How do I speak to friends or family members who believe in conspiracy theories? | NOW

What if your friend, family member or colleague thinks 5G is being used to infect civilians with the coronavirus? Or that the virus is actually a conspiracy to control the world’s population? Discussions about it can just get out of hand. How do you enter into a dialogue without the difference of opinion leading to a pause? Two experts give tips.

Conspiracy thinkers are quickly dismissed as “crazy people” or people who are carried away by unreliable sources. In times of the corona some are even referred to as “Covidiots”. But rejecting anything that comes close to a conspiracy in advance will likely only lead to further radicalization of the others, says Jaron Harambam, sociologist at KU Leuven.

Harambam has spoken for him for the past few years PhD thesis with a large group of people from the conspiracy world. Based on the lessons he has learned, the sociologist encourages everyone to speak as openly as possible about conspiracy theories. Not only to prevent further polarization, but also so as not to lose sight of the questions conspiracy thinkers are asking.

Harambam is all about being open minded. “You don’t have to believe the conspiracy story. However, if you dismiss a conspiracy story about 5G as a conspiracy, you may no longer wonder whether this technology is safe or desirable for other reasons.”

What does conspiracy even think?

  • The difference between critical thinking and conspiracy thinking is the extent to which someone explains a situation by pointing out the malicious intent of a group that is secretly working together, says radicalization expert Jelle van Buuren. Jaron Harambam adds another condition: science and other relevant institutions must judge conspiracy theory to be wrong.

Think about why you are speaking

In times of uncertainty and great change, conspiracy theories thrive. “Corona is a perfect storm in this regard,” says Jelle van Buuren, radicalization expert and assistant professor at Leiden University. When society is changing drastically and we are – as in the corona crisis – dependent on one another, it is not surprising that conversations with recalcitrant conspiracy thinkers lead to a heated debate.

First, Harambam recommends taking a step back. “Check for yourself what you want to achieve with the conversation,” says the sociologist. Do you want to prove him wrong? Or simply restore daily contact? It probably won’t make sense to immediately undermine the conspiracy theory or find sources, for example, says Harambam. This can be done at a later time when enough trust has been rebuilt.

Immerse yourself in the other

“The way you connect is extremely important,” says Harambam. “Conspiracy thinkers often already feel that they are in a dynamic where they feel misunderstood and live in a society where their thinking bears a stigma. Avoid using the word conspiracy or using descriptions like ‘bizarre’, ‘irrational’ or ‘dangerous’ but ask open-ended questions. without having an opinion. Why do you think that? How about this and where did you come across it? “

“When it comes to racism, anti-Semitism or violent fantasies, for example, you can and should draw a line there.”

Jelle van Buuren, radicalization expert

“It’s important to read through the rules of the conspiracy story and see what’s behind it,” says Van Buuren. “This is often uncertainty, fear, suspicion and the search for guidance. One can talk about this equally because everyone knows and recognizes these kinds of feelings.”

Conspiracy thinkers identify themselves as critical thinkers and have often had quite a research adventure, adds the sociologist. “So let them be critical of their own sources and ideas and immerse themselves in them. If it all turns out to be nonsense, you don’t have to believe it. But when you get into this research dynamic together, a connection really emerges.”

Set your limits

“Your worries, feelings and desires also have a place,” Harambam emphasizes. And you can express that too. Then, as much as you can, express it on your own: What are your concerns about the other person’s story?

“When it comes to racism, anti-Semitism or violent fantasies, for example, you can and should draw a line,” says Van Buuren. “But then it’s not so much about the conspiracy story, but about things that do not belong to a democratic society and are punishable at a certain point in time. And sometimes a discussion ends.”