How to talk to conspiracy theorists and still be kind.

According to a recent US survey 36% of adults believe conspiracy theories, so how do you talk to these conspiracy theorists and still be kind? I know from personal experience that it can be a frustrating experience dealing with conspiracy theories especially on social media.

This week a former colleague posted on Facebook that she had decided to unfollow an old school friend as they were posting conspiracy theories online. Her post resonated immediately as I had also found myself in an online debate with a former school mate whose views I couldn’t just let pass.

So what is the best way to engage? Tanya Basu from MIT Technology Review has some advice:

See also: Why We Self Sabotage
  1. Always, always speak respectfully. 
    Speak with respect, compassion, and empathy and people are more likely to listen to you.
  2. Go private. 
    When you reach out in a personal message or DM you are not publicly shaming the individual – it implies you are interested in them and a genuine conversation.
  3. Test the waters first. 
    Some people are fixed in their mindset – so don’t get bogged down if you can’t change them. Ask what information or facts might help them understand how you see the issue.
  4. Agree. 
    In every conspiracy theory is an element of truth – those are the parts we all agree, it is important to align on these aspects before you get into the tricker content.
  5. Try the “truth sandwich.” 
    Use the fact-fallacy-fact approach, a method first proposed by linguist George Lakoff. “State what’s true, debunk the conspiracy theory, and state what’s true again,”
  6. Or use the Socratic method. 
    Use questions that help explore their argument – the best way to change someone’s position is to let them think they have found it for themselves.
  7. Be very careful with loved ones. 
    When it comes to family and loved ones you need to decide how and if its worth getting into the debate, sometimes its better to just let it go.
  8. Realize that some people don’t want to change, no matter the facts.
    So the best you can do is decide if you want to better understand what makes them think this way, if you do – ask them non judgemental questions to better establish why they think this way.
  9. If it gets bad, stop. 
    You need to know when to disengage, don’t get dragged into debates or arguments if they get bad.
  10. Every little bit helps. 
    Its unlikely you will immediately change someone’s mind but you might ‘shift their perspective a little’ which in itself might be worth doing.

For example, if you’re talking to someone who believes the 5G conspiracy theory, you could structure your argument as “Coronavirus is an airborne virus, which means it is passed by sneezing, coughing, or particles. Because viruses are not transmitted via radio waves, coronavirus, which is an airborne virus, can’t be carried by 5G.” It’s repetitive, but it reinforces facts and points out where the conspiracy theory doesn’t work.

Joan Donovan, Disinformation Expert – Harvard University

Some thoughts to keep in mind…

It is very human and normal to believe in conspiracy theories – it is a defence mechanism, humans are primed to be suspicious and afraid of those things that we can’t explain.

No single demographic is more prone to conspiracy theories than another, while education does help combat them we can all get caught up, just another reason to remember to be kind.

Synopsis: of an article from MIT Technology Review by Tanya Basu,
Published: 15th July 2020
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