Look: you don’t need to work in a newsroom to know that the media is terrible at covering anything up. Even the things that are supposed to be kept secret leak faster than you can say "footballer sex party super-injunction."
At best, it’s a waste of my friend's time and energy which she could better put into something else, like working out if Davina ever sold the $75 million house on Selling Sunset (she didn’t). At worst, it’s spreading misinformation, which ends up with Chinese people being racially abused and the further spread of the deadly virus.
I’m not the only person whose friends seem to have fallen down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories — check out this poor guy on Reddit trying to make a graph to convince his friend that the COVID-19 death toll isn’t "over-hyped."
He says it's the vaccine you need to worry about. That's when they'll inject you with nanochips. I'd say I'm around 37% worried about him, 63% annoyed.
The purpose of conspiracy theories is to give you a sense of agency: I can't do anything about the fact that coronavirus is out there. But if I believe it's caused by 5G, I can burn down the telephone mast outside my house.
The reason conspiracy theories feel overwhelming right now is because we’re stuck in a weird moment of being both isolated from each other and extremely online, says Viren Swami, a social psychology professor at Anglia Ruskin University. "A lot of people are at home, locked down and you’re spending much more time on the internet. Also there is a direct relevance of these conspiracy theories to most people – for example, if someone believes a conspiracy theory that might lead to the spread of the virus, it’s relevant to most people’s lives. Whereas something like 'Elvis is still alive' might not be relevant to your personal life."
She adds that it’s harder to think critically when you’re just hitting 'share' on Facebook. "We share content without reading it," she says. "It looks credible but you have to really dig in and look at the sourcing. But when it comes from your friend, or a family member, then sometimes you may not look at it with as much skepticism."
What you have to avoid is arguing on their terms – so trying to 'prove' they're wrong when, in reality, it should be them convincing you they're correct.
"I sometimes ask friends how confident they are about their beliefs [on a scale], where 100 represents your confidence that you know your name and zero represents no confidence at all. If they say anything less than 100, ask 'What about this theory gives you some doubt?'" he continues. "I think it can be hard for someone who is in the grip of a conspiracy to answer questions like that but at least it’s not saying you’re wrong, you’re stupid, I’m smarter than you – you’re not creating some kind of conflict that basically amounts to an insult. If you’re trying to open up someone’s mind, even a little bit, insulting them is not very effective."
What you have to avoid, he says, is arguing on their terms – so trying to 'prove' they’re wrong when, in reality, it should be them convincing you they’re correct. The other issue could be that they think you’re 'in on it'. "In 2016, the rapper B.o.B tweeted saying the world is flat and using really basic scientific knowledge to suggest that," says Swami. "[Astrophysicist] Neil deGrasse Tyson retweeted him and said it’s nonsense – but B.o.B’s response was that deGrasse Tyson is part of the conspiracy himself, so in a sense there’s no way of having a rational debate with someone who believes in a conspiracy theory."
However, Muirhead says, realize that you might have to disagree and avoid the subject forever if you want to stay friends. "Ask your friend, 'Hey, do you think it’s possible that someone like me could ever change your mind about that?' They may say no. Then you have your answer. I think that in general it’s very hard to change anyone’s mind about something they believe. Ask yourself: could your mind be changed on abortion, or global warming? With a friend, your job isn’t to change their mind, your job is to communicate and understand each other. And I think when you do that, it’s much more possible to live in the world together. And maybe way down the road you might end up shaping each other. Just don’t try and do it this week."