Help! My Best Friend Has Turned Into A Conspiracy Theorist

Illustration by Seung Chun
It all started back in March, at the beginning of the pandemic in the UK, when my friend – a smart, educated human who I love and respect and who will always call me out on my bullshit – posted a David Icke interview on Instagram with a caption about 'looking at different perspectives'. I thought, Okay, fine. I mean, Icke is wrong about literally everything but it’s always good to question things and (not to sound too Alan Partridge) everyone is entitled to their own opinions, even if they’re incorrect.
But as lockdown went on, she replaced her normal posts – her kids, her dog, horrible photos of us from back in the day when you’d upload 60 pictures of one night out – with increasingly concerning 'news sources', calling out the 'lame-stream media' (um hi, that’s me, the journalist) for covering up the 'fact' that the coronavirus pandemic was planned and citing the two Plandemic films – 'documentaries' featuring discredited medical researcher Judy Mikovits which contain false claims including that the virus is man-made and was released 'on purpose', that wearing a mask 'activates' the virus and that hospitals get paid $13,000 if they say a patient dies from COVID-19. Plandemic is banned from Facebook, YouTube and Vimeo

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'.
And what a great story it would be if all the governments in the world had put aside their differences to work together and cover up a planned pandemic, only for some D-list celebrities, my friend and a few 'scientists' with seriously dodgy CVs to come along and blow the whole thing wide open. I think we can all agree that has not happened.

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.

"My friend from school has been living with her dad, who has always been into conspiracies," says Amy, 23, a journalist from London. "The other day she spent the best part of two hours trying to convince me that the virus isn’t real, the numbers are not real and that it’s all man-made so the government can control us – and that mandatory mask-wearing and vaccines are in the near future. It’s just awkward. I’m going to wait and meet up with her after this is all over."
Rob, 29, a civil servant from Kent, has a similar issue. "My friend is a Cambridge-educated science fiction author and philosopher," he says. "He’s also convinced that COVID is the work of the Illuminati – the sinister organisation who mastermind events by planting government agents to establish a New World Order. The Illuminati created COVID to maintain control but it hasn’t been as effective (i.e. lethal) as 'they' planned. That’s the good bit. It’s the vaccine you need to worry about, apparently. That’s when they’ll inject you with nanochips. I’d say I’m around 37% worried about him, 63% annoyed."
It can be even more awkward when it’s your family members falling for the theories. "My soon-to-be brother-in-law firmly believes the coronavirus is a government hoax, created in a bid to turn the world into a controlled state," says Rose, 28, an influencer from Glasgow. "He also thinks Bill Gates is going to microchip us all with the vaccine."
The problem, says Rose, is that supposedly everyone’s in on it – so there’s no point arguing. "Unfortunately his research via YouTube videos – including Australian celebrity chef and coronavirus denier Pete Evans – backs up his beliefs and because he feels the mainstream media are also in on it, presenting him with scientific advice, doctors’ experiences or investigative reports by journalists doesn’t work. My main concern is for his three kids who grow up hearing these toxic thoughts every day."
Sarah, 33, from London was horrified when her cousin’s online 'research' took her to a very dark place. "My cousin has always been interested in David Icke and will occasionally (jokingly?) reference the reptilians that are ruling the world, but since COVID she's expanded her research into other areas. Last week she sent me a thing explaining how Jeffrey Epstein and the 'Hollywood sex trafficking rings' were harvesting children's blood. It sounds cowardly but I'm kind of just hoping she doesn't bring it up IRL."
Russell Muirhead, co-author of the new book A Lot of People Are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy and associate professor of politics at Dartmouth College, points out that there have always been conspiracy theories (according to a 2018 Cambridge University study, 60% of Brits believe at least one) and he can see why some people believe them to be true. 

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 thing to keep in mind is that the fact that something is a conspiracy theory doesn’t mean it’s false," he says. "There are lots of conspiracy theories that happened – some of them pretty wild. The CIA in the US gave the Americans psychedelic drugs as mind control experiments. You have to keep in mind that we live in a world where powerful institutions have betrayed the public interest. Governments lie. Leaders lie. Companies lie."

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."
He point out that the UK isn’t as bad as the US. "If you look at the data in the UK, less than a quarter of people believe strongly in conspiracy theories about COVID-19 – that’s slightly lower than, for example, in the US. In the US, about 30-40% of Americans believe that Obama wasn’t born in the US."
The reason our friends are getting into conspiracy theories, he says, is a combination of fear and feeling helpless. "With coronavirus in particular, it’s hard to understand and it’s emotionally difficult to process because it’s about death. And some of the things you’re supposed to understand about coronavirus can be tricky; it requires a high level of scientific knowledge and basic understanding of statistical numbers or values. And most people don’t have that. The purpose of conspiracy theories is to give you a sense of agency: I can look after myself, I can look after my family, but I can’t do anything about the fact that [coronavirus is] out there. But if I believe it’s caused by 5G, I can do something about it – I can burn down the telephone mast that’s outside my house or I can protest outside parliament."
People are losing their jobs or their homes, or their businesses are failing. You can see why "this is a global conspiracy by lizard people" makes about as much sense as "our government has literally no idea what to do about a killer virus so the rules will change daily and won’t make any sense."
Debra Winter, a professor of critical thinking at New York University and author of the upcoming book Global Catastrophe and Literature: Writing the Sublime, recently wrote about "the white, middle-class Pinterest moms who believe Plandemic" for the Guardian, detailing her horror at three friends who all got deeply involved in conspiracy theories through social media. 
She warns that conspiracy theorists are "organised – they have doctors giving talks, they have doctors available for Zoom calls to give you information. They have laser targeted certain groups of people and these theories work their way into everyone’s daily lives."

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 scepticism."

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.

So how do you talk to a friend who is sending dodgy YouTube videos in the WhatsApp group chat? Be sympathetic, says Muirhead. "I think if you want to engage somebody who is in that self-affirming circle where they only acknowledge evidence that confirms what they believe, never try and go up against what they believe in directly. Don’t condemn it, instead say 'I’m not convinced of that, it’s interesting that you’re convinced of that'." 

"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."
Winter adds that if they offer you three articles or videos to watch, agree – then send back three of your own.
The key to staying friends is to find the subjects you can agree on, says Swami. "It’s about trying to understand why they believe what they do. And once you’ve had that initial negotiation, it’s important to find those spaces where you can have a constructive discussion about things that you agree about. And I also suggest that you don’t talk a lot – people tend to force their views when they think they’re right so they talk over the other person."

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, realise 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."

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