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

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

Conspiracy thinkers are quickly dismissed as ‘crazy people’ or people who get carried away by unreliable sources. In times of corona, some are even labeled ‘covidiots’. But rejecting anything that comes close to a conspiracy in advance will probably only lead to more radicalization in the other, says Jaron Harambam, sociologist at KU Leuven.

In recent years, Harambam spoke with a large group of people from the conspiracy world for his doctoral research. Based on the lessons he learned, the sociologist encourages everyone to talk as openly as possible about conspiracy theories. Not only to prevent further polarization, but also to not lose sight of the questions that conspiracy thinkers ask.

Harambam is all about the open attitude. “You don’t have to believe the conspiracy story. But when you dismiss a conspiracy story about 5G as a conspiracy, you may no longer ask whether that technology is safe or desirable for other reasons.”

What is conspiracy thinking anyway?

  • The difference between critical thinking and conspiracy thinking lies in the extent to which someone explains a situation by pointing to the malicious intentions of a group that is secretly colluding, says radicalization expert Jelle van Buuren. Jaron Harambam adds another condition: science and other authoritative institutions must judge conspiracy theory as false.

Think about why you are talking to

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

First, Harambam recommends taking a step back. “Find out for yourself what you want to achieve with the conversation,” says the sociologist. Do you want to prove him wrong? Or just restore daily contact? It probably will not make sense to immediately undermine the conspiracy theory or, for example, come up with sources, says Harambam. This can be done at a later time when enough confidence has been built up again.

Immerse yourself in the other

“The way of connecting is extremely important,” says Harambam. “Conspiracy thinkers are often already in a dynamic of feeling misunderstood and living in a society where there is a stigma on their thinking. Therefore avoid the word conspiracy or descriptions such as ‘bizarre’, ‘irrational’ or ‘dangerous’, but ask open questions. without having an opinion about it. Why do you think this? How about it 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 is important to read through the rules of the conspiracy story and look at what lies behind it,” says Van Buuren. “This is often uncertainty, fear, distrust and the search for guidance. You can talk about that in an equal way, because everyone knows and recognizes those kinds of feelings.”

Conspiracy thinkers identify as critical thinkers and have often had quite a research adventure, the sociologist adds. “So let them be critical of their own sources and ideas and delve into them themselves. If it all turns out to be nonsense, you don’t have to believe it. But when you get into those research dynamics together, it really creates a bond. . “

Set your limits

“Your concerns, feelings and wishes also have a place,” Harambam emphasizes. And you can express that too. Then express it from yourself as much as possible: 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 is not so much about the conspiracy story, as about matters that do not belong in a democratic society and at a certain point are punishable.


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