1. Acknowledge scale of the task
Lack of evidence of a conspiracy, or positive proof against its existence, is taken by believers as evidence of the craftiness of those behind the plot, and their ability to dupe the public. So arm yourself with patience, and be prepared to fail.
2. Recognize the emotional dimension
Conspiracy theories seduce not so much through the power of argument, but through the intensity of the passions that they stir. Underpinning conspiracy theories are feelings of resentment, indignation and disenchantment about the world. They are stories about good and evil, as much as about what is true.
This gives conspiracy theories a strong emotional dimension. Tempers can flare and conversations turn into a shouting match. It is important to prevent this from happening. Be prepared to de-escalate the situation and keep the dialogue going, without necessarily giving ground.
3. Find out what they actually believe
A minority of committed believers treat conspiracy theories as the literal truth and are particularly resistant to persuasion. Many others might not see themselves as “believers,” but are willing to accept that conspiracy theorists might be onto something and are at least asking the right questions. Establishing the precise nature, and extent, of someone’s belief, will enable you to better tailor your response.
Background research will help you to focus the discussion on the substance of the claims. Never question someone’s intelligence or moral sense, as this is the quickest way to end a conversation.
4. Establish common ground
One of the main problems with conspiracy theories is that they are not confined to tinfoil-hat-wearing kooks or political extremists. In times of crisis and uncertainty, they can contaminate the worldview of otherwise reasonable people.
Conspiracy theories make reality seem less chaotic, and tap into broader, often well-grounded concerns about the world such as the concentration of financial and political power, mass surveillance, inequality or lack of political transparency. So when talking about conspiracy theories, start by acknowledging these broader concerns and restrict your discussion to whether conspiracy theories can provide an adequate or meaningful answer.
Many people come to conspiracy theories through genuine, albeit misguided, curiosity about how to make sense of the world. They sometimes see themselves as healthy skeptics and self-taught researchers into complex issues. Avoid criticising or mocking this. Instead, present it as something that, in principle, you value and share. Your aim, after all, is not to make them less curious or skeptical, but to change what they are curious about, or skeptical of.
The kernels of truth on which conspiracy theories are based are a solid starting point for a discussion. Agreement on at least some of the facts will allow you to focus on the leap of imagination that allows two and two to make five.
5. Challenge the facts, value their argument
Debunking conspiracy theories requires a two-pronged approach. The first involves challenging evidence and its origins. Address specific claims and discuss what constitutes a credible source. Offer to look at the evidence together, including on fact-checking websites.
If you are talking to a staunch believer, he probably won’t even engage with you on this. But if he has not yet fallen down the rabbit hole, he might, and this may lead him to start questioning his views.
Covid-19-related claims are in the same genre. Setting these conspiracy theories in their historical context can demonstrate that they offer nothing new, and don’t ask the right questions about the pandemic and its causes. This just might encourage the person to direct their curiosity and skepticism to more worthwhile concerns.
6. Finally, be realistic
There is, of course, no guarantee that this advice will be effective. There are no incontestable arguments or fail-proof strategies that will always convert a conspiracy theorist to skepticism. Therefore, set realistic expectations. The aim of talking to conspiracy theorists is not to convert them, but to sow doubt about an argument, and hopefully enable them to gradually build up resistance to its seductive appeal.
Jovan Byford is a senior lecturer in psychology at The Open University. Disclosure: Byford does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond his academic appointment.