Conspiracy theories flourish in the modern era. Despite mountains of research and observation, there are still thousands of people who believe that the world is flat. Millions also disbelieve the origins of life on earth. Others share unproven fake data that vaccines do not work and cause all kinds of issues.
In a Covid-19 world, millions of people forward false cures and raise fake warnings. Business Talk addressed the rise of prevalence of conspiracy theories three weeks ago in the Business Daily. Since then, several readers wrote in to seek guidance on how to enlighten people who spread conspiracy theories.
As you may have noticed in your daily interactions, criticising the people who spread the falsehoods does not work. Similarly, outrightly criticising their false ideas with a myriad of points also does not prove useful. Criticism only emboldens the other person to become defensive and, therefore, more entrenched in their views. The human brain developed to fiercely defend us in the event of ancient threats to ours lives, such as neighbouring clan clashes, a lion or buffalo attack, or an oncoming fire or flood.
Our brain is not hard wired to receive unbiased feedback on fake news in social media posts. Ancient humans lived in typically a maximum community of up to 150 individuals. The idea of getting criticised by strangers for deeply held beliefs, even if those false ideas hold conspiracy theories, was foreign to human existence until the modern age. Interacting with those outside our 150 member communities often resulted in disaster.
Social science researcher Robert Cramer developed a three-step process for how we can hold meaningful one-on-one conversations with those who believe in or spread conspiracy theories and gently convince them to pursue truth.
The human brain can handle criticism or correction better if it is both in person with no one else and done in a calm way.
First, when engaging a conspiracy theorist, one should focus purely on the facts and nothing personal. When arguing with others, most humans will hurl every sort of attack against the other person. We even conjure up personal attacks on their character, behaviours we do not like in the other person, examples of how that person errored in the past, as well as our problems with their specific conspiracy theory. But these direct personal attacks stand irrelevant to the core point. It puts the brain into ancient defensive posturing mode. Instead, focus on just the facts. Ask whether the person actually deeply believes the conspiracy theory content. In doing so, it often reduces their endorsement around the fake news. Then proceed with facts that have a basis in provable studies or sources.
Second, make them understand that the subject is personal to you. You could show your emotion in how the false news they spread has or could harm you personally or someone close to them.
A Covid-19 example might be: “would you trust lemon and garlic water as the only cure for your child if they caught the new coronavirus?” or “as someone in a vulnerable group, if I relied only on your cure, I could easily die because it is not proven”.
Third, propose counterfactuals to the conspiracy theorist. How could the past or present be different based upon alternative personal actions. One could ask “if the world was different in this way, how would it look like” and “what other ways could we combat our fears instead of turning to spreading unproven facts”?
Conspiracy theories are dangerous and survive and even mutate through social media.
While we might feel exasperated at the widespread extent of fake news in our modern world, let us never stopholding personal one-on-one conversations with conspiracy spreaders as we seek a more truthful, safe, and just world.