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Conspiracy Theories Are Tearing Families Apart. Here’s What You Can Do

A leading expert in conspiracy theories offers advice on how to deal with them when they spread to your family.

Fatherly Edit / Getty

Conspiracy theories can divide a nation and imperil lives. The past year in America has taught many of us just that. It has also taught us that conspiratorial thinking can tear families apart. When family members can’t even agree upon basic facts — like, yeah, the Earth is round — how can they communicate at all, let alone get along? Not easily. But there are ways to bridge the divide. And it doesn’t start by calling them out. 

“Usually saying something disparaging like ‘oh that’s crazy’ or “Oh my God how can you believe that? That’s so ignorant’ is not a good way to approach this,” says Dr. Barna Donovan, director of the department of communication and media studies at Saint Peter’s University who is a recognized expert on conspiracy theories. “Rather, ask them ‘well, why do you believe that? How did you form those opinions? What is the source of this information now and is it trustworthy?’”

In other words, refutation is a way to shut down the conversation. Instead, ask questions, and encourage more conversations. Taking the time to understand where a person’s beliefs are coming from may provide an opportunity to teach them about media literacy and protect themselves from such beliefs in the future. For anyone with a conspiratorial family member, this might sound optimistic, but there’s evidence that the approach works. According to a 2017 study of 397 adults, the researchers found that “greater knowledge about the news media predicted lower likelihood of conspiracy theory endorsement, even for conspiracy theories that aligned with their political ideology”.

Of course, asking questions is only the first step in trying to open up your conspiratorial family members to facts. “This is all a long process,” says Donovan and she has some insights that might help family members reconcile beliefs — and quash conspiracies. 

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I wanted to start off by asking you how you would define what a “conspiracy theory” is. How can we define it so that we can identify it when our kid or family member believes in one?

The general definition I would give is that it’s an accusation of a very broad and complex plot by a hidden organization that is so powerful and that they can control all of the major world events.

What do you mean by hidden? Can you give an example of this?

So usually the conspiracy theorist claims are that visible organizations like the CIA that we know are there are doing things behind the scenes that gives them power. So essentially, nothing in the world is occurring by chance. That there’s some sort of a cabal that’s operating behind the scenes. So a true conspiracy theory assumes that even though you have organizations that are visible like the government tor law enforcement, there is a hidden cabal behind the scenes that’s controlling them.

What is it about a conspiracy theory that makes it so believable for many people?

Conspiracy theories help bring order to a very confusing world. For many people it’s going to be very disturbing and very frightening to think that there can be so many mistakes made. It’s much more comforting to think about that than to say there are no reasons for all the calamities in the world, that if you just dig deep enough, if you put the pieces together, then you can crack the codes. They give hope that you would be able to unmask this conspiracy and bring order to the world. I think we’re living in a very complicated world run by a lot of technology that people just don’t understand how it works. I mean, most of us are plugged into our phones and computers and tables 24 hours a day. They supply us with endless information of a complex world. I think people are looking for some clear explanations of why things are happening, that there’s somebody in charge or somebody’s controlling things.

What is my family thinking when they believe in these? It seems crazy to me.

It can just give people a feeling of superiority. It’s like really good ego boost to believe in a conspiracy theory. Like I am more aware than my friends or than my family that I’m able to go and pick up the little clues that other people can’t pick up.

Would you say that technology has played a role at all or do you think we were always susceptible to believing in conspiracy theories and they’ve always existed in this capacity?

Oh, sure. They have always existed. Technology just gave an extra boost, but you have conspiracy theories basically going back as far as people were living in societies. It’s just part of human nature to wonder about whether or not my problems are being caused by somebody else on purpose, somebody that I can’t see. But then when you get to the age of the internet and, and social media, then this just allows so many people to easily access theories. And it gives so many people, especially young people, like kids, easy access.

What you would say if somebody in your family – whether they are older or younger like a niece or nephew –believed in conspiracy theories, would you try and talk them about it? And if so, what approach would you use?

Usually saying something disparaging like “oh that’s crazy” or “Oh my God how can you believe that? That’s so ignorant” is not a good way to approach this. Rather, the better approach is to ask them “well, why do you believe that? How did you form those opinions? What is the source of this information now and is it trustworthy?” I would then ask them to check their source and explain that anybody can go and set up a webpage and put anything they want. I mean, you have webpages claiming that, you know, every world leader is an alien lizard. Anybody can put up anything. Also see if anything has been taken out of context. Like if there are a couple of small quotes of someone famous, it may be that they said those words in a different context.

Ok, so use empathy and try to understand where they’re coming from by asking open-ended questions without judgment. Then use it as a teaching moment. What then?

 This would be the point where you tell them that the information they’ve been hearing is inaccurate and give them tips like how to double-check information online themselves. Like if they’re looking at a source, does the source say every single thing is a conspiracy? Are they profiting from this? How can you trust them then? If these people are selling other products, like volumes of their self-published book, they’re getting an audience and profiting from these things.

This is probably going to be a long process right? Can I do this in one sitting? Can I sit my kid down and have a conversation and then trust that they’re done believing in conspiracies?

Unfortunately, it would tend to take time. People like to cling to their beliefs and don’t like to be contradicted. There’s the psychological theory of the cognitive dissonance that once we think that we have the world figured out, and then we have a world of you, we like to avoid any kind of contradictory information. So it would be an ongoing process and that’s hard to do, because you don’t know if you can force them to do this. So let’s say if you’re sitting around a Thanksgiving dinner, crazy uncle is telling you a conspiracy theory. I can’t go and whip off the tablet then and there.

Right, so it would be a moment to understand where he’s coming from.

Yeah and what you can probably say is that it’s very important that we know the truth about very complex and dangerous things in the world, but you have a lot of unscrupulous people in the world. I can acknowledge that the conspiracy believer sees themselves as critical thinkers. They’re going to say that I am critical of sources of information so that’s why I don’t believe the large media sources. You have to remind them that it’s great that they’re a critical thinker, but you have to be critical of every source. So like you said, this is all a long process and this perhaps has to be able to do the work to be able to separate the truth from the fiction of conspiracy theorists.

At what point do we have to seek professional help? 

If it looks like it’s getting to the point that they could be a threat to themselves or a threat to others then I would go and seek some kind of counseling, you know, if somebody is displaying destructive behavior. And this is difficult to do because let’s say if somebody doesn’t want to wear a mask right now, because the conspiracy theory told them that COVID-19 is a hoax, you can’t force them to do anything. You can try to give them critical thinking exercises and if they’re not willing to do it, and they come to your house unprotected, then I’d cut them off from the family because what they’re doing is dangerous. I would suggest they seek help but it’s difficult to force someone to do that so at that point I would just protect myself.