Can conspiracy believers be helped?

The other day, EC had a private message on Twitter, asking for help. The person said they had a family member who had gone full-tilt conspiranoid in the past year or so, not just believing in chemtrails, but falling headlong into the QAnon/pedogate quagmire.

What, the person asked, could they do to help their family member come to their senses?

That is a really good question, and there probably isn’t one single answer. However, it seems worthwhile to take a look at what makes some people latch onto ideas which appear downright loopy to the rest of us. And perhaps more important, what can be done (if anything) to help people come back to reality?

The conspiracy mindset

According to Joseph Uscinski, a professor of political science at the University of Miami, the tendency to believe in conspiracies is not an either/or proposition, but rather a continuum.

In an interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education, Uscinski said,

In order for people to buy into any conspiracy theory, they have to have a worldview in which conspiracies take place often and are responsible for events and circumstances. When people have that worldview very strongly, they tend to buy into a lot of conspiracy theories, and if they don’t have it, then they tend to be much more resistant. 

When asked to identify groups which they think are working against their interests, he said, those who believe in more conspiracy theories will identify several, whereas those who are more resistant to conspiracies will identify only one or two.

A question we’ve often asked ourselves about the Hampstead SRA hoax is how any reasonable person could believe the often-nonsensical details of the hoax—babies somehow delivered alive by DHL, cannibalistic feasts in a “secret room” at McDonalds, people dancing in the nude while carting around 20 skulls apiece…how could anybody actually accept that any of this was true?

However, Uscinski described a class exercise which simulates the development of a conspiracy theory: he asks his students to posit something really, really off-the-wall—”David Icke is a space alien”, for example—and then use the internet to find evidence to support their theory. Once they’ve accumulated their “evidence”, they must defend their theory to a classmate, whose job it is to debunk and tear it down.

Interestingly, even though they know that their theory is fabricated, the defending students described feeling hurt, angry, or defensive that their theory was not accepted by their classmate. After all, they had put a great deal of time, thought, and energy into backing it up with facts! From the internet!

Rather than laughing and admitting that their theory was wrong, students found themselves becoming personally attached to the invented theory, and dug in their heels when it was debunked.

“People don’t like being told they’re wrong”, Uscinski said. “And it’s very easy, when you start collecting evidence for something, to just get into the mind-set of, ‘Oh, this is true'”.

Describing those who believe in the QAnon hoax, he noted,

In order for people to believe this they have to have a confluence of worldviews to accept it. And one is, they have to be Trump supporters, they have to have a strong conspiracy mind-set, and most likely they’re evangelical. …

When someone buys into something like that that’s so extreme, it’s not so much about the theory. The details could change, and they would still buy in. It’s about all the underlying dispositions that allow them to buy into it. And that’s the real problem. So the fact that we disagree on Q isn’t really the problem. It’s that we have a set of completely different worldviews underneath that, which are probably incompatible.

A five-year study conducted by Cambridge University indicates that belief in conspiracy theories is linked to feelings of powerlessness:

Our research reveals that belief in conspiracy theories is linked to two things: a sense of threat, and a feeling of being excluded from power. The sense of threat comes from fears about mass migration: remember Nigel Farage’s “breaking point” poster, which played on fears of Syrian refugees swamping our shores? Being excluded from power comes from a feeling of not being listened to by politicians.

Hugo Drochon, who teaches politics at the University of Nottingham, says that belief in conspiracy theories is a way of regaining some sense of control in a world which can feel inexplicable and hostile. Attributing the world’s madness to “secret machinations of a hidden and extremely powerful group of people who control everything” might seem curiously disempowering, but it can help people feel that at least they understand why things are as they are.

In short, conspiracy theories help people to manage their fear.

While Uscinski says that trying to talk somebody out of a conspiracy theory is at best futile—he compared it to trying to talk a Catholic into converting to Judaism, or a Republican into becoming a Democrat—Drochon favours making the effort.

Drochon says that while those who believe in conspiracies mistrust institutions such as the government and the mainstream media, they may still trust friends and family members. Conspiracy believers who have forged friendships with other conspiracy theories might be more difficult to reach, as the belief system is mutually reinforcing, however.

