fallout.
While conspiracy theories are not a new phenomenon, they certainly have found friendly breeding grounds in 2021 thanks to social media and the vast world of digital platforms that have allowed people to connect virtually during the pandemic but have also allowed falsehoods to spread like wildfire.
It is somewhat understandable why people might turn to these conspiracy theories at a time when we are all looking for answers to help us navigate a political divide, an uncertain future, and a global health crisis. Unfortunately, that’s precisely what conspiracy theorists are really banking on — they’re betting on the fact that people are so hungry for explanations to help reconcile the unexplainable that they’ll believe almost anything they read.
Consider the key theory presented by the conspiracy cult QAnon; they believe that Donald Trump was elected president in 2016 as a way to expose a secret child-sex trafficking ring run by Satanic, cannibalistic Democratic politicians and celebrities.
They also believe that the Chinese intentionally released the Covid-19 pandemic as a bioweapon and that Democrats orchestrated the pandemic to harm Trump’s chances of re-election. Former President Trump himself shouted claims of election fraud, with absolutely zero proof to support his false claims, and he also referred to the climate crisis as a “hoax” invented by the Chinese.
Most recently, the Covid-19 vaccine has been the target of false theories, namely that the vaccine distribution was halted until after the election for political purposes or that the Covid-19 vaccine can cause infertility or is a part of a population control scheme.
All false. All unproven and unsubstantiated. And yet, all these theories are spreading rapidly online thanks to a combination of influencers, inauthentic online personalities, and fake accounts that have mastered social media algorithms.
These conspiracy theories are just that: theories, but they are false, misleading, and seriously dangerous, especially if the blind belief in these theories is influencing behavior and putting people at risk. Case in point: reports indicate that conspiracy theories can lead to vaccine hesitancy, preventing us from reaching herd immunity before the Covid-19 variants become more of a threat.
The bottom line is that misinformation can be dangerous, and debunking those false claims is essential, but it’s not always an easy task, especially when people are hesitant to change. But there are some steps you can take to try and debunk the harmful conspiracy theories circulating, and it all starts with education.
Understand that there is a difference between real conspiracies and conspiracy theories and that healthy skepticism is not the same thing as irrational suspicion. Conspiracy theories can only be debunked if we understand why they exist and why people continue to believe them. Do your research on both the psychology of conspiracy theories and the theories themselves. Learn as much as you can. The only way to dispel false information is to gather as much accurate information as possible and arm yourself with the facts and concrete evidence to support the truth. Then, and only then, will you be able to start to climb the uphill battle of debunking the myths.
Warn Others About Misleading Information
While it might be hard to debunk conspiracy theories once they are already strongly held ideas, it is easier to avoid the belief in the first place, especially if you warn people that they might be exposed to misinformation before it hits. “If people believe that information that they might receive could be misleading, and they have that information up front, then that can sometimes help them to resist the misinformation as well,” Dr. Karen Douglas, Ph.D., a professor of social psychology at the University of Kent in the UK, told the American Psychological Association.
Keep an Open Mind and Listen
Experts argue that more often than not, trying to prove a conspiracy theorist wrong and trying to change his or her mind by offering facts won’t work. Likewise, arguing on Facebook or getting into a Twitter war won’t work either. You can’t rationalize away irrational thoughts, but you can get through to people by trying to get inside their heads and hear their perspectives. According to Geoff Dancy, associate professor of political science at Tulane University School of Liberal Arts, instead, you should question how they came to believe the theory and ask them to walk you through their thought process to get people to question their own conclusions. “You’re never going to entirely win. That’s just the truth. But there are certain things that you can do that chip away at it,” Dancy said. “It’s teaching people scientific methods, just through conversation.”
Educate and Support Others
Point people in the direction of resources to find information in their own time and come to conclusions in their own way. It can be hard to abandon long-held beliefs, even if they are conspiracy theories with no logical backbone. If those beliefs are held on an emotional level, it can be hard to let them go. Understand that these topics may be sensitive and simply support others by offering information and resources to access when they are ready.
Don’t Speak Out of Turn
Ask questions, engage in conversation, and listen, but try not to speak out of turn. Understand that loaded questions can come across as disrespectful. The last thing you want to do is offend someone to the point where they actually become further invested in a conspiracy theory. Instead, be open-minded and be a good listener. Finally, don’t expect to change minds instantly; remember it’s all part of a process.