Why people believe conspiracy theories, and how to talk to a loved one who does

  • People try to find meaning to stressful, life-changing situations, like the Covid-19 pandemic, through things they see on TV and on social media
  • Being in isolation during lock downs and quarantine made people more anxious, desperate to find answers, and willing to accept strange ideas
Doris Wai |

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It can be hard to know what to do when you see a loved one get sucked in by conspiracy theories.

Covid-19 is part of Bill Gates’ grand plot to vaccinate the entire world. The virus was created by Chinese scientists as a biological warfare weapon. These are just some of the conspiracy theories that have been making their way around social media since the pandemic began.

Dr Diego Busiol, a certified clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst, sheds light on why some people tend to rely on conspiracy theories in times of crisis and how to talk to someone who believes in them.

How to spot #fakenews

These theories usually stem from the belief that certain events are secretly manipulated by small, powerful groups. Conspiracy theorists (anyone who believes in a conspiracy theory) often start with a budding suspicion and look at who stands to benefit from a situation.

There are good reasons why some of these seemingly ridiculous theories seem to have a cult following. Not only do they attempt to solve a mystery, they offer what most people want: certainty.

Busiol explains: “If they can get clear answers instead of partial explanation, then maybe it doesn’t matter if these theories are downright outlandish or disturbing.”

Fake news and conspiracy theories often go hand in hand.

Busiol says conspiracy theories allow us to cope with stressful, life-changing events such as the Covid-19 pandemic. He adds that we tend to feel uncomfortable when we can’t put a finger on things, and so blame our anxiety on evil, colluding forces. This defence mechanism gives us a reason to “prepare for an enemy” rather than waiting for the next unknown thing to happen.

Conspiracy theories also appeal to people’s need to feel special and unique because they are given the sense that they are keepers of classified information, and it is their duty to expose the “secret”.

Easy tips to spot if it’s #fakenews or the real thing

To a conspiracy theorist, he adds, nothing happens by chance: there is a mastermind, plot and hidden intention behind every single situation. In their bid to explain everything, conspiracy theories take on a “story-like” quality, and usually end up being much more complex and convoluted than reality. And this plays to our defence mechanism - we’re naturally suspicious and wary of things that can’t be explained.

The feeling of isolation comes into play, too. Needless to say that, with the past year’s lockdowns and social distancing rules, most of us have relieved boredom and loneliness by spending time on social media and falling down rabbit holes looking for answers. Sometimes these come unknowingly via clickbait sites that spread misinformation. It is online that fantasies and fears are amplified and misinformation takes root. Conspiracy theories give a shape and face to our insecurities, and offer comfort in the absence of support from our friends and family.

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Conspiracy theories may distract us from feeling detached from the rest of society, and somewhat help us to redirect our subconscious fears and manage our anxiety. But what happens when their claims are in direct conflict with public health measures, for example, calling on individuals to refuse to wear masks or be vaccinated?

Busiol cautions against challenging theorists directly, or telling them they are being irrational and stupid. “This only strengthens the idea of an ongoing sinister plot, and anyone who tries to refute the theory is considered either an accomplice to the conspiracy, or too naive to see the truth.”

Conspiracy theories can range from things that are slightly more innocent, like aliens, to issues that are more serious - like conspiracies about the coronavirus pandemic.

It’s important to realise there are those who may not be ready to change their minds about some of the most extreme views even when presented with rock-solid evidence because they already feel marginalised in society.

Rather than getting annoyed, shift the conversation to the real causes and motives for their theories.

“Oftentimes, they are not aware of the fears they are projecting from within themselves subconsciously. They are genuinely worried about an issue, and you might be surprised to learn that they’re afraid of something you can also relate to,” Busiol says.

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