Conspiracy Theories and How to Help Family and Friends Who Believe Them

Conspiracy Theories and How to Help Family and Friends Who Believe Them

Conspiracy Theories and How to Help Family and Friends Who Believe Them Infographic

Do you have someone in your life who has been drawn in by a conspiracy theory? Has their behavior changed and you’re not sure how you can help?

Perhaps your parents have ventured down the QAnon rabbit hole and have become obsessed with trying to decode social media posts by public figures. They send you a daily stream of articles and YouTube videos about how the government is controlled by pedophiles who are running a child sex trafficking ring, and they’re especially worried about the daycare center your kids attend. When your family all got the Covid-19 vaccine, your mom warned you that the government implants chips in the vaccine to monitor people. Since your parents haven’t gotten the vaccine themselves because of this belief, you don’t visit them very often. 

Or maybe it’s a friend of yours who has been spewing a lot of racist rhetoric lately, the same type of language we hear from white supremacists after the latest mass shooting. Your friend is constantly talking about how white people are being replaced by “non-white” people (i.e., Black, Muslim and Latino people) and that the government is letting in massive numbers of immigrants so they can vote for Democrats. Even though he doesn't have children in the local school, your friend attends school board meetings because he is tired of “diversity” being taught to young children. You notice this friend has switched jobs every few months because he’s always getting into arguments with customers and his co-workers.

What are conspiracy theories?

Conspiracy theories can be defined in a variety of ways. In general, they reject established and accepted narratives, implying that sinister and powerful forces are manipulating various events and situations behind the scenes, usually for political gain. For example, a conspiracy theorist might claim that the U.S. and Israeli governments orchestrated the 9/11 attacks in order to stoke public outrage against Israel’s antagonists in the Middle East, or that the British royal family conspired to murder Princess Diana because they disapproved of her then-boyfriend.

Conspiracy theories have been around for centuries, and often emerge from a need to make sense of the world around us. Some conspiracy theories, like the great replacement theory, are associated with various right- or left-wing ideologies, while others transcend political lines, like those surrounding the assassination of John F. Kennedy or Area 51.

While some conspiracy theories–such as claims that Paul McCartney died decades ago and was replaced by a “body double” – are relatively harmless, other theories sow division, undermine trust in institutions and justify violence. They can also be used to demonize groups of people, such as false claims that LGBTQ+ people are “grooming” children or claims that a Jewish cabal controls world governments. Under the right circumstances, conspiracy theories can motivate people to violence, as seen during the January 6 insurrection and mass shootings in Buffalo, El Paso and Christchurch, New Zealand.

Why do people get drawn into conspiracy theories?

You may be better able to empathize and help someone if you understand the psychological reasons that motivate people to believe conspiracy theories. Dr. Karen Douglas, a professor of social psychology at the University of Kent in the UK, studies conspiracy theories and is one of the leading scholars in the field. She lays out three psychological motivations to explain why people get drawn into conspiracy theories: 

  1. Epistemic: This motivation is a need for knowledge, information and certainty. When a major event happens, people want an explanation for it and most importantly, they want to feel certain of that explanation. When people feel uncertain in specific situations or generally feel uncertain, they are drawn into conspiracy theories to help provide that certainty. Another key factor is people’s educational backgrounds; they may lack the critical thinking skills necessary to differentiate between credible and non-credible sources of information. As a result, they are looking for knowledge and certainty but do not have the tools and understanding to look in the right places.
  2. Existential: This motivation drives the need for people to feel safe and secure in their world. People need to feel they have power over the things that happen to them and, conversely, they don’t like to feel out of control or powerless in their lives. Conspiracy theories help them believe that they have information that explains why they lack control in specific situations and more generally. Therefore, people who feel powerless tend to gravitate towards conspiracy theories.
  3. Social: This motivation reflects people’s desire to feel good about themselves as individuals and good about the groups to which they belong. On an individual level, believing you have access to information and the truth, while others do not have that knowledge, gives one a feeling of superiority over others that can feed self-esteem. Further, the need for uniqueness and to stand out is a common motivation of those who are vulnerable to conspiracy theories. On a group level, those who believe conspiracy theories tend to have an overinflated sense of importance of their group(s) and yet feel their group(s) are underappreciated. Believing your group is “good, moral and upstanding” and other groups are not is a draw for conspiracy theories.

How do conspiracy theories work and how can you spot them?

There are real reasons for people to distrust governments, corporations and other powerful figures and groups. Actual conspiracies and cover-ups occur quite regularly; Watergate, the Tuskegee experiments and COINTELPRO were all real events. However, while real conspiracies do exist, this doesn’t mean that every event or situation is the result of a nefarious plot or that powerful figures are always trying to hide the truth. This conundrum poses an important question: How do we differentiate between real conspiracies and conspiracy theories?

