How to help those who have lost their way

April 14, 2021

Categories: Skepticism , Tags: Conspiracy

A work colleague reached out to me the other day with an interesting question. One of his close family members has fallen down a conspiracy rabbit hole, and now spends a lot of time talking about QAnon, the "Deep State", etc. Unfortunately, as is so often the case with these kinds of rabbit holes, it’s not entirely benign - the family member has now branched into COVID vaccine denial, which has a real chance of negatively impacting on their health.

So, what can you do when this happens to you? How do you counter the misinformation that a family member might be spreading at barbecues and birthday parties? Here are some ways you can challenge your conspiracy minded relations or close friends.

Firstly, you have to decide if it’s even worth engaging with them at all. It might well be that more damage would be done by trying to argue with them, where there’s a real risk of severing the bond you have. Often, when challenged about their world view, people will seek to minimise the discomfort of cognitive dissonance - being shown facts that don’t align with how they see the world. One way to minimise this discomfort is to sever ties with whatever, or whoever, is causing it. So there’s a real risk that if you try to challenge your dad about his crazy ideas, he might stop talking to you.

However, something that helps with trying to engage with someone who is an ardent believer in conspiracy theories is that they’re often keen to talk about what they’ve learned, to show people that they are right and have discovered an important truth. Like so many people with a warped view of the world (psychics, alt-med sellers, etc), conspiracy theorists are generally "true believers", and are convinced of the truth of the ideas they propagate. They often feel that it is important to convince other people of the truth of their ideas. Many conspiracy theories involve not just governments lying to us (about the moon landings or 9/11) but actively harming us, as is the case with chemtrails, vaccines, water fluoridation and the like - so it can becomes important for believers to help save others by convincing them that their welfare, or even their life, is at risk.

So, if you’re comfortable that you’re not going to be shunned or disinherited by speaking up, what can you do?

One tactic is to choose a single topic and look into it together - mercury in vaccines, or FEMA camps maybe. It usually doesn’t take much googling to find how quotes and statistics have been twisted to fit into a conspiracy, and rest assured most of the time you’ll find a link on the first page of google to Snopes or a reputable news source explaining in what way people have been taking things out of context. Just try to stick to this one topic, as often when someone is losing an argument they’ll try to move to a new topic - and this can end up like a game of whack-a-mole.

Show the internal inconsistencies with their beliefs - places where conspiracies clash with each other. It can’t be the case that COVID is both only as deadly as the flu and a made up disease. The earth can’t be both hollow and flat.

You can find out who they are getting their info from (there are a few prolific spreaders of nonsense, and it’s likely to be one or two of these), and show them that person’s other weird beliefs. Often the people who are pushing bad ideas have strong religious or conspiracy beliefs that drive them - evangelical Christians who think the world will end soon, reptilian shapeshifter believers, racist Jewish conspiracists. Many of these people also have regressive views on women’s rights, so it’s a good way to show women the downside of following them. Additionally, the spreaders of misinformation are almost always selling something - Mike Adams (the Health Ranger), Joe Mercola, Alex Jones, David Icke and others all have a Store link or adverts on their website selling you over-priced vitamins you don’t need and devices to protect you from scary new tech. If they have a profit motive, they’ll be doing what they can to increase sales - the truth be damned.

Lastly, you can fight fire with fire - give them a real conspiracy to believe in - one that goes against their narrative. China and Russia are great sources for this, as both countries work hard to stir up unrest in other countries. As an example, China has been actively spreading misinformation (opens new window) online about the West’s COVID vaccines, in order to boost the reputation of their own vaccines (which it turns out aren’t very good (opens new window)).

Remember, you’re not the only person having to deal with this issue. With the recent proliferation of dangerous misinformation on social media networks, many people are having to deal with loved ones who have slid down one or more rabbit holes. Have a search on Facebook for groups (opens new window) that might be able to help, or talk to friends about this - you’ll probably be surprised how many people are tackling this exact same problem.