How to Communicate with relatives who believe Conspiracies


The BBC’s Specialist disinformation reporter, Marianna Spring, has posted a great article titled “How should you talk to friends and relatives who believe conspiracy theories?“.

Well yes.

A pre-Tier4 article.

Those living in Tier4 areas will no longer get to spend Christmas with their beloved but quite dotty Aunty Vax. It is still very good guidance and well worth taking note of.

When faced with claims that will potentially trigger you … Climate Change is a myth, COVID-19 caused by 5G, masks don’t work, etc… then telling them that they are being moronic will never result in a productive meaningful conversation. “Well gosh yes, you are right, I am being a complete plonker, pointing that out has really changed my mind” … says nobody … ever.

So how should you engage?

I’m perhaps assuming your goal is to persuade and to encourage people to abandon misinformation and embrace as many true things as possible.

Dialog Guidance – A quick summary

She has five key points. I’ve quote-mined a few snippets so that you can quickly grasp the idea. To be honest you are probably better off reading the original article.

1. Keep calm

Psychologist Jovan Byford, a lecturer at the Open University, notes that conspiracy theories often have a strong emotional dimension. 

“They are not just about right and wrong,” he says, “but underpinned by feelings of resentment, anger and indignation over how the world works.”

And they’ve boomed this year, with many searching for grand explanations for the pandemic, American politics, and huge world events.

2. Don’t be dismissive

“If you do decide to discuss conspiracy theories, don’t be dismissive of the other person’s beliefs,” Jovan Byford agrees. “Establish some common ground.”

Remember that people often believe conspiracy theories because deep down, they’re worried or anxious. Try to understand those feelings – particularly in a year like the one we’ve just had.

3. Encourage critical thinking

People who believe conspiracy theories often say: “I do my own research.”

The problem is that their research tends to consist of watching fringe YouTube videos, following random people on Facebook, and cherry-picking evidence from biased Twitter accounts. 

But the spirit of doubt that pervades the conspiracy-minded internet is actually a key opening for rational thought, says Jovan Byford.

“Many people who believe in conspiracy theories see themselves as healthy sceptics and self-taught researchers into complex issues,” he says. “Present this as something that, in principle, you value and share.

4. Ask questions

Think of general queries that encourage people to think about what they believe. For instance, are some of their beliefs contradictory? Do the details of the theory they’re describing make much sense? Have they thought about the counter-evidence?

“By asking questions and getting people to realise the flaws, you ultimately get people to doubt their own confidence and open them up to hearing alternative views,” says former conspiracy believer Phil.

5. Don’t expect immediate results

You might be hoping that a constructive conversation will end with some kind of epiphany over Christmas pudding – but don’t bet on it. 

For those who have fallen deep down the conspiracy rabbit hole, getting out again can be a very long process.

“Be realistic about what you can achieve,” psychologist Jovan Byford warns. “Conspiracy theories instil in believers a sense of superiority. It’s an important generator of self-esteem – which will make them resistant to change.”

One Further very obvious thought on Effective Communication

While the context is engaging with dotty relatives at Christmas, it actually applies universally in any other context.

If you are interested in pushing back against misinformation in a truly meaningful manner and persuading people in general, in any context, then Marianna’s guidance is a really good foundation.

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