How to Talk to a Conspiracy Theorist Without Losing Your Mind

The moon landing was faked, #PizzaGate, 9/11 is an internal job, Vince Foster was killed by the Clintons to hide Whitewater, the Sandy Hook massacre was fake – the list of American conspiracy theories is long and bizarre, and it is. after yesterday’s coup in the Capitol, it will only last longer. (On social media – not to mention mainstream right-wing media – the idea is widespread that yesterday’s events were part of a false flag operation aimed at damaging Donald Trump’s efforts to topple Joe Biden’s election.)

Dummy paranoia becomes unsettling and annoying when it forces ordinary people to base important decisions – such as how they vote – on the hectic internet story that best supports their personal worldview. He becomes dangerous when he threatens to unravel the fabric of society, especially when one of the most powerful people in the world is pulling the strings. (To be clear: this should be taken as an indication to the president who constantly and without evidence – and even when the seat of government was under siege – that the “holy landslide elections” were stolen from him.

It’s enough to drive you crazy, especially if there are conspiracy theorists among your loved ones (or even those you love). It is considered irresponsible not to consider their cuckoo theories, especially when they put humans in danger: (Beyond recent politics, vaccine deniers, for example, are doing real harm.) But how to act, not just shouting that it is not true, it is not true, it is not true over and over again?

Consider the motives

People who actually benefit from conspiracy theories are hopeless, so don’t worry: Brett Cavanaugh, while working as a supposedly impartial assistant independent attorney investigating Whitewater in the 1990s, asked Kenneth Starr to reopen Vince Foster’s investigation. , although Foster’s suicide in 1993 had already been investigated, and the murder theory has been disproved several times. This persecution was obviously extremely painful for the Foster family and proved nothing. More recently, even after yesterday’s attempted coup, six senators and more than 100 members of the House of Representatives voted to challenge the electoral votes , confirming baseless allegations of electoral fraud for which Trump’s lawyers have failed to provide conclusive evidence. Is it worth arguing. with, say, Brett Cavanaugh or any other politician? Obviously not – they will benefit from fanning the flames, and rational conversation will not be productive.

But you can talk to your friend, dad, or cousin who thinks the Foster conspirators or Sandy Hook Truters might be catching on to something.

Start a discussion with the patient

Faith Rogow , an educational consultant specializing in media literacy for children, recommends that you patiently ask about the basics of the conspiracy to “trace your thoughts to their natural conclusion.”

For example, if your friend thinks there is an extensive conspiracy to pay women to invent stories of sexual harassment of powerful men, ask some soft questions and answers: Where does this money come from? How is this transmitted? Is there any evidence that women received this money? Are there any paper documents or IRS records of payments? How much money does it cost to turn your life and safety around?

As Rogow said, a good option is to ask, “How many people need to be involved in this story for it to survive?” Are all these Sandy Hook families all paid actors? Never tell their stories? All of the first responders, the doctors, the community that knew these children, played with and took care of them, large families, local and national media – all of this kept this huge secret for six years? Even if you don’t get your conspiracy theorist to admit that this is all very unlikely, you can still plant a seed of doubt in his brain.

Understand what drives conspiracy theorists

Some people are more likely to believe contrived stories than others. These people, in the words of Elizabeth Svoboda, writing for the Washington Post , “often see themselves as part of a select group that – unlike the deceived masses – understood what was really going on.” It might work to give them a sense of wits, prompting them to do more research from reputable sources.

Learn basic media literacy skills

It will probably be best for you if you act as a teacher for this person – for example, if you are a parent. Rogov’s site offers good pointers (useful for everyone, not just kids) on how to find out if an image has been tampered with, how to look for reports that have been “independently verified” rather than just republished from another site, and take into account the evidence, not the reporter’s bias. If you have someone who thinks they are smarter than everyone else, knowing how to use these tools will reinforce their image of themselves as a super sleuth.


Svoboda reports research that has shown that people can be encouraged to abandon their conspiracy theories by 1) showing them the facts and 2) hinting that anyone who thinks differently is funny. She points out that it may or may not work, but at least other people within earshot will have some compelling evidence. A friend of mine says that countering harmful nonsense like racism at the Thanksgiving table may not change a racist’s mind, but it will affect influential people (such as children) within earshot. So you may not want to reduce the number of conspiracy theorists or racists among you, but you can at least stop the new one from forming.

What if all else fails? Take a deep breath and walk away. Conspiracy theories are an unfortunate part of American discourse, and the best you can do is repeat the truth. On some days, this can make you feel like a member of a select few. This article was originally published in September 2018 by Lee Anderson and updated on January 7, 2021 by Joel Cunningham to include additional context related to the events that took place at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021.


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