In moments of extraordinary uncertainty, like the one we currently face, it is natural to seek out decisive information. Unfortunately, sometimes certainty is nowhere to be found— that is, unless you are willing to suspend disbelief. Web traffic to a site popular with conspiracy theorists nearly doubled in the first couple months after SARS-CoV-2 made landfall in North America. From fireworks to protests for racial justice, to the virus itself, it would appear that you can find a different flavor of conspiracy theory on just about any topic. These “theories” are nothing new, but what is unique about this outbreak of misinformation is that it has been superpowered by the global reach and precise algorithms of social media.

There isn’t anything inherently wrong with being skeptical. Our minds are constantly trying to make sense of the world around us, seeing patterns, even where they may not exist. So what’s the harm? Researchers at King’s College London found that people who rely on social media for news regarding COVID-19 were significantly more likely to hold conspiracy beliefs and significantly less likely to engage in protective measures like hand washing, physical distancing, or even staying home when experiencing possible symptoms of COVID-19.

Conspiracy theories are divisive. These beliefs not only increase prejudice and discrimination against the target of the conspiracy but also increase prejudice against groups that are not even specifically targeted by the false narrative. Empirical evidence suggests a direct relationship between belief in conspiracy theories, feelings of anger and paranoia, and an individual’s propensity for and willingness to justify violence.

So, what can you do when friends or family members share conspiratorial beliefs?  First, give yourself permission not to engage if you feel that doing so might endanger your health or safety. If you do feel comfortable engaging in a discussion, it is often better to do so one on one, rather than over social media.  Physical distancing makes this difficult but is vitally important to slowing the spread of COVID-19, so even a text or phone call can feel more personal than a comment on social media.  Discussing your concerns privately may also help people feel less defensive than being publicly confronted.

Focus on facts, and avoid personal attacks. In the naturopathic spirit of prevention, it can be helpful to talk to friends about the recent outbreak of misinformation even if they haven’t expressed conspiratorial thinking. Try to identify common ground, no matter how small. Respect that not all believers are unintelligent or uneducated. Sincerely listen to what the other person is saying, and be open to learning new information, even if it is inconsistent with your current worldview.  Depending on the significance of the relationship, know when to walk away. Conspiracy theories are deeply harmful to our society, and it is up to every single one of us to promote information literacy.

ACTION YOU CAN TAKE:

In moments of extraordinary uncertainty, like the one we currently face, it is natural to seek out decisive information. Unfortunately, sometimes certainty is nowhere to be found— that is, unless you are willing to suspend disbelief. Web traffic to a site popular with conspiracy theorists nearly doubled in the first couple months after SARS-CoV-2 made landfall in North America. From fireworks to protests for racial justice, to the virus itself, it would appear that you can find a different flavor of conspiracy theory on just about any topic. These “theories” are nothing new, but what is unique about this outbreak of misinformation is that it has been superpowered by the global reach and precise algorithms of social media.

There isn’t anything inherently wrong with being skeptical. Our minds are constantly trying to make sense of the world around us, seeing patterns, even where they may not exist. So what’s the harm? Researchers at King’s College London found that people who rely on social media for news regarding COVID-19 were significantly more likely to hold conspiracy beliefs and significantly less likely to engage in protective measures like hand washing, physical distancing, or even staying home when experiencing possible symptoms of COVID-19.

Conspiracy theories are divisive. These beliefs not only increase prejudice and discrimination against the target of the conspiracy but also increase prejudice against groups that are not even specifically targeted by the false narrative. Empirical evidence suggests a direct relationship between belief in conspiracy theories, feelings of anger and paranoia, and an individual’s propensity for and willingness to justify violence.

So, what can you do when friends or family members share conspiratorial beliefs?  First, give yourself permission not to engage if you feel that doing so might endanger your health or safety. If you do feel comfortable engaging in a discussion, it is often better to do so one on one, rather than over social media.  Physical distancing makes this difficult but is vitally important to slowing the spread of COVID-19, so even a text or phone call can feel more personal than a comment on social media.  Discussing your concerns privately may also help people feel less defensive than being publicly confronted.

Focus on facts, and avoid personal attacks. In the naturopathic spirit of prevention, it can be helpful to talk to friends about the recent outbreak of misinformation even if they haven’t expressed conspiratorial thinking. Try to identify common ground, no matter how small. Respect that not all believers are unintelligent or uneducated. Sincerely listen to what the other person is saying, and be open to learning new information, even if it is inconsistent with your current worldview.  Depending on the significance of the relationship, know when to walk away. Conspiracy theories are deeply harmful to our society, and it is up to every single one of us to promote information literacy.

ACTION YOU CAN TAKE:

BLOG POST AUTHOR

Brian Carrell is a naturopathic student and lives in Kenmore, WA. He is a member of the Naturopathic Alliance.