Conspiracy theories are nothing new. The oldest ones date back to Roman times and have circulated in varying degrees ever since. From the belief that the Earth is flat or that the CIA assassinated JFK to the “Big Lie” that the 2020 election was rigged, these theories appeal to people looking for some semblance of order in our turbulent world. Apparently, there’s quite a few of these folks. According to two University of Chicago researchers, half of all Americans believe in at least one conspiracy theory.
But even though it may feel like this is the golden age of conspiracy theories with more of them than ever, experts say it’s not. “Journalists are saying that ‘now is the time of conspiracy theory.’ But they’ve said that almost every year since the 1960s,” said University of Miami Professor Joe Uscinski on the PBS News Hour. “At no time do they present any systematic evidence to back that up.”
That said, it is a particularly hospitable environment for conspiracy theories, especially those related to the global pandemic. According to LiveScience.com, more than 2300 rumors and conspiracy theories surrounding COVID-19 are flourishing online, thanks in large part to social media platforms and algorithms that amplify these falsehoods. Chat rooms and message boards are also tinderboxes for conspiracy theories, enabling them to take root and spread.
Another factor over the last few years is our very own conspiracy theorist-in-chief, President Donald Trump. Among his favorite baseless claims: The rigged 2020 election, unproven COVID-19 cures, Bill Clinton’s involvement in the murder of Jeffrey Epstein—not to mention the one that launched his political career, the birther conspiracy theory about President Barack Obama. According to CNN’s John Avalon, the former president has become one of the most powerful forces for promoting conspiracy theories.
So what can you do to disabuse people of these deceptive narratives?
Empathy is key. Psychologists say ridicule or mocking will backfire because many people define themselves by these beliefs. Any challenge to their views or community can feel like a personal attack and won’t work.
Same for rational arguments. People who believe in conspiracy theories are remarkably resilient to facts, according to Tulane University Professor Geoff Dancy. “To change a conspiracy theorist’s ideas or susceptibility to the actual truth, you have to change the way that you interact with them,” said Dancy in the podcast, “On Good Authority.” Dancy recommends asking them to show you the best evidence they have supporting their belief—it’s best to stay away from calling it a conspiracy theory, which can be insulting. You could also ask if they are open to learning about other points of view and evidence. If they say no, it may be best to end the conversation and accept that you cannot change their mind.
Researchers who study this phenomenon say the best approach may be to teach people to think more critically about the information they are consuming so they recognize conspiracy theories when they come across them. University of Cambridge psychologist Sander van der Linden agrees and has come up with a 15-minute online game to “inoculate” the public against conspiracy theories.
It’s called Bad News and teaches people how fake news spreads by having them create and promote their own conspiracy theory. The idea is based on something known as Inoculation Theory, which posits that people can build up a resistance to false information by being exposed to it in small amounts, much like the way real vaccines activate our immune system to protect us from diseases. “I think one of the best solutions we have is to actually inject people with a weakened dose of the conspiracy to help build up mental or cognitive antibodies,” said van der Linden in Knowable Magazine’s article, “The Enduring Allure of Conspiracy Theories.” The goal is to achieve herd immunity, which occurs when enough people can detect conspiracy theories to prevent them from going viral.
Although there is no cure for the timeless appeal of conspiracy theories and the genuine dangers they pose, critical thinking combined with news literacy skills can prevent these radical ideas from gaining traction, which researchers say is much more effective than debunking them after they’ve been widely embraced.