How to Debate a Conspiracy Theorist – Liberal Article
On 6 January 2021, we watched in shock as hundreds of enraged Americans stormed the Capitol Building in Washington DC. Leading the charge were believers of the ‘QAnon’ conspiracy theory, a complex and dangerous web of ideas with some key core beliefs. One of these – that Trump has been ordained to execute the Satan-worshipping, pedophilic, liberal elites – was a particularly strong contributor to the madness on Capitol Hill.
As Trump failed re-election and looked set to leave office, QAnon members took matters into their own hands. With the backing of their hero, the conspirators intended to cause grave harm to both American democracy and its representatives. They very nearly succeeded.
The dangers of conspiracy theories do not end there. Despite the worst episode of the COVID-19 pandemic to date, support for anti-vaccination (‘anti-vax’) conspiracies only grows. Across the globe, scepticism is strong, from California to France, the urgent suggestions of the scientific authorities are brushed off as ‘fake news’.
Even in the UK, a feverishly-high 5.4 million people are estimated to support the anti-vax movement. In a situation where at least 70% of the population needs to be vaccinated to maintain immunity against COVID-19, the anti-vax movement presents a dangerous obstacle. If we fall here, who knows when our freedom will return?
As shown, conspiracy theories are not only irrational. They are extremely dangerous to the World and its well-being. We need to convince conspiracy theorists how dangerous their ideas are. But how?
One way is to censor the spread of misinformation online. Major social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit have cracked down on misinformation, even banning the Donald himself (and his eponymous sub-Reddit).
Yet, Stringhini’s new study has shown the unintended consequences of this prohibition. Conspiracy theorists have instead moved to smaller, independent platforms where they have concentrated and radicalized. Even more dangerously, these conspirators have moved out of the public eye into the dark realms of misinformation. The next Capitol Hill is only a matter of time.
Then there is the noxious idea that free debate in the ‘marketplace of ideas’ resolves everything and everyone. In vain, logical people argue that we should continue to argue the cold, hard facts to people duped by lies.
However, Jared Holt’s research into sites such as 4chan and Parler has shown how ineffectual rational debates have been in changing minds. In many cases, they even harden the beliefs of conspiracy theorists. Open, rational debate is only plausible for those who willingly want to be challenged. Dogmatic conspiracy theorists certainly do not.
By now, the internet has unknowingly played into our cognitive biases to give us the information we want. It has polarized the digital world. It is an unfortunate consequence of supply and demand. As Lombardi notes, old forms of debate are dead. We need a revolution in reason.
A more personal style of reasoning is needed. We need to treat debate in the modern age, less as a ‘battle of ideas’ and more as an open conversation. We need compassion and charity, not fire and brimstone (despite how irritating conspiratorial lies can be). After all, conspiracy theories thrive off of a binary battle between good and evil in the noble war for truth. And conspiracy theorists definitely do not see themselves as the villains.
But don’t just take my word for it. Dr Gagneur, a paediatrician in Quebec, used the method of deeply personal and open conversation when talking to vaccine-sceptical mothers. The results were incredible. Over two years, the number of mothers willing to vaccinate their child rose by 15%! But there is a reason why this works so well; it treats the sceptic as a real person. One with emotional, not just mental, struggles.
We cannot continue viewing conspiracy theorists as stupid people innately susceptible to fake news. As both Jolley and Holt have argued, anyone can fall victim to conspiracy theories. All it takes is a time of crisis and personal suffering to make them vulnerable receptors of misinformation. After all, conspiracy theories provide easy answers in tough times. Our job is to personally reach out and help conspirators identify why they believe what they believe. Evidence is not enough for conspiracy theorists. We have to go deeper. We need to go personal.
Many are sceptical about personal attacks on a proponent during a discussion/debate, and rightfully so. We should never be aggressive in our approach – this would only harden their hearts.
However, we should give some place to ‘Ad Hominem’. If we can differentiate between fair and unfair personal arguments, as Riley argues, we can profoundly influence the minds of the intransigent. Conspiracy theorists are often influenced by their intensely personal experiences of suffering. It will take an equally powerful personal experience of compassion to rescue them.
How do we go about this? One way in a mid-pandemic world is to interact with conspiracy theorists on social media in this new way. But the hours of effort may not result in many rewards. Indeed, a 2018 PNAS study into American Twitter users has shown how social media could polarize, rather than reconcile, an audience.
Perhaps a better way is to talk face-to-face with the conspiracy theorists we already know, rather than just internet strangers. This allows for a much more personal conversation to take place naturally and makes delving into anecdotes much more appropriate. But this is only one potential approach.
It is difficult to convince conspiracy theorists to abandon their ever-changing beliefs. However, this should not stop us from trying – especially when the World so strongly depends on it. Compassionate, personal conversation gives us a new route. More importantly, it gives conspiracy theorists a way out.
