8 Tips for Helping Friends or Family Swept Up By Conspiracy Theories

At Down Home, we don’t believe anything is beyond repair or that anyone should be given up on or left behind.

While listening to a cousin or a neighbor or an old friend spout what can feel like a ridiculous conspiracy theory can feel laughable, it’s also an important point of intervention: If we turn our backs on them, we know that far-right and white supremacist groups will take them in.

Learn more about the purpose of conspiracy theories and how they are used to divide working-class folks here.

Here are some tips to help you talk to someone you care about who might have been swept up by fake news or into conspiracy theories: 

  1. Only engage if it feels safe to do so. At Down Home, we believe in the power of conversation and real human connection, however, we also want everyone to stay safe. If someone is making threats or acting erratically, trust your instincts and consider getting that person professional help. Be safe and know when to walk away.
  2. Don’t mock or scold someone for their beliefs– that only shuts down conversation and makes you appear untrustworthy. Conspiracy theories often become central to our personalities, therefore attacking the theory outright feels like an attack on our core being. 
  3. When possible, have a private conversation. It’s not a great idea to debate someone you want to help on a Facebook thread as it tends to feel performative. Instead, message the person or give them a call. Private conversations help everyone let their guard down and trust each other’s intentions. 
  4. Find a place for agreement. Most conspiracy theories have a kernel of truth and something verifiable somewhere– acknowledging this gives you some common ground to coalesce around. 
  5. Be curious and ask questions. Another place you can find common ground might be to give reverence to some of the ways they feel suspicious or wary of “mainstream” news, ideas, and politics. A lot of people who subscribe to conspiracy theories feel that something is wrong or amiss in our society– chances are you agree but have come to very different conclusions. That agreement can be the foundation for the hard parts of your conversation. 
  6. Specifically, ask them where their information is coming from. This question gives you the opportunity to explain the media and information environment that we live in. Explaining how Google works, for example, helps to demonstrate how we all, no matter our beliefs, are fed more content to support those beliefs through algorithms. 
  7. Limit how much time you spend debunking their theory. Fact-checking can be helpful but likely won’t move someone who feels a sense of significance through the theory. Debunking everything they say can push them away. This doesn’t mean you should agree with what they say, but instead, ask questions to cause cognitive dissonance. 
  8. Don’t expect one conversation to change everything. Down Home uses a technique to reach and sway voters called “Deep Canvassing” which has proven results for moving people through conversation and by sharing personal stories. However, it is a patient approach. We don’t expect people to change their minds in one conversation, but instead through building a relationship and trust through multiple conversations. The same applies here. 

Want to learn more about conspiracy theories and how they are an exploitative tool used against rural, working-class people? Click here.