As we have been saying almost since the inception of this blog, social media drives the development and reach of conspiracy theories. Drochon says,

Social media encourages conspiracy theories. Not all, mind you: Facebook encourages conspiracy theories, but Twitter mitigates against them. It turns out YouTube is the worst offender: those who get their news from the video platform are much more likely to believe conspiracy theories.

So what is the answer? Is there any way to convince a person who’s taken a deep dive down the conspiracy rabbit-hole that they’ve made a terrible mistake?

Mick West, who runs a website called Metabunk, has written a book called Escaping the Rabbit Hole: How to debunk conspiracy theories using facts, logic, and respect. In it, he focuses on having effective conversations with conspiracy believers, using three critical elements:

  • Maintaining an effective dialogue;
  • Supplying useful information; and
  • Giving it time.

West, a former computer game developer, sums it up as, “Talk to them, show them stuff they missed, and don’t rush.”

While the book focuses on four types of conspiracy theory which don’t seem particularly relevant to the “Illuminati Satanic ritual abuse baby-eaters” side of the conspiracy belief smorgasbord, we think it’s very worthwhile reading for anyone who genuinely wants to help a friend or loved one (or themselves) out of the rabbit-hole. Debunking conspiracy theories is hard work, and isn’t always successful, no matter how earnestly and openly one tries.

But for people like our friend on Twitter, West’s combination of persistence, logic, facts, and respect might just do the trick.

21 thoughts on “Can conspiracy believers be helped?

  1. All well and good EC, but, I fear that nothing would ever convince the ones like APD, Andy Pandy. Mr X and he whos’ name must not be mentioned to see the error of their ways.

    Liked by 2 people

    • FS, they fall into a type of person who loves to exert power over others, control and manipulate for their own selfish reasons…… they find ways to mis describe any failure as a triumph, flipping from victim to victor trying to find the edge to maintain their followers interest, sympathy, donations, obedience, promotion etc…… It is their victims who often can be helped, many have and spoken out about what they were put through by the ‘puppeteers and grifters, abused in various ways by people who had them in their grip, who they often felt loyalty to.

      Once shocked, hurt and angry, some then seek revenge, but along their path, hopefully comes people, who’ve had similar experiences, many who have also formed groups, to light up the route out,with humour and humanity……..

      It does pay to have patience and not expect someone to listen, absorb and agree quickly…… forcing opinions can just provoke stronger resistance…… I don’t always manage this 🙂 Talking to myself too here.

      Powerlessness is of course a profound experience, for victims of childhood trauma &/or abuse; handled in different ways by survivors. It can take a complete breakdown, for the possibility of change to occur, I wish this was better handled by mental health services.

      The quick responses that are vile, towards people challenging the ‘leader/s’ of any group, who is attempting to finance themselves via using child abuse, other emotive issues like abortion, immigration,encouraging contempt for the ‘other’, the ‘enemy’, to help glue the group and SRA serves this purpose across many belief systems, including of course,religious.

      The Internet has meant that people like David Icke have spawned many others, creating a pyramid, a matrix of their own with alternative views, practices, beliefs and all encourage the distrust in authority, whilst only encouraging people to disrupt, no comply and even break the law……… It needs for a stronger presence of saner, stable and sincere people, online which is also growing, so many had no idea of the horrors that we have found during our travails and journey that this hoax has taken us along……

      Liked by 1 person

    • I should have been clearer in my definition, FSam. I believe that those who actively promote the Hampstead hoax do so for malign reasons, and cannot be talked down because they have something to gain from pushing it. In asking whether conspiracy theorists can be helped, I’m thinking of the “other” victims of the Hampstead hoax pushers: those who see the lies online and adopt them, either because the hoax fits other ideas they’ve picked up about the Illuminati, child sexual abuse, etc.

      While we focus here on the Hampstead case, there is a wide range of conspiracy theories out there, and I agree with West’s idea that some who believe them can indeed be helped.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi, this is my position as a Satanist on this…

    What an individual believes, what is inside their head, their opinions, fantasies, delusions, beliefs and thoughts is no crime, nor is it of any concern to others.