Written by Chief Liberal Writer, Frank Allen
Point of Information
We must challenge conspiracy theories at their roots – A Labour Response
This is an excellent article from Frank. It sends a great message that there can be no benefit to demonising the very people that we need to convince of something; else we risk entrenching them further in their views. Frank provides some excellent ways in which we can encourage conspiracy theorists to reconsider their misperceptions.
A well-known phrase posits that “rumour thrives on a lack of news”. However, in the modern-day, this is unlikely given the access that most people have to news through social media and the internet more generally. Instead, nowadays it seems as if rumour thrives on an abundance of news.
The huge variety of sources available allow individuals to confirm their own biases or to accept the first piece of information that they come across. So-called “celebrity-experts” play a part in this as well, often conveying unverified information to people who blindly trust them.
The issue with conspiracy theories is that they are locked in a paradox that outsiders will struggle to challenge. Those who challenge conspiracy theories are either seen as ‘sheep’ or as part of the conspiracy itself. The end result is that correction is almost impossible because anyone who seeks to debunk the conspiracy must be under the influence of powerful actors, be it voluntarily or involuntarily.
To truly tackle conspiracy theories, however, it is not enough to challenge existing conspiracy theories. We must look at the conditions in which conspiracy theories and rumours arise. In doing this we can strive to improve the conditions in which people formulate their opinions.
Conspiracy theories arise when individuals feel the need to both understand and exert control over their environment. That is to say that when people feel disenfranchised by what is going on around them, it is psychologically satisfying to believe anything even if it may not be true. These views become cemented with the introduction of social factors, as people move in circles that validate and champion these views.
To prevent this, more needs to be done to educate people on complex issues before they reach an age where misinformation can take hold of them. Research overwhelmingly supports the conclusion that lower levels of education are a strong predictor of conspiratorial thinking in later life. If people have a greater understanding of their environment in childhood, they are more likely to carry that into adulthood. Education is clearly so important. We need to educate children on complex issues such as vaccinations in greater detail than we already do.
Finally, I’d like to point out that narcissism is a very strong predictor of conspiratorial thinking. This is a tricky issue because it’s hard to implement a policy that discourages narcissism without perhaps recommending that parents simply tell their children that they aren’t special. I can’t see that going down well either.
Perhaps, therefore, we need to look at other ways of encouraging people to have a more balanced outlook on the world. I think that greater teaching of philosophy and theories of knowledge in school could be useful at doing this as it will teach people to accept their own limitations. The old maxim “I know that I know nothing” could be a useful trait for many who would otherwise assume knowledge of complex topics that they simply don’t have.
It is often admirable to accept that we are not qualified to dismiss the things that we don’t understand i.e. vaccines. In reality, we are no more qualified to dismiss the safety and efficacy of vaccines than we are to dismiss gravity and special relativity. Many could benefit from grasping this mode of thinking at an earlier age.
Written by Senior Labour Writer, Jack Rolfe
Deniers and conspiracy theorists will always exist – A Conservative Response
I could not agree more with Jack, Frank has written an excellent article. Freedom of speech must be allowed but conspiracy theorists take it to another level. People have the right to question theories and actions for sure but to completely flip evidence is insane.
Another way of putting their minds and ideas into check would be by providing independent fact-checking sources which would help considering these organisations are neutral. Fact-checking sources are crucial in nipping these conspiracy theories to bed.
Fake news certainly does not help this situation and luckily social media giants such as Twitter have started censoring ‘fake news.’ Unfortunately, it is very difficult to censor some things due to the nature of freedom of speech.
Although I agree with Jack that we must instil a more balanced way of thinking from a young age, it is very difficult to do so. Education is crucial but it is tough trying to interest young children at school. PSHE and form time sessions are a start but engaging children can be difficult.
Unfortunately, conspiracy theorists and deniers will always exist but I sincerely believe that fact-checkers will help in fighting this. News websites such as BBC News use a fact-checking source. This is essential and is the way forward.
Written by Senior Conservative Writer, Max Jablonowski
I am a third-year student at the University of Exeter, studying BSc Politics and International Relations. After graduating in the summer of 2020, I will be completing an MSc in Applied Social Data Science. I will also be the Treasurer of the Politics Society, as well as of the Uni Boob Team for the 2020/2021 academic year.
Politics was a completely taboo subject for me as a young boy. Having lived almost all my life in Brunei and Qatar – two very strict, theocratic autocracies – I was cautious to keep my opinions well-guarded. The smallest negative remark about either country’s governance, for example, would’ve meant deportation for my family and I. Any non-approved political activity, no matter how naïve, had to be kept a secret. It was best not to question at all.
I am Max Jablonowski, a second year student studying French and Politics at the University of Exeter, and I am about to go on my year abroad to Paris to complete two internships. I was Academic Events Manager of the Politics Society in Exeter and I was privileged enough to organize events such as Question Time, co-host the 2019 General Election Hustings with MWEXE and host the Rt. Hon. James Brokenshire MP, the current Minister of State for Security.