How to talk about conspiracy theories

Jon Ward
·Senior Political Correspondent
·5-min read

The holidays are coming up. And although gatherings will probably be smaller this year, or taking place virtually rather than in person, you may find yourself in a difficult conversation with a friend or family member.

Now normally, a good rule of thumb is to avoid politics at the dinner table altogether — but this year, in the aftermath of a bitterly divisive election, and with a global pandemic raging, there may be no way around it. Political arguments are a part of life, but increasingly in the U.S. they take place between people who disagree over not just policies but also objective reality, posing a dilemma over how to respond when confronted with misinformation, baseless internet rumors or conspiracy theories.

Quarrel of mother and daughter at the Christmas table (Getty Images)
A mother and daughter having a disagreement at Christmastime. (Getty Images)

Well, first, maybe don’t start by calling them conspiracy theories. The term is occasionally useful. But to those accused of harboring them, it increasingly comes across as a pat dismissal, a way of closing off discussion. It might be helpful, however, to point out the difference between a proven conspiracy and an unproven conspiracy theory, and we’ll talk about some of those differences in a moment.

Here are the telltale signs of a conspiracy theory:

  • Negative evidence. The absence of evidence is a clear sign. Often someone who asks for evidence is then painted as closed-minded and potentially even part of the plot to suppress the truth.

  • Errant data. Conspiracy theories often rely on obscure statistical or historical data, meant to suggest a sophisticated approach but which doesn’t stand up to analysis.

  • An imaginary master plan. A hallmark of a conspiracy theory is that it discounts the possibility of coincidence or random events. There are no accidents; everything is part of the plot, or the counterplot. Of course, that’s not how the world works. Ask yourself: Is this true of anything in your own life?

  • A cabal behind the scenes. There is a shadowy, often nameless villain or group of bad guys pulling the strings.

  • Circular reasoning or contradictory claims. Conspiracy theories don’t hew to deductive logic.

  • Skepticism toward accepted truth. If you hear someone saying that we can’t actually know for sure what happened, that’s a hallmark of conspiracy theories.

  • Self-justifying rationales. Reality itself — the existence of a plausible explanation, even one backed by evidence — is part of the plot, because “that’s what they want you to believe.”

So how to talk about it?

First, assess your audience. Are you speaking with someone who is confused by conspiracy theories, or committed to them?

If it’s simply someone who is not sure what to think, then talk about media literacy and the standards for distinguishing good information from bad.

The Cornell Alliance for Science, in its Conspiracy Theory Handbook, recommends four basic questions to help someone assess the credibility of information.

The four questions are:

  • Do I recognize the news organization that posted the story?

  • Does the information in the post seem believable?

  • Is the post written in a style that I expect from a professional news organization?

  • Is the post politically motivated?

Other good questions to discuss are whether the information is coming from an organization that has layers of editing and vetting of information. Are the names of the people who run the organization public, so they are accountable? Are the people who wrote the article or created the content identified — and are they real? (Try a web search. Any legitimate reporter or writer will have left a trail of information on the internet.)

Family of two quarrelling while preparing food. Nice loft interior with light bulbs (Getty Images)
A couple quarreling while preparing a meal. (Getty Images)

These are all good questions that can lead to a discussion of how legitimate news organizations work and how there is a lot of information on the internet with no accountability and no standards.

For the person who seems committed to believing their conspiracy theory, there might be other approaches that work better.

One is to ask questions and use curiosity — with healthy but friendly skepticism — to untangle the assumptions underlying someone’s beliefs. Those presuppositions are usually what’s driving someone to believe in a grand conspiracy anyway, so it’s worthwhile to spend time there.

Questions like “What makes you believe that?” and “What do you think is driving all this?” are one way to probe a person’s deeper motivations, and perhaps could take the conversation in a more personal direction that allows for building relational trust. Trust is the basis for truth telling.

Another approach is to discuss real historical conspiracies and how they came to light: the Watergate scandal, or the CIA’s domestic spying program in the late ’60s and early ’70s, or the Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal, or the use of extraordinary rendition and torture of military detainees by the U.S. government after 9/11, or the tobacco industry’s deceit of the public about the health effects of smoking.

8/8/1974-Washington, DC- Newspaper headlines being read by tourists in front of the White House tell of history in the making. (Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)
Newspaper headlines on Aug. 8, 1974, being read by tourists in front of the White House tell of history in the making. (Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)

All came to light through investigative journalism, the courage of whistleblowers working with the press, the justice system or congressional investigations. Tools like Freedom of Information Act requests have been crucial as well.

It may help to create some common ground to talk about the idea of conspiracies, and how it’s wrong to say there is no such thing. This could be a bridge to discussing the distinguishing marks of the real conspiracies that have come to light, and how they differ from the unproven ones that people often fixate on.

Empathy and humility can be great weapons for the truth. They might not give you the satisfaction of telling someone they’re a fool — but that’s not the point.

Cover photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images, Stephen Maturen/Getty Images; Jessica Rinaldi/the Boston Globe via Getty Images; John Rudoff/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images; Thomas O’Neill/NurPhoto via Getty Images; Kyle Grillot/AFP via Getty Images; Olivier Touron/AFP via Getty Images

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