Increasingly, friends, colleagues and readers share the same story with me: Online, somebody they know and love has stumbled into the treacherous world of online conspiracy theories and, in some cases, might not even know it. I’m often asked: How do you talk to people you care about who might be on the precipice of or headed down the conspiratorial rabbit hole?
It’s a question without an easy answer, but one we need to ask with increasing urgency. I decided to ask some scholars and researchers about best practices. Their answers are helpful — but more than that, they illustrate the depth of the problem. Conspiracy theories (like Pizzagate and now QAnon, anti-vaccine claims, disinformation around the coronavirus suggesting the virus was engineered in a laboratory) are a chronic condition that will long outlive the 2020 election. Given our reliance on social platforms to connect and process news, we need a way to manage their inevitable presence in our lives, rather than naively hold out hope for a magical cure.
Reminder: This advice pertains to friends or relatives with whom you are already close and who are not demonstrating unstable or violent behavior. It’s important to exercise restraint and good judgment in all cases.
Ask where the information is coming from.
Whitney Phillips, a communications scholar at Syracuse University who studies misinformation, rhetoric and information systems, suggested talking about the way the internet works.
“If I were confronted by a 60-year-old relative that I love who is sharing worrying things, I’d open a conversation by getting them to talk about information. I’d non-defensively ask them, ‘Do you know how Google works?’ ‘What do you think my news feed looks like? Do you know why yours looks that way?’ ” Phillips told me. “So many people think this technology is magic or the natural state of how information moves. But it’s not. It’s designed this way. And if people better understood the mechanisms and the economics, maybe then you can talk about the content.”
Her aim is to give people an understanding of their information environment. She argues that this is especially important with older social media users who may not be well versed in the way platforms use recommendation algorithms and create environments like filter bubbles. “If people really knew how these platforms worked or how much money they generate, they’d be more wary,” she said. “I would not advocate replacing one conspiracy theory with another, but if these people are already wary of authority, it’s worth asking them questions like, ‘Whose interest does your online engagement serve?’ ”
Create some cognitive dissonance.
In a recent article, Colin Dickey, an author and academic who has spent time writing about conspiracy theories, argued that his first step is to acknowledge that some conspiracies do exist — Watergate, the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse scandals, the billionaire Jeffrey Epstein’s network of underage sexual abuse. This, he argues, creates a bit of common ground and lays the foundation to explore how unproven conspiracy theories differ from reality.
“I try to show how these conspiracies play out,” he told me. “I say, ‘I don’t know if you’re right or wrong, but if you were right, I would expect the following to happen.’ I explain how, in past conspiracies, there is usually some whistleblower or news report, and then the whole thing unravels quickly. Witnesses come forward, then victims. And journalists circle like sharks to get the story. I try to get them to think about concrete things and logistical details, including the bureaucracy that’s required to maintain these vast alleged plots.”
Dickey says he doesn’t expect his inquiry to change minds outright. Instead, the idea is to introduce a little bit of doubt or cognitive dissonance into a conspiratorial thinker’s framework. He described the approach as similar to the way water finds its way into tiny cracks of a building’s foundation and then freezes and thaws, expanding and contracting to slowly widen the fissures. “Sometimes it’s about turning the ‘do your research’ paradigm back on them,” he said. “I never appeal to authorities like the government or mainstream media, but I subtly imply that what they’re saying doesn’t match the historical record, which works better than outright dismissing them.”
Debunking is difficult.
Because conspiracy theories become fused with people’s political and cultural identities, debating a true believer can be counterproductive. “While debunking or fact-checking are valuable, they aren’t going to move someone who feels a sense of significance through absorbing and promoting esoteric but baseless theories,” says Travis View, a host of the QAnon Anonymous podcast, which has tracked the movement since its early days. Constantly fact-checking conspiracy theories can harden the other side’s views or make people feel attacked. It’s also a quick way to grow exhausted and give up. Asking questions tends to be more productive.
Don’t debate on Facebook.
You’re most likely to run into a friend or relative sharing conspiratorial content online. Unfortunately, social platforms are often the worst forum for talking about these thorny issues. In many cases, a face-to-face conversation is a better place to voice your concerns.
This, of course, might be impossible during a pandemic, but phone calls or video chats are better than an argument in someone’s Facebook thread. A few of the experts I spoke with suggested that private discussions allow people to let their guard down and abandon any performative social media behaviors. They can also allow participants to pick up on subtle facial and body language expressions — or tone of voice — that may dissolve tensions. “It’s helpful to construct a situation where you can gauge their response in real time and be dynamic in your approach to hedge against defensiveness and keep them at ease,” Dickey said.
Mocking and scolding don’t work.
Everyone I’ve talked to starts with the same advice: Don’t be a scold. Be gentle, compassionate and patient.
“I always tell people that if they’re going to talk to somebody who has gone down this road, they shouldn’t argue with them about it and they should try not to get heated trying to debunk information,” Mike Rothschild, a conspiracy theory researcher who is working on a book on the QAnon movement, told me in August.
Dickey echoed Rothschild. “The first lesson that I learned the hard way is not to dismiss them outright,” he said. “People adopt conspiratorial thinking because it aligns with a core facet of their identity.” Dickey told me that in his early conversations with friends who had fallen for fringe theories, he was overly aggressive. “Because I went right at these core parts of their identities they felt like I was attacking them personally. So I had to find a way to make it seem not like a personal attack.”
Travis View suggested approaching conspiracy theorists “with the same pity and compassion you might show someone who chooses to stay in a destructive relationship.” He argued that those who’ve found community and purpose in these movements “really don’t see that they’re going down the wrong path because they don’t understand that there are better options.”
Know when to walk away.
People should be very careful choosing when to intervene. It is not a good idea to confront people who seem deeply, perhaps irretrievably, consumed by conspiratorial thinking or who are acting erratically or violently. If you have legitimate concerns about their health and safety, that is usually a job for professionals. “It’s a real case-by-case basis for me,” Dickey said about his decision to talk with those who are radicalized. “I usually only do it if I feel that I have the social cache or kinship to be a lifeline to them. And if they are not too far gone.”
In some cases, it’s important to realize there may be little you can do in the moment, some cautioned. “If you have to, be ready to walk away from them,” Rothschild told me. “There comes a point where you may not be able to have that instability in your life.”
Charlie Warzel, a New York Times Opinion writer at large, covers technology, media, politics and online extremism.