    One separates thought from deed. If an individual believes [someone] is leader of a cult, that school children in Hampstead dance around human skulls, that the people of Hampstead eat babies. The beliefs are neither a crime nor does it matter. If the individual acts upon these thoughts and does harm to another, then it matters, then it becomes a concern.

    The core of all legal systems are torts that protect the individual in such things as their person, their property, their privacy, their family, their liberty of movement, their reputation etc. The torts form a social contract between individuals and their State, and applies to everyone, regardless if they are citizen or visitor within the borders of that State. There are enforcers of the Social Contract including police and judges who enforce the Contract, and thus there is no conspiracy or surprise to be had when the individual believing some fantasy acts to do harm to another person, is arrested by the police, and jailed by the judges.

    As a Satanist I am upset and angry at the pain and suffering inflicted on [a protected witness], his children and the people of Hampstead by the believers of fictions, who are acting on those fictions. I stay within the law, I do not react by denying the fiction believers the rights given by the common law torts of the Social Contract.

    I believe in eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth; treating and doing others as they would do to others and to me. These are beliefs I have, they push me to a potential position that I would act upon under certain circumstances. Satanism is my tribe, the families, children and individuals that make up my tribe I have a deep emotional connection to, thus it no longer is just a belief, but an emotional bond, that would cause me to act against people who do harm to my tribe, which I see as harm to me.

    The following is not a threat, no Satan Hunter is going to be harmed, because they have not done harm to any Satanist families or children, but it is worth putting this on public record what would have happened if this had been the case…

    Had anyone that the Satan Hunters had harmed been Satanist families and children, my tribe, I would have become radicalised, and I would have caused others of my tribe to become radicalised. Knowing as I do the depth that Satan Hunters would plunge to, the relentless nature of their pursuit of their beliefs in deed regardless of law, reason or empathy, I would have become violent, and I would have done harm to the Satan Hunters, I would not have cared if I had gone to prison. Its a difficult thing to admit, but thats how it would have been for me.

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    • “One separates thought from deed. If an individual believes [someone] is leader of a cult, that school children in Hampstead dance around human skulls, that the people of Hampstead eat babies. The beliefs are neither a crime nor does it matter. If the individual acts upon these thoughts and does harm to another, then it matters, then it becomes a concern.”

      I’ve always said that people have a right to discuss Hampstead. What they don’t have a right to do is name names, identify people, show videos of children and act in any way that puts people at risk.

      “I believe in eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth…” I’m a Christian (of the progressive sort) and from my perspective an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind. (A phrase attributed to Gandhi I think.) That doesn’t mean I would lie back though while someone puts the boot in. Balance is everything…

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Well, bugger me sideways! Look what just popped up out of the blue. It’s Andy Pandy and King John getting nominated for being you know whats. It’s spreading further and wider!!
    http://is-a-c**t.com/ ( You need to add a u and an n in place of ** )

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Omni is raising his game 🙂 This I found important, as far as I was able to listen. Some very salient, pertinent, points and references, amongst the humour and ripping. Chat attended by many with lots of knowledge n know how……. Impacting, 🙂 Angie gets craved attention as does one of her beaux n a few pals.

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  5. ‘Persistence, logic, facts, and respect might just do the trick.’

    I’m surrounded by conspiracy theorists where I live and I have to admit that while I’ve managed the first three of the above I’ve not been good when it comes to respect and in the past I’ve just laughed at people. Lack of respect doesn’t work and I’m learning to change my approach. I’m reading Mick West’s book right now and it makes a lot of sense.

    I do get really irritated though by the absolute volume of bollocks that some people spout in the pub etc. When one’s had a couple of jars it’s hard not to shout ‘BOLLOCKS’ isn’t it.

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  6. I was puzzled to see a tweet by that charlatan Jon Wedger turn up on my timeline, Mystery solved. He’s paying for them to be promoted.

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  7. As other writers on the topic have pointed out, believing in conspiracy theories is also an ego-boost. I’ve seen more than one thread on conspiracies where someone explains that sure, sheeple who accept what the government tells them may believe X, but smart people who see through to the truth know X is a lie — only Y is true!

