This was a big year for conspiracy theories. They’ve staked out more space in the headlines than we used to be comfortable with and stayed long enough that we’re starting to get used to it. The energy feeding them comes from above, as Trump and other mainstream media figures find new ways to harness conspiracy theory culture, and from below, as movements like Q Anon find ways to raise their profile with cynical self-awareness.
October was particularly gruesome. While relatively benign groups were busy ginning up new conspiracy theories for the benefit of the US and Russian governments—a bizarre flipflop of their traditional hostility to mainstream power—two men made headlines in a horribly familiar way. One murdered eleven people at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, and the other mailed more than a dozen bombs to Trump’s critics. They apparently both believed that Jews and liberals were plotting against them, and they decided to fight their imaginary enemies by slaughtering strangers.
These are two different expressions of the same basic phenomenon. Not every conspiracy theorist will act on their beliefs, and even fewer will become violent. But those extremists aren’t arising in a vacuum. They radicalize over time, after years of absorbing frantic, paranoid calls to action the culture that grows up around particularly invidious conspiracy theories. We can’t do much to control the bell end of violent extremists directly; only law enforcement is really equipped to do that, and unfortunately only after the damage has already been done. But going into the holidays and 2019, we—and that does include you, the reader—can do something to disarm the culture that radicalizes them.
We can’t control this domestic terrorism without first curbing the irrational beliefs that trigger it. That will be a long, hard challenge. It’s hard to persuade a conspiracy theorist to give up their beliefs, particularly because the most persuasive voices come from the people they know and respect. That means that no higher authority or social media company can do it for us. Only you can, by engaging the people in your life who help promote conspiracy theories. By simply talking to them about their beliefs, you can help bring them back into the mainstream (or at least closer to it) and slow the spread of toxic nonsense.
There is no simple or quick solution. It will take a widespread commitment to engaging conspiracy theories when you encounter them in your life, spreading among your friends and family. There’s no way to control the spread of harmful irrational ideas without that kind of granular engagement, there’s an asymmetry in how top-down messaging works. Leaders and experts telling us to be rational and skeptical are easy to ignore and only really popular with listeners who are already calm and skeptical; their messaging doesn’t penetrate the conspiracy theory culture. (After all, while that community has set aside its inherent opposition to mainstream authorities long enough to slip on a MAGA hat, it’s still the culture that insists that scientists and engineers faked the moon landing.)
The top-down messaging that does penetrate to radical and nascent conspiracy theorists are the voices of rage, panic, paranoia, and spite. The two men who made headlines in October are both in custody, but the specific conspiracy theories that motivated them are not only still at large, mainstream politicians have actively promoted them. The shooter in Pittsburgh believed that Jews are secretly paying migrants to pour over the border in a kind of demographic conquest of America. You’ll find that theory circulating openly on Gab and other social media sewers. But you’ll also hear versions of it from trusted leaders like Lou Dobbs, Rep. Steve King, Rep. Matt Gaetz, and of course Donald Trump. Just days after the killings, Trump declared that “a lot of people” believe that the refugee caravan slowly creeping towards America is the work of a devious Jewish financier.
He’s right about one thing. A lot of people do believe that. They’re conspiracy theorists, and they’re talking about their beliefs about that and other conspiracy theories. Are you? Without your input, conspiracy theorists control the narrative on those ideas. And when that narrative is uncontested and coming from trusted sources, it can make the most absurd and hateful ideas sound credible. That creates the background conspiracy theory culture that radicalizes deadly extremists. By draining the vitality out of that background culture, we can help prevent that radicalization from happening before it turns into tragedies like we saw in October.
I’ll be writing more pieces about what we can do to be a part of that conversation, and why it helps to put conspiracy theories into context with the mainstream. But the basic ideas are simple. Talk to the people you know who are drawn to conspiracy theories. (There’s nothing wrong with talking to strangers, but it’s not as effective at changing minds.) These conversations should be simple, straightforward, and as relaxed as you can make them. Don’t be apprehensive; as a veteran of many, many such conversations, I promise that it will probably be easier, more fun, and more interesting than you expect. In fact, the more pleasant the discussion is, the more likely it is to change minds. Arguments and fights make people defensive and harder to persuade.
Be honest and open. Tell them that you want to talk them out of their conspiracy theory, and why. Then there’s no need to dominate the conversation; try just asking sincere questions. Why do they believe this? Do they know why you think it’s just a conspiracy theory? Why don’t they trust the mainstream perspective? Do they know how ideas like this have hurt people in the real world? What do they think would be strongest argument against this idea?
The goal is not to score points or force someone to admit that they’re wrong. They won’t. Instead, your goal should be simply to help the other person think more critically about their own ideas. That approach creates stronger relationships and more open discussions, which are powerful magnets for drawing people out of insular conspiracy theories.
Change won’t happen overnight, and you may never completely persuade someone that their beliefs are wrong. That’s not a problem. It’s a tremendous success just to help them recognize how extreme their beliefs really are, making them more reluctant to dive in and share those ideas online. In large enough numbers that will slow down the proliferation of conspiracy theories and prevent the radicalization of dangerous conspiracy theorists.
The most important thing is just to show up. Simply starting the conversation is an incredibly powerful victory over conspiracy theories, because it helps create a bond between someone falling victim to those ideologies and you in the mainstream. It shows that the harm those ideas can do matters to you and that it should matter to everyone.
With the holidays upon us, please, plan to have an important conversation. It’s the only way we can keep October 2018 in the past.