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From September 11 to vaccines: do people believe in conspiracy theories for the rest of their lives?

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COVID-19 has made conspiracy theories worse. Many people are stunned when a friend or family member becomes a true believer. Why? Is it irreversible? What can be done? 

“It seemed incredible to me – everything they were hiding from us, how they lied to us, everything that was happening in the world, and the traditional media weren’t telling us!” Swiss resident Karen Andrey remembers. She doesn’t hide the fact that she has already adhered to a wide range of conspiracy theories.  

Like many others, she first paid attention to these stories after the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001. Once the Pandora’s box was opened, she increasingly relied on dubious news sources. “I wasn’t lukewarm. I was really a militant conspiracy theorist,” she says. She now redirects her activism to various online groups that share content deconstructing dubious theories, including Québec blogs. “I like to see what’s happening all over the world: what’s going on in my country is also happening in yours. Not necessarily the same way, but there are plenty of points in common.”  

Why do people believe in conspiracy theories? 

Conspiracy theories” are scenarios that claim to explain a very large number of historical events or contemporary phenomenon by the existence of a single culprit, an individual or a group, acting in the shadows. Unlike real conspiracies, these theories are based on coincidences, interpretations, amalgams and anecdotes, instead of solid documentary evidence or probative data.  

Conspiracy theories have global reach because the reasons that drive people to believe them transcend borders. “Everyone needs knowledge and truth, to feel safe and autonomous, and to feel good about themselves,” Karen Douglas explains. She is a Professor of Social Psychology at the University of Kent in the United Kingdom, specializing in conspiracy theories. “When these needs aren’t assuaged, conspiracy theories may appear to offer some comfort.” 

She reminds us that conspiracy theories are attractive without really being satisfactory. This can trap its adherents in a cycle. That’s because the explanations, whether the most absurd or those that seem plausible, never provide a real solution. Frustration with the unsatisfied needs increases, sharpening the search for other explanations and more support from the conspiracy community.  

This slippage is easier in a pandemic context, when people fear both for their own lives and their loved ones, but also for their financial security, comfort, liberties, children’s education… 

As the crowning factor, scientific knowledge on COVID-19 is constantly evolving and sometimes contradictory. There are almost no certainties in the short term and confusion only grows. “To be told there’s no answer – because at this time there’s no vaccine or curative or preventive treatment – makes people very insecure!” Marie-Ève Carignan points out. This Professor with the Communications Department of the Université de Sherbrooke is conducting a research project with international collaborators, studying the belief in certain fake news related to COVID-19. The project finds that the people who are most anxious about the situation, particularly due to their precarious finances, are most likely to believe in conspiracy theories. Younger, less educated people who frequently visit social media are also more at risk of adhering to them.  

How can they be helped? 

It’s no accident that experts on conspiracy theories concentrate on the psychosocial aspects of the phenomenon. Adherence to these beliefs always arises from an emotional impulse. That’s what complicates dialogue… and backing down. “It’s like a love relationship. People who believe in conspiracy theories are having an emotional experience and want to protect what they love. If anyone says something bad about it, that puts them on the defensive,” explains Michael Kropveld, Founder and Executive Director of Info-Cult. 

In the past few months, this organization reports an increase in requests for help from people who no longer know what to do about a loved one who is bogged down in conspiracy theories. Calls for help have also multiplied to the Centre for the Prevention Radicalization Leading to Violence. 

What can be done? Field workers and the scientific community are unanimous: you mustn’t confront the person with a direct counter-argument. “If you try to have a logical discussion, you’ll fall into a trap, because that can put you in “the enemy camp” and reinforce his beliefs,” Mr. Kropveld warns. The conspiracy theorist then could take his distance, get angry and redouble his zeal to convince his friends and family, to “save” them or “make them see the truth”. 

Karen Andrey confirms this, although she personally is trying to maintain a dialogue with people around here who are still strongly committed to conspiracy theories. “I know that if somebody tries to prove to me that I’m wrong, I’ll dig in my heels and try to prove the other person is wrong. So if I do the same thing with the people close to me, it won’t work!” 

A more productive strategy, she says, would be to sow doubt about the reliability of the sources to open the door to doubt, and then eventually to small concessions. But this takes patience.”It’s tough on the ego, because you like to be right. The first step is the hardest. But once you realize that a first conspiracy theory is false, it’s much easier for the next ones,” Ms. Andrey explains. 

Professor Karen Douglas also considers this a good approach. “Many conspiracy theorists see themselves as having a critical mind. By getting them to evaluate their sources critically, you can push them to realize their errors in the ways they look for information. This would allow them to correct their beliefs.” 

Here’s another tip. Personalize the approach by identifying the specific needs that drive this person to believe in conspiracy theories, and then invite him to analyze these aspects critically. For example, someone who is suspicious of the government may have had a bad experience that tinges his perception. You must encourage him in his research, on condition that he sincerely looks at what “both sides” are saying before passing judgment.  

So there’s hope of “deconverting” conspiracy theorists – getting them to abandon all or part of their farfetched beliefs. But it’s also possible this attempt will fail, Michael Kropveld warns. He says it’s necessary to consider the possibility of failure when trying to help a loved one, and think about what you expect to make of the relationship if the person persists in his beliefs.  

However, he suggests thinking twice before burning bridges with this person, especially in the context of the pandemic. “When this is resolved, maybe the person will return [to the way he was before] or the intensity of his beliefs will diminish. What’s important is to stay in contact, so that the person knows he can come back.”  

Agence Science-Presse and Québec Science are joining forces to explore the underbelly of health conspiracy theories. This is the second report in this series. Also read:  

Vaccination: why do parents hesitate? It’s complicated

This article was originally published on the website of L'Agence Science-Presse (French only).


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