Understanding and Addressing Conspiracy Theories
The internet has been described as a bit like the Wild West. There are no police checking whether posts are true, or users are who they say. Hosting sites, whether blog sites, social media or simply sites that allow comments, cannot keep up with the sheer volume of content that is posted every day.
Unfortunately, this means that the internet is an ideal breeding ground for false accusations and conspiracy theories. You can find someone advocating almost anything online—and many more who will believe almost anything they read. The real questions are first, how can you tell whether what you read is accurate, and second, how can you (politely) engage with and debunk the inaccurate, if you decide that is appropriate?
This page provides some ideas to answer both these questions.
What Are Conspiracy Theories?
Definitions of conspiracy theories
conspiracy theories, n. pl. a belief that some covert but influential organization is responsible for an unexplained event. [Oxford Languages]
conspiracy theories, n. pl. a theory that explains an event or set of circumstances as the result of a secret plot by usually powerful conspirators [Merriam-Webster]
Conspiracy theories, then, are theories that suggest that the world is being run by secret organisations or cabals, with power beyond most people’s imaginations.
Some widely-recognised conspiracy theories include:
The death of Diana, Princess of Wales was the result of a plot and/or an assassination by MI5, because her relationship with Dodi Fayed was simply too embarrassing for the Royal Family. Spoiler alert: it wasn’t. The inquest found that she died because of negligence by both her chauffeur, who was over the legal alcohol limit for driving, and the pursuing paparazzi.
There are subliminal advertising messages shown during movies or television shows. The idea is that you will see the message, and be driven to do something such as buying and eating sweets or popcorn. In fact, there are no benefits to subliminal rather than conventional advertising. The link between seeing something and doing something about it is much more complex.
The moon landings were faked. It is not clear why this might be the case—perhaps to get an advantage over Russia? Or to spend the money on something else? There is no reason to think this might be true.
Aliens landed outside Roswell, New Mexico in 1947. Something definitely crashed outside Roswell—but it wasn’t an alien spaceship. In fact, in this case, there was a cover-up, but of a top-secret Cold War spying programme.
Many conspiracy theories share a common central feature: a belief that government bodies could hide “the truth” for decades. In reality, government organisations find it extremely hard to keep anything secret, even the issues that they wish to hide—witness the information about Roswell now being available. There is always someone with a grudge who passes on the information at some point. Sadly, the reality is much more often bureaucratic incompetence than highly efficient state secret-keeping.
As the saying goes, it is far more likely to be “cock-up, not conspiracy”.
Conspiracy Theories Ruin Lives
The conspiracy theories above are relatively harmless. However, others are more serious. Some have resulted in wrecked lives and ruined businesses—or even deaths.
For example, in 2017, Edgar Maddison Welch was sentenced to four years in prison for shooting an assault-style rifle inside a popular pizza restaurant in Washington. He (wrongly) believed that the restaurant was the centre of a child sex abuse ring led by Hillary Clinton. Very fortunately, nobody was injured—but that was only luck. The restaurant concerned, however, has found it difficult to shrug off the rumours of its association with child abuse, or to rebuild its reputation and business.
The satanist abuse conspiracy theory, which was rife in the US in the 1980s and 1990s, had even more impact. Over the course of the life of this conspiracy theory, parents had children taken away from them, and daycare providers lost their livelihood, because they were believed to have perpetrated abuse.
These claims have since been completely and thoroughly debunked—but nobody can give the children or parents concerned those loving relationships or time back.
Why People Believe Conspiracy Theories
Looked at rationally, most conspiracy theories do not make sense.
For example, why would anyone fake the moon landings, or fake evidence that the earth is a globe and not flat? There is, on the face of it, very little to gain from doing so.
However, the fact remains that conspiracy theories gain ground because people believe them.
This suggests that believing conspiracy theories has very little to do with facts. Indeed, experts have suggested that there are two main issues here:
Our brains tend to see patterns, even when they don’t really exist
We have been programmed, over millions of years of evolution, to see patterns in data and information. Unfortunately, we tend to see these patterns even when they are not really there. Sometimes—often, in fact—a coincidence really is just that.
We are social beings, and we want to fit in with other people
In evolutionary terms, our social status is generally much more important than whether we are right. We are therefore likely to agree with other people in a group even when we actually disagree, simply to keep harmony within the group. We are also more likely to believe something when more people believe it, which is why conspiracy theories gather weight fast once they reach a ‘critical mass’.
There is more about this in our page on Group Decision-Making, which explains why sometimes groups’ decisions are not “greater than the sum of their parts”.
These tendencies also create problems when we are trying to persuade people that conspiracy theories are untrue. For example, you, as a stranger, might try to persuade someone online that their statement is incorrect. However, if all their friends and supporters are telling them that they are right, their view will actually be reinforced.
Additionally, evidence that is inconsistent with firmly-held beliefs causes an emotional ‘disconnect’ in our brains. We find this uncomfortable—so we look for more evidence to support our beliefs. Trying to debunk a myth or conspiracy theory can therefore result in entrenching it further.
Another problem is our own short-term memories. One study examined a myth-busting approach based on stating the myth, and then ‘debunking’ it in a leaflet. The study found that immediately after reading the leaflet, people could clearly distinguish myths and truth. However, barely 30 minutes later, most could only remember the myth—but thought it was the truth. This is known as the backfire effect.
Avoiding Conspiracy Theories: Become a Critical Thinker
There is plenty of research that suggests that the single factor that makes us more likely to reject conspiracy theories is understanding more about science and scientific approaches such as analytical and critical thinking.
There is very little that you can do to educate other people about science. However, you can make sure that you read widely and about a range of subjects, including science. This will help you to understand your own ‘thinking traps’ and how to overcome them.
You can also take a more critical approach to your own reading and thinking. Ask yourself questions as you read, and keep an open mind about what you are reading.
There is more about this approach in our pages on Critical Reading, Critical Thinking and Fake News, and Assessing Internet Information.
How to Debunk Conspiracy Theories
Having successfully rejected conspiracy theories yourself, you may now want to help others to avoid them.
Fortunately, there are some ways in which you can successfully debunk conspiracy theories and myths. These include:
Don’t mention the myth
Don’t be tempted to explain the conspiracy theory or myth. Instead, stick to facts and figures about the reality, especially its benefits.
For example, if you want to debunk the idea that vaccines can cause autism, it’s best to simply provide data showing that vaccines prevent people from catching dangerous diseases that themselves could cause death or brain damage.
Build common ground
We all find it easier to trust friends than chance acquaintances.
Spend a bit of time building up the common ground between you before you try to move into more difficult territory such as conspiracy theories. This will make others more likely to be prepared to listen to you, and accept your ideas.
Don’t challenge their world view
You only want to debunk a myth or conspiracy theory, not challenge their entire world view—so focus on this.
Try to use facts that will be consistent with their world view, even if they challenge a particular belief. These will be more likely to be believed, because they do not require a fundamental shift in thinking.
Use stories rather than bald facts
Stories can make a point far more effectively than a list of statistics or facts. They allow people to draw their own conclusions, rather than you having to point out the moral.
We are also more likely to be prepared to listen and engage with stories. It’s worth using this knowledge to engage better with people, and help them to challenge their own view.
A Final Thought
Understanding the nature of conspiracy theories is an important first step towards rejecting them, and then starting to debunk them for other people.
However, it is important to recognise that logic does not always have much to do with beliefs. You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink—and you will not always be able to persuade others against conspiracy theories even with all the evidence in the world.