Q: Since the start of the pandemic, my friend has fallen deeper and deeper into a Covid-19 conspiracist rabbit hole. I’ve tried to talk him round but it feels like this just drives him further into a sense that I’m brainwashed. What should I do?
Concerned of Glasgow
A: Let’s start by adopting a sympathetic stance towards conspiracy theories. That doesn’t mean lending any credence to their claims, but instead thinking about why they appeal to certain people in certain conditions. You might be surprised by how difficult some find this. To high-minded moralists, people who believe in conspiracy theories are simply imbeciles who need to be barraged by the facts. But, as you have perhaps found out, this can have the opposite of the desired effect.
Leftwingers should be good at being sympathetic because, let’s be honest, many of us have felt the seductive pull of the conspiracy theory. Anyone vaguely familiar with the operations of state power knows that ‘conspiracies’ to mislead the public really do happen. Just look at the lies that the police so often spread in the crucial moments after they shoot someone or, to take a specific example, subterfuge undertaken by the British security services during the miners’ disputes with the National Coal Board in the 1980s.1
Then there’s the documented decline in trust in the mainstream media – accelerated by its own repeated failures. Conspiracy theories bloom when the proper organs for disseminating knowledge fail.
But the modern-day conspiracist is a dangerous creature. Unlike factual (or non-factual) claims about police shootings, their assertions can’t be proved or disproved. And never have they been more potent than during the pandemic. This is, in part, because conspiracy theorists excel at exploiting the epistemological uncertainty that accompanies scientific knowledge. For instance, we cannot rule out that Covid-19 started with a ‘lab leak’ in China, even if we know that it was much more likely to have appeared through the ‘natural’ process of zoonotic spillover.2 That degree of uncertainty is all the conspiracists need. If they’re not being honest about where it came from, they ask, what else are they keeping from us?
Returning to the principle of sympathy, conspiracy theories appeal because they offer the promise of making the world easy to navigate. In atomised societies where events on the news are so often frightful, the conspiracy theory can make you feel like an insider. It makes the messiness of history look tidy. I toyed with the idea, while thinking about this, of a high-risk piece of advice: using the logic of conspiratorial thinking to illuminate your friend’s path out of it. You could tell him – rightly – how the people who spread these nonsense ideas are acting in their own self-interest. You could tell him – rightly – that the social media platforms who offer these theories on a platform are part of the very problem.
But instead, the safest approach is actually to... listen to him. Spend some time together and ask him questions that you never have before. How is he doing? How is his relationship with his family? Has his life turned out the way he thought it would? What keeps him up at night? You might find that spreading these spurious ideas is his way of saying: ‘Pay attention to me’. Like any good conspiracy theorist, you should look behind his words, beneath the surface, to discover the person who’s actually there.
- Seumas Milne, The Enemy Within, Verso, 2014.
- Angela L. Rasmussen and Stephen A. Goldstein, ‘We may never know where the virus came from. But evidence still suggests nature’, The Washington Post, 4 June 2021, nin.tl/covidnature