COVID-19 has exacerbated conspiracy theories. Many find with amazement that one of their relatives adheres to it. Why? Is it irreversible? What can we do about it?
“It seemed incredible to me, everything they were hiding from us, how they were lying to us, everything that was happening in the world, without the traditional media telling us about it! Remembers Karen Andrey, a Swiss resident who does not hide having already adhered to a panoply of conspiracy theories.
Like many others, she first paid attention to these stories in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attack, and once Pandora’s Box opened, she began to consult more and more sources. questionable news. “I was not lukewarm, I was really an activist conspirator! ”, She underlines, adding that she now redirects her activism to various online groups who share content deconstructing dubious theories, including Quebec pages. “I like to see what is happening all over the world: what is done at home is also done at your place. It is not necessarily the same way, but on many points, we meet. “
Why do many adhere to it?
We designate by “conspiracy theories” the scenarios which claim to explain a very large number of historical events or contemporary phenomena by the existence of a single culprit, an individual or a group, acting in the shade. Unlike true conspiracies, these theories are based on coincidences, interpretations, amalgamations and anecdotes, rather than solid documentary evidence or hard evidence.
Conspiracy theories are global in scope because the reasons for joining them ignore borders: “everyone needs knowledge and truth, to feel safe and empowered, and to feel good with themselves. even, ”explains Karen Douglas, professor of social psychology at the University of Kent in the United Kingdom, and specialist in conspiracy theories. “When these needs are not met, conspiracy theories can seemingly offer some comfort. “
She recalls that conspiracy theories are attractive without being really satisfactory: and this can trap these followers in a cycle. Indeed, since the explanations, the most absurd as well as those which seem plausible, never provide a real solution, the frustration with unmet needs increases, thus exacerbating the search for other explanations and more support from the conspiratorial community. .
This slippage is all the easier in the context of a pandemic, when the population fears both for their life and that of their loved ones, but also for their financial security, their comfort, their freedoms, the education of children …
To top it off, scientific knowledge about COVID-19 is constantly evolving and sometimes contradicting each other. Short-term certainties are almost zero, and the confusion is only growing. “To be told that there is no answer – because at the moment there is no vaccine or curative or preventive treatment – it is very insecure! », Raises Marie-Ève Carignan, professor in the communication department of the University of Sherbrooke. She is leading a research project with international collaborators, to study adherence to certain false news related to COVID-19. His observation: it is the people who are the most anxious about the situation, for example because of financial insecurity, who are the most likely to believe in conspiracy theories. Younger people, less educated and who consult social networks more frequently, are also more at risk of joining.
How to support them?
It is no coincidence that conspiracy theories experts focus on the psychosocial aspects of the phenomenon: adherence to these beliefs always stems from an emotional drive. This is what complicates the dialogue … and the reverse. “It’s like in a romantic relationship: the person who believes in conspiracy theories is going through something emotionally and wants to protect what they love. If we say bad things about it, it puts it on the defensive, ”illustrates Michael Kropveld, founder and CEO of Info-Cult.
In recent months, this organization has also reported an increase in requests for help from people who no longer know what to do, facing a loved one who has become bogged down in conspiracy theories. The number of calls for help has also multiplied at the Center for the prevention of radicalization leading to violence.
What to do? Stakeholders in the field and the scientific community are unanimous: the person should not be confronted with a direct counter-argument. “If you try to have a logical discussion, you fall into a trap, because that can put you in ‘the enemy camp’ and reinforce his beliefs,” warns Mr. Kropveld. The conspirator could then either distance himself, or persevere and redouble his efforts to try to convince his relatives, to “save” them or “make them see the truth”.
Karen Andrey confirms this, while she herself seeks to maintain a dialogue with those around her who are still strongly conspiratorial: “I know that if someone tries to prove me that I am wrong, I will steer clear and try to prove to him that it is he who is wrong. Obviously, if I do the same with my loved ones, it won’t work! “
A more successful strategy would be, according to her, to cast doubt on the reliability of sources, in order to open the door to doubt, and then possibly to small concessions. However, we must be patient. “It hurts the ego, because we like to be right. It is the first step that is the hardest. But you just have to realize that a first conspiracy theory is false, then it is much easier with the following ones, ”testifies Ms. Andrey.
Professor Karen Douglas also believes this is a good approach. “Many conspirators see themselves as critical minded people. By getting them to evaluate their sources critically, they can be made to realize their mistakes in their information-seeking behaviors, which would allow them to correct their beliefs. “
Another tip: personalize the approach by identifying the particular needs that drive that person to adhere to conspiracy theories, then invite them to analyze these aspects critically. For example, a person who is suspicious of the government might have had a bad experience that taints their perception. It should therefore be encouraged in its research, but on the condition that it does the sincere exercise of looking at what “the two camps” say about it before deciding.
Thus, there is hope of “deconverting” the conspirators, that is to say of making them abandon all or part of their eccentric beliefs. On the other hand, it is also possible that this attempt will fail, recalls Michael Kropveld. According to him, it is therefore necessary to consider the possibility of failure when you want to help your loved one, in order to think about what to do with the relationship, if the person persists in his beliefs.
He suggests, however, to think twice before severely cutting ties with this person, especially in the context of the pandemic: “when it will resolve itself, maybe the person will come back. [comme elle était avant] or that there will be a decrease in the intensity of his beliefs. So it will be important to stay in touch, so that the person knows that they can come back. “