How to recognize a conspiracy theory

The COVID-19 pandemic has generated its share of conspiracy theories. Some believe the virus was manmade. Others think that 5G towers make people sick. Still others simply claim the coronavirus doesn’t exist. Sometimes wacky, sometimes subtle, these theories pollute social media. They’re intended as simple answers to complex questions. As they gain popularity, they may trigger violent acts. For example, 5G towers and other telecommunications towers are being destroyed all over the world.

Here are some clues to help you identify conspiracy theories… and ignore them! 


1- One person or one ultra-powerful group controls the world 

Conspiracy theorists claim that a single guilty party is the hidden force behind several “inexplicable” events, incidents or phenomena that make people angry. This may be a rich individual or family (Bill Gates, the Clintons or George Soros, for example). It may be a religious group (the Jews are often scapegoats). Or the culprit is a mysterious secret society (the Illuminati or alien reptiles).  

These theories are simplistic. But they work because they respond to real needs, especially in times of crisis. Some English psychologists identified three reasons that push people to believe conspiracy theories. One is the desire for understanding and certainty. Second, the desire for control and security. Third, the desire to maintain a positive self-image. COVID-19, a naturally created virus, is a threat. It’s evolving rapidly and its facets aren’t all known. So it triggers a lot of anxiety. Blaming Bill Gates for the pandemic allows some to gain a little control of the situation. It relieves their anxiety by giving them a false sense of security.  

2- This group operates in almost total secrecy 

You’re told about hundreds, even thousands, of “pawns” or accomplices who are part of a  
“top secret” conspiracy. It doesn’t matter whether they’re scientists, government members, Hollywood stars, members of a religious community, or journalists. You’re expected to believe that all these people can operate subtly, in the greatest secrecy.  

One American biologist and journalist even found a formula to calculate the number of people who would have to be involved for a conspiracy theory to really work. Here’s his clearest example: it would have taken at least 400,000 accomplices to hide the fact that the moon landing was a hoax. Farfetched, isn’t it? Now imagine how many people would have to keep a secret about the coronavirus, which affects the entire world! 

3-   Details and coincidences are presented as proof 

Conspiracy theories are mostly hot air. But they also weave in true events and anecdotes. These are distorted until they paint an alarmist picture of reality. Coincidences, details and anecdotes are presented as if they were proof. The details are puffed up.  

Even a lack of evidence can be used as proof… that the conspiracy is well hidden!  

4- If you dispute certain points, you’re a sheep  

The theory can’t tolerate any flaws. Anyone who criticizes it risks being accused: they’re part of the conspiracy. Or they’re secretly funded by the groups in power.  Nobody else holds the truth. Conspiracy theorists have an answer for everything and they’re never wrong. At least that’s what they claim!  

No contrary arguments are accepted. If you criticize, you’re naive, you’re a “sheep”. Or you’re part of the conspiracy, the establishment. According to conspiracy peddlers, the groups in power secretly fund the media and the scientists. So they attack the credibility of all the publications that go against the conspiracy theory.  

But you’ll notice that conspiracy theorists don’t hesitate to relay journalism and scientific studies that seem to confirm part of their theories. This is an illustration of what psychologists call confirmation bias. (link to our infographic)   

5- They ask you to prove the conspiracy doesn’t exist 

If you challenge a theory, conspiracy peddlers have a common strategy. They ask you to prove the conspiracy doesn’t exist. But it’s impossible to prove something is non-existent. Especially if you’re addressing people who are convinced that it exists.  

This is called sophistry, a false rhetorical process that involves reversing the burden of proof. In science, the burden of proof rests with the person who proposes a hypothesis. You can’t claim that something is true just because nobody can prove the opposite. This erroneous reasoning is often used to destabilize an opponent in a debate.  

What if you prove that an announced event never happened? Then the conspiracy theorists can fall back on dozens of other events that are impossible to refute. And they’ll change their interpretation after the fact.  

Conspiracy theorists also defend their theories with a vast number of arguments taken from different fields of knowledge. (French sociologist Gérald Bronner calls this a “layered argument”). You need a lot of time and motivation to debunk their entire theory. 

It’s still possible to have a dialogue with a friend who adheres to such a theory or with someone who shares a false belief. You shouldn’t attack the theory as a whole, but look for areas of consensus – find points on which you can agree. For example, you can try to find a factual error the other person would be willing to recognize (a statement, an event, a statistic, etc.). Or you can try to find something else you can share with this person that lets you engage in dialogue. This could be a political affinity, an environmental cause, family, religion, etc.  

1 in 10 Canadians believes that COVID-19 is a conspiracy. 

Source: Université de Sherbrooke   



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