Parents need support, particularly during this pandemic—but what happens when the people you love and need drift toward conspiracy theories (and away from you)?
As Rolling Stone reported earlier this week, QAnon ideology is becoming more and more common in internet parenting circles, but this isn't just an online problem. A shocking number of U.S. House and Senate candidates have engaged with QAnon content publicly. In political life and our personal lives, QAnon looms.
Talking to anyone, let alone a loved one, who believes in wild conspiracies can be deeply frustrating and divisive.
It can feel like two worlds colliding. You follow mainstream media and they follow "alternative" news sources; you believe in the credibility of the scientific community and they trust a handful of "new age" thinkers; you think they are misled and they think you are one of the "sheeple."
Your very definition of "fact" might differ. Yet, both of you think you are critical thinkers who can distinguish between misinformation and truth. In some ways, both of you are.
If you're in this situation, here are a few tips to try to close the gap.
In the same way that you don't want to be told what to think, you can't be dogmatic in this discussion either. Ask gentle, probing questions about their beliefs.
What evidence do they have to support this theory? What source is it from? How many times has their source been wrong? Who is the "they" that is orchestrating the plan (there is always a "they" in a conspiracy theory)?
Asking your loved one to explain the specifics might get them to notice the errors in a theory for themselves.
Be curious, without judgment
You may be tempted to scoff at bizarre theories, but that reaction will only close the door to meaningful discussion.
At its most basic level, a false conspiracy theory is the result of the human brain taking unrelated background noise from a chaotic world and finding a pattern that isn't really there – the same way we might see a face on the moon.
It's a natural human tendency to create patterns. Our brains developed this for survival tens of thousands of years ago to help us make sense of our complicated world, but today our pattern-making abilities lead some people to conclude that Beyoncé is in the Illuminati or that the Queen is an extraterrestrial shape-shifting reptilian.
Be prepared with a bit of your own knowledge
Conspiracy theories are often rooted in some nugget of truth that's been stretched wildly out of shape or sandwiched between pieces of misinformation. For example, a very small percentage of children can have an adverse reaction to a vaccine, but the 1998 Andrew Wakefield study that claimed a link between vaccines and autism was false, driven by a profit-motive (Wakefield was planning on introducing his own vaccine after discrediting existing vaccines), and condemned by the scientific community. Yet, the study has shaped a whole anti-vaccine movement.
Moreover, some conspiracies have actually occurred. Governments have done atrocious things and kept significant secrets (MKUltra or the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, for example), but that doesn't mean that they always do. It takes credible evidence to tell the difference between the two.
Get them to test their predictions
Does your loved one follow a YouTube influencer who has predicted the end of the world on a specific date? Great! Predictions are good because they help us test a theory.
This is the same method used by scientists: come up with an educated guess, find a way to test it, and then either confirm or discard the theory based on the results of the test. If the world doesn't end on the date predicted, this should give them a reason to reconsider their theory and its source.
Don't be surprised if their belief system survives a few incorrect predictions though – our big brains are great at rationalizing why predictions didn't come true.
Try to empathize with them
The pandemic has created fear and feelings of powerlessness, and conspiracy theories thrive in uncertain times. Lockdown has pushed people further online due to social isolation, and online conspiracy communities provide a sense of belonging and "answers" they can't find elsewhere.
For example, "Flat Earthers" are filling a need with their belief system, often an existential one in the same way that religion does for others. The root of their belief might be common ground between you, such as fear, feelings of alienation, or a belief in a higher power. This won't help you change their minds, but it will at least help you empathize with them by seeing the core human function of their belief.
What if none of these tips work?
The sad reality is that you might not change their mind, or you might realize how closed-minded they are to anything that challenges their beliefs. When people get too far down the rabbit hole, conspiracy becomes a belief system -- everything is connected, covert, and nefarious. If this world view has become cemented in their minds, there might be nothing you can do to break them free.
But, if you can find some things that you agree on, and that keep a conversation open, your connection with that person will at least be protected. By maintaining that connection, there is always the hope that you can nudge them away from false belief systems that prey on their experiences of isolation, alienation, and uncertainty.