The Conspiracy Theory Handbook, published by Dr. Stephan Lewandowsky, a professor of cognitive science at the University of Bristol in the UK, and Dr. John Cook, a professor at the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University, outlines seven traits of conspiratorial thinking, summarized with the acronym CONSPIR:

  • Contradictory ideas: People who have bought into conspiracy theories can simultaneously believe in ideas that contradict each other. For example, some believe that Covid-19 is a U.S.-created bioweapon but also that the virus is a hoax and doesn’t actually exist.
  • Overriding suspicion: Conspiracy theorists will dismiss “official” sources and any information that doesn’t “fit” neatly into the theory. They promote the idea that “traditional” sources of information–such as mainstream news outlets and academic researchers–are unreliable and are even “in on” the conspiracy, attempting to distract people from the truth.
  • Nefarious intent: The people and groups behind these supposed conspiracies are always presumed to have nefarious intentions – their motivations are never benign.
  • Something must be wrong: Even if you can debunk a conspiracy theory, believers will still believe the theory because they fundamentally believe that “something must be wrong.” For conspiracy theorists, nothing is as it seems.
  • Persecuted victim: Conspiracy theorists believe that they are victims of the conspiracy. They also view themselves as heroes who are brave enough to stand up against the conspirators. If a fact-checker debunks a claim made by a conspiracy theorist, they’re seen as simply trying to discredit the believer and cast doubt on the truth.
  • Immune to evidence: Conspiracy theories cherry-pick “evidence,” selectively choosing bits of information that support the narrative and casting aside anything that contradicts the claim. Evidence that contradicts the conspiracy theory will be re-interpreted as originating from the conspiracy.
  • Re-interpreting randomness: Conspiracy theories encourage believers to “do their own research” and collect their own “evidence” to prove the claim, looking for ways in which various events, people and situations are related. Events that have nothing to do with the conspiracy theory will be re-interpreted as being caused by the conspiracy.

Today, conspiracy theories seem to be spreading more rapidly than ever. While the internet has made it easier for us to connect with each other and share information, it’s also made it easier for conspiracy theories and misleading information to spread. We can all fall for conspiracy theories and unintentionally aid their spread. That's why it’s crucial for all of us to learn how to spot them. Here are some suggestions:

  • Check the source of the information. If you haven’t heard of the author or publication, do some research to assess how trustworthy they are. Is the social media user who shared this information reliable? Are they attached to a reputable organization or are they a self-proclaimed expert? Where did they get this information from? Additional red flags are raised when articles contain lots of grammatical errors, lack sources or are all written by the same author, or if a website contains an unusual URL or lacks an “About Us” section.
  • Check multiple sources. Are other, credible news outlets and experts sharing the same information? If a story is real, many publications will cover it. Have fact-checking sites like Snopes and PolitiFact refuted the claims?
  • Evaluate photos and videos that accompany stories and social media posts. Conspiracy theorists will often use old and/or manipulated images to support their stance. Conduct a reverse image search on Google or TinEye to see if the image has shown up elsewhere and if it has been manipulated. If it has, there’s a good chance you’re being played.
  • Think before you share. Does the story sound too good (or bad) to be true? Is the tone objective and factual, or is it sensationalist? Does the headline accurately reflect the story? Conspiracy theories and misleading information thrive by invoking a strong reaction from believers. If the information upsets you or makes you angry, it could be a sign that you’re being manipulated.

What you can do (and not do) to help those who have fallen for conspiracy theories?

Rather than debunking conspiracy theories after they’ve spread, a more effective strategy is to “pre-bunk” conspiracy theories, which means inoculating people before they are exposed. This involves “warning people that a specific piece of information is false and explaining why a source might lie or be misinformed about it before they encounter the information organically,” according to researchers.

However, once a person has bought into a conspiracy theory, it can be difficult to help them see that the conspiracy theory is wrong, a lie and that it could lead to harm and danger. Many people with loved ones who have fallen prey to conspiracy theories want to do something to help pull their friend or family member out of it. Here are some suggestions:

  • Learn more about the conspiracy theories: What are their central claims and where did they come from? This information puts you in a better position to understand what the person says and does.
  • Don’t try to convince the person they are wrong, lying or ignorant. Many people think if they just send that person enough information to refute their claims, the person will change their mind. This denies the underlying need the person has to believe it and is unlikely to work. In fact, those who try to discourage a conspiracy theorist are often seen as being “in” on the conspiracy.
  • Encourage the person to use critical thinking. You can do this by asking open-ended questions with genuine curiosity about what they believe and why. You can also encourage them to read different points of view on the topic. 
  • Don’t come across as dismissive, judgmental or belittling. This is a tough one because some conspiracy theories are so outlandish that it is difficult to not judge. However, this will likely lead to the person digging in their heels even more and will put more emotional distance between the two of you.
  • Prioritize the person’s health, safety and wellbeing. If you feel the person can be harmed or hurt or their safety is at risk, take steps to help them. For example, if someone begins expressing interest in carrying out a mass attack or hurting themselves, alert law enforcement. 
  • Don’t write the person off. Be there for them if they are able to come out of the conspiracy theory or when they are open and ready to hear the truth. As much as possible, show care, compassion and empathy.
  • If it becomes difficult to be around someone who has been drawn into a conspiracy theory, take a break. While you may take space away from the person, don’t close the door completely or cut them off. More than ever, they will need their loved ones when they stop believing the conspiracy theories.