You may have heard about it: conspiracy theories are galore on the Internet and seem to have grown excessively in 2020 because of coronavirus. Conspiracy theories about the virus, the vaccine, 5G, and many others are planting seeds of doubt and lead to many fights, sometimes within a household.
Paris university lecturer and Celsa digital culture and conspiracy theory specialist teacher Tristan Mendès-France has recently started a column on France Inter during which he deciphers conspiracy-theory phenomena.
In an interview with Le Parisien , he explains “the whole planet has fallen [in conspiracy theory], and WHO even created a word back in March, speaking of infodemic, an epidemic of information. Coronavirus has been of the main accelerators of conspiracy theories on a global level. In France, to curb it, it would require that groups, structures, associations fighting against fake news enjoy a governmental financial support”.
Even though this phenomenon is not new, social networks have escalated it, they act as a sounding board: “generally speaking, if one flees from main medias to […] seek news [on social networks], it means one wants to hear something else that goes with one’s presuppositions” he thinks.
Although it is not easy to unplug from Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, you can learn how to spot conspiracy-theory speeches to better grasp what is hiding behind and keep your critical mind up.
Three major clues can set you thinking. A conspiracy theorist is often obsessed by “those who pull the strings”: illuminati, reptilians, freemasons, new world order… Each time and each conspiracy-theory movement hold people responsible (ideally political enemies) and invents them an evil hidden agenda: winning money, controlling the people, destroying people…
Everything is related, in a conspiracy theory, everything has a reason, there is no fate. This denial invites them to create baseless bounds between events or people, proving – they think – that each event on the planet is the outcome of a planned action. Les Décodeurs du Monde explains this “way of thinking is very effective to raise questions, but prevent from placing events in their context, with their cause-effect relationship, their situational and structural causes, what can be foreseen and what is left to chance”.
Last but not least, a conspiracy theorist highly denies everything that contradicts them. Medias chained up to the government, corrupted scientists, manipulated citizens… There is no room for doubt or contradiction in a conspiracy theory. The least element likely to disturb the theory shall be ignored and teased with absolutely no regard.
Keeping a cool head
Once you have spotted these speeches, how can you avoid falling for them? The very own feature of conspiracy theories is to have us wondering about what they say and push us to question the way we see reality to convince us better. The best method – and the hardest – consists in keeping a cool head. Do not reason with affect and set up a scientific method. Look up for sources, check information, understand the context this news is shared in and by whom…
This task can be tedious. On the Internet, you can see a “bubble effect”: conspiracy-theorist websites send to other conspiracy-theorist pages fed by people sharing the same believed… Once you have entered this circle, it is hard to leave it… And yet, you should leave it: find a new light to put this news in prospect.
France enjoys many players on the Internet that take part in the checking and release of facts. In the press, there are Les Décodeurs, AFP Factuel, CheckNews, Vrai ou Fake or even Fake off. Or you can rely on HoaxBuster, Hygiène mentale, Débunker des étoiles, Défakator... It is up to you to find the one you trust the more.
Convincing the others
Family dinners are often synonyms for heated debates about politics, sport, news… So, as more and more conspiracy theories are shared, you can expect some gems. If you want to pull someone out of this conspiracy-theorist circle, you can rely on a few arguments.
It often happens a conspiracy theory presents a scientific study as a proof of what they say – even though this study may be fully denigrated by the scientific community. 20 years ago, a study from The Lancet showed the relationship between vaccines and autism. This study has been condemned and disapproved many times by the scientific community. Other experiences regularly show there is still no link between autism and vaccines. Yet, The Lancet study is still used as a proof by anti-vaxxers. You have to handle proves given by conspiracy theorists very carefully.
Furthermore, experts quoted on such and such topic can have a very doubtful reputation. The Hold Up documentary is filled with scientists and experts with suspicious titles or works not approved by the scientific community.
Last but not least, you shall check proves given by conspiracy theorists. It is very easy to take a fact out of its context and shape it to give it the mean one wants it to have. Without speaking about pictures or videos that can be falsified, photoshopped and staged.
The fight against conspiracy theories is not easy, you have to be cautious with the flow of information we get on a daily basis: lies are often hiding.