How to tell the difference between a conspiracy theory and a theory about a conspiracy

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Part 5/5: What can be done to reduce the prevalence of conspiratorial thinking?

How to escape the echo chamber

Communication strategies to contain conspiratorial thinking

  1. preventing/slowing down the spreading of conspiracy theories (e.g. by encouraging people to ask themselves four simple questions before sharing a post: Do I recognize the news organization that posted the story? Does the information in the post seem believable? Is the post written in a style that I expect from a professional news organization? Is the post politically motivated?),
  2. preventively “inoculating” the public against the techniques of science denial (”prebunking”) by creating awareness about the risk of misinformation and,
  3. debunking conspiracy theories by refuting weak pieces evidence, and by exposing unjustified/unreasonable beliefs as well as logical/factual incoherences (e.g. through fact checking, source analysis etc), and
  4. cognitively empowering people to think more rationally rather than relying on their intuition. This strategy requires more substantial interventions in terms of education and culture, which are examined in subsequent sections.

In general, trying to get through to committed conspiracy theorists with facts or rational/scientific findings is far more challenging and resource-consuming than convincing someone who has not fallen into the epistemic trap yet. In addition, “Brandolini’s law” suggests that it generally takes substantially more time and effort to refute misinformation and falsehoods than to produce it. Among the most effective interventions to discourage conspiratorial thinking at its source we can therefore find regulatory measures that assign clear responsibilities and liabilities for the negative consequences of creating and spreading misinformation. Such measures would clarify that freedoms and rights are necessarily preconditioned by corresponding duties and responsibilities. In the absence of regulation and given limited resources, it should be more resource-efficient to primarily address those parts of the population which are still responsive to facts and rational/scientific findings. In this sense Phil Williamson argues that publicly refuting misinformation is generally worth the effort, although usually more for the benefit of other audiences than for the benefit of the misinforming person. However, in some cases it might still be worthwhile to focus directly on influencers who function as pandemic “super-spreaders” of conspiracy theories. Drawing from experiences with deradicalization and exit counseling, the conspiracy theory handbook suggests three communication strategies that are effective in liberating members from politically extremist groups as well as religious cults:

  1. Using trusted messengers, for instance former community members or social peers who are considered to be particularly trustworthy.
  2. Affirming critical thinking: Conspiracy theorists often see themselves as critical thinkers, and sometimes their critical thinking skills can be redirected towards the conspiracy theory itself.
  3. Avoiding ridicule and showing empathy — building trust through a respectful, empathic relationship and leading by example. This approach also includes ensuring that those willing to leave their echo chambers are not feeling left alone. The fear and the emotional costs of breaking with the social relationships that ideological communities may have provided can represent a powerful obstacle.

The example of Daryl Davis shows that it is possible for a (charismatic) person to cause profound worldview changes even among extreme racists by virtue of empathy and authentic friendship. In addition, the social interactions with Davis let extremists directly experience the incoherence between objective reality and the falsehoods on which their original worldview was built (in this case racial prejudices). Therefore another strategy can be added:

4. Facilitating the self-experience of an objective reality that is incoherent with simplistic, distrustful worldviews on the one hand and coherent with complex, differentiated worldviews on the other.

Finally, drawing from numerous suggestions by Anne Applebaum, it seems generally advisable to:

5. Identify and emphasize basic commonalities, such as shared memories and emotions, or — one might add — the existential hopes and fears, and the purpose and fulfilment we find in friendship, family and love, that continues to unite us as a human community, regardless of how much our subjective realities might have grown apart.

A new purpose for education

A new purpose for cultural entertainment

How to tell the difference between a conspiracy theory and a theory about a conspiracy



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