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  8. 😆😂🤣 OK, so that’s both accounts down now. Angie’s head exploding in 3…2…1…

    By the way, that was the exact same post that got her suspended from her other account (well done, Lucca), so why she left it on this one just waiting to be reported is anyone’s guess.

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  9. While I’ve from time to time met people who were perhaps a little eccentric and lived in their own little world, I don’t know any real life conspiracy theorists. I had a spell when I relied on my computer for keeping myself occupied (combination of illness, then broke a bone and my TV had conked out) and some conspiracy YouTube videos popped up and I watched them in bewildered amazement (not in a good way). I can understand that it is difficult for people who do have conspiracy theorists in their families or circle of friends. I can’t remember whether I mentioned this before but some months back a YouTuber whose channel name is Shoe0nHead did a reaction video in response to a video where another YouTuber had intimated that she was transgender – just a funny reaction video really. Her followers went to the ‘transvestigation’ channel – Heather Somebody – and said the transvestigator was wrong and the ‘transvestigator’ accused S0H of being a bully! But someone had commented that his friend used to be a straight A student and had gone down the rabbit hole believing in conspiracy theories. It’s very hard to debate even online with conspiracy believers though (at least I have found it to be so); there may be the occasional person who will be courteous but if I said anything like women CAN have Adonis belts (which are really just the ileac furrows) people accuse you of being a shill or paid by the Illuminati. I mean how can you have a reasonable debate with someone bringing up such accusations?

    I haven’t offered anything of practical help I realise. It doesn’t help that social media are (relatively) new and the laws affecting them are still to some extent in flux – and also vary from country to country.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. A bit off topic, but I notice that a certain legal practice has made at least one subtle change to their website, but they still list a certain convicted hoaxster as a team member.

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  11. Having been down part of a rabbit hole myself and been brought out by other people’s kind efforts at debunking, I have to say that is an effective approach – for some. There will always be those upon whom logic and reason is wasted, those who cannot comprehend, ie its a basic lack of intelligence, all said and done. Some get invested and it would be a loss – real grief- to lose a sense of group belonging with those that mirror their beliefs onine. I agree youtube is one of the worst culprits – video makers can easily ‘dupe’ gullible people with intriguing narratives.

    My son is going through a small conspiracy phase right now, I’ve shown him right from wrong and we’ve agreed that a lot of that stuff on YT is simply entertainment, he readily agreed that yes, it is entertaining and interesting. Seems like a better way for him to look at things, more realistic. I don’t tell him it is wrong to enjoy it, but to be aware it is just people making narratives that he enjoys, ie it is his enjoyment of a STORY he is experiencing.

    Following yesterday’s post, I wanted to say that I really feel for the man who was filmed tussling his daughter’s hair, and what he and his family must be going through now. The fact he will question innocent acts of love and open display of his affections for his daughter – I wish I had had such a father – is appalling and a sign of the sickness of people like Cavanagh or whatever his name is.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I think that intervening as early as possible, as you’ve done, is probably a good way to help “innoculate” against a person believing every theory out there. Looking at some of these theories as a form of entertainment strikes me as a very sensible approach.

      And yes, it’s sickening that where most of us would see an affectionate father, Carvath sees something dirty.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. I had totally forgotten about micky west, Nintendo games or something like that, he was on a Joe rogan show few years ago about metaBunk website how he gets lots of grief lol, i can slightly relate to that but not at his scale thank fck, Get them to come on a hang out with me Danny Jones then if that dont work Flo can make it clearer to them lol
    Another great read El , thankyou

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    • Yes, Flo is an excellent “conspiracy whisperer”, isn’t he? West co-founded Neversoft in the early 1990s—the company was responsible for Tony Hawk, Guitar Hero, and other games I believe.

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  13. I put it to you that it isn’t “conspiracy believers”, nor those who disbelieve all conspiracy allegations automatically (rather than remaining sceptical and demanding reasoned and evidence-based arguments) who need “help”. It is anybody so emotionally committed to an error of either type which reason and evidence contradict, that he or she behaves wrongly, convinced that he or she is in the right to do so.

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