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How to talk with people about conspiracy theories

In this blog post, the CILIP Information Literacy Group’s Public Libraries Rep, Jacqueline Geekie, comments on conspiracy theories. She talks about how she attended a focus group run by Sense about Science and introduces some resources from this organisation that offer advice on how to talk with people about conspiracy theories.


Photo of Jacqueline Geekie
Jacqueline Geekie

We are living in a changing world where restrictions are lifting and we can go back to socialising and meeting in larger groups. It is refreshing to have the chance to meet indoors, catch up and chat about current issues.  When I meet with friends and family the topic inevitably comes round to the current pandemic and I have been surprised at times with the views of some of my acquaintances and family members who hold different views to me.  

Last October I attended a focus group with Sense about Science on conspiracy theories which was an interesting experience to explore conspiracies and possible ways to engage with those who believe in them.  

I was part of a panel of invited members of the public and we all had different points of view and life experience. The two attendees who stood out to me were a pub landlord and a student who had encountered more conspiracy theorists and theories than I had at the time. My main experience of encountering conspiracy theories had been through social media and they can be easily ignored or blocked. A day or so after the session I met with a family member and when discussing the session, she spoke about one of the conspiracy theories that she believed and I wondered how I had not known that this was a view she held.  We chatted through why she believed what she did and why I didn’t, which was very amicable. However, I would have found it useful to have had access to the recently published Sense about Science guide on Conspiracy Theories as it would have helped structure my thoughts. 

Screenshot listing points about how to talk about conspiracy theories

On the Sense about Science website they have a quick guide on how to talk about conspiracy theories, which can give you some pointers in what to do and what not to do.

In a further published guide they list five similar strategies:

  • Find out what someone actually believes.

Do you have a provocative friend who likes to make grandiose statements as they know it will spark debate or will get a negative reaction?  I’m sure we all know someone like this and it is important to figure out if they really believe what they are stating.  Ask them interested questions while avoiding the antagonistic “surely you don’t believe that?”.  This is likely to result in a balanced conversation which is much more satisfying for both participants.

  • Don’t over-reach.

It is very difficult to change someone’s mind if they are entrenched in their point of view.  Recently I encountered a friend who was concerned about vaccination for younger women and fertility, so I sent a link to a video by a trusted source and encouraged them to look beyond headlines for information and not sensationalist clickbait. Further useful tools are fact checking websites such as Full Fact. These can be used as an independent, non-threatening source.

  • Recognise that conspiracy theorists have familiar needs and frustrations.

Believing a conspiracy theory can be comforting for some as it can make sense in a crazy world where everything feels out of control. I particularly like the Sense about Science guide’s approach question: “If you were in charge, what would you do?” It is all too easy to criticise someone in authority for the job they are doing, but taking time to reflect and think about your own strategy in the same situation can foster some empathy for their views while holding your own. 

  • Talk about the difference between conspiracy theories and actual conspiracies.

It is useful to acknowledge that conspiracies do happen, but ensure you distinguish between actual conspiracy and conspiracy theories. Being aware of conspiracies will add strength to the point you are trying to make, so do some research.

  • Encourage equal scepticism.

Sometimes people in authority deliberately mislead or even lie and this leads to mistrust on all topics which is not helpful. Statistics can be misleading so the quality and bias of the information sources we use become vital.

I really like the final statement in the document which states:

“Above all, remember that conspiracy theories may be outlandish but their followers’ frustrations about having little voice or control are not.  A conversation that empowers people to think, question, complain or challenge can be much more useful than one that demolishes a ‘fact’”

I hope the full guide will help make your interactions in social situations more fulfilling for all parties.

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