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.