How to Talk to Believers about COVID-19 Conspiracy Theories

Conspiracy theories about COVID-19 are causing problems in the real world by dissuading some people from getting vaccinated, wearing masks, or following other guidelines. Some bizarre theories about the virus have led believers to burn 5G cell phone towers, shut down vaccination clinics, or even ingest poisons that are touted as cures.

Disinformation and psychology experts interviewed by The Associated Press offer various tips for people wondering how to talk to friends or family who believe COVID-19 conspiracy theories. This is what they suggest:

LISTEN, DON’T PREACH: Believers in conspiracy theories are unlikely to be swayed by people who make fun of their views. Instead of lecturing, listen and ask questions about how they became interested in the conspiracy theory, where they get their information, and if they have considered other explanations. Whenever possible, keep the conversation offline.

KEEP CALM: Arguing with someone about conspiracy theories will likely only result in higher blood pressure. Remember that some people will not change their minds no matter what you say, and discussing the proven benefits of using masks or vaccines is unlikely to convince them.

CHANGE THE SUBJECT: Mention shared experiences and interests to help the person focus on personal connections. If someone dwells on conspiracy theory, politely say that you prefer to talk about something else.

As for building up your own defenses against conspiracy theories and misinformation about the virus (or any other topic), experts suggest the following:

EXPANDING YOUR DIET WITH THE MEDIA: Consulting a variety of news sources, including some local, national and international media, is the best way to stay informed and avoid the traps of misinformation and conspiracy theories. Don’t rely solely on social media for your news.

CHECK THE SOURCES – Find out who wrote the content and who is cited in it. Are they named? Do they have a position or experience that gives credibility to their claims? Are other points of view expressed in the article? Be wary of claims made by insiders, anonymous internet posters, or anyone who cites rumors as fact. Also, check the dates – peddlers of misinformation often post old photos or news and claim it’s new.

BE CAREFUL ABOUT CONTENT THAT PLAYS ON EMOTIONS: Misinformation and conspiracy theories often exploit anger, fear, or other emotions. Be wary of content that features strongly emotional language or seems intended to outrage you. If you read something that really excites you, wait until your emotions have cooled before republishing it or sending it to your friends.

VERIFY EXTRAORDINARY CLAIMS: If you read something that makes an incredible claim, one that seems too good, too horrible, or too strange to be true, check to see if it is reported elsewhere. If it’s an important story, other outlets will confirm the details. Beware of explosive claims if they are only made on a website or by a social media user.

DISCONNECT: The pandemic has been a time of greatest stress and fear for everyone, and there are many legitimate questions about the virus. Experts say that healthy habits like exercise, meditation, positive relationships, volunteering, and even hobbies can ease some of the fear and make us more resistant to misinformation and conspiracy theories that exploit our fear or anger.

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