When people from one's own environment spread dubious information via WhatsApp, at the family celebration or at the regulars' table, many do not know how best to react. According to psychologist and conspiracy theory researcher Marius Raab from the University of Bamberg, the basic problem in conversations with people who believe in conspiracy theories is that they assume something that is out of sight. "This is why it is very difficult to oppose it, because I can't prove that something hidden, a conspiracy, doesn't exist", he says. As a result, according to Raab, discussions often feel like they are going around in circles. Together with experts, BR24 #Faktenfuchs has compiled 12 tips that can help.
Tip 1: It's good to react - because silence is often interpreted as approval
In principle, it's good to react, according to Raab. For example, if someone posts dubious links in a group chat and no one objects, our brain usually interprets that as approval. "Then they may feel reinforced in that", Raab says. Not getting any reactions can also lead to the person getting further involved and sending more and more links - in the hope of getting feedback.
Tip 2: Discuss with realistic goals
If you want to discuss with a person who believes in conspiracy theories, you should not expect too much at once, according to Ingrid Brodnig. Rethinking is a slow process and - if it works at all - often requires many discussions. If someone has doubts, a lot has already been achieved. Brodnig therefore advises people to set themselves realistic goals. One example of this is to pick just one aspect to discuss as well as to include in the conversation the contradictions that one sees oneself.
Tip 3: Ask questions
According to Brodnig and Raab, this can be done, for example, by not simply countering with arguments - but by listening empathetically and asking questions in an attempt to understand the other person and to guide the conversation toward disagreements. For example, by asking: Why do you find this conclusive? Why are the alleged conspirators doing this? "When you come up with honestly asked questions, sometimes you get the other person to ask themselves those questions", Brodnig says.
Tip 4: Avoid jumping from one topic to the next
It is also useful to know typical argumentation patterns of conspiracy theorists. One of them is jumping from one topic to the next: this means that the counterpart changes the topic and evades counterarguments instead of responding to them. Brodnig's tip: "Try to direct the conversation toward the original statement and be rhetorically careful to ensure that the person doesn't evade." For example, by asking: "What you said at the beginning, how do you mean that? I'd like to talk about that in more detail."
Tip 5: Pick out one thing in case of "link bombing"
The tip is similar for so-called "link bombing" - when a person in an online discussion sends numerous links instead of responding to a counterargument. It's easy to feel overwhelmed by this. Brodnig therefore advises not to respond to all the links, but to pick out one and respond to it. An example of such an approach: “You sent this link. Who is the originator? Why do you believe this particular source?”
Tip 6: Appeal to a critical mind
People who believe in a conspiracy theory usually see themselves as critical people, which often manifests itself in a strong distrust of institutions ranging from politics to science. Brodnig advises to consciously address this self-image in conversation - for example, like this: "I know you are a critical person, and it is important for you to question everything. Then what about this person you got the information from?" It can already be a partial success if you manage to get someone to question a problematic source.
Tip 7: Focus on the most important argument
There is a danger in such discussions that one only dispels falsehoods, i.e. constantly denies and opposes instead of presenting one's own arguments. Brodnig therefore recommends not only addressing what is wrong, but also focusing on what is right. To do this, one should think about what the most important argument is at the beginning and introduce it in the discussion.
Tip 8: Don't be intimidated by "technobabble"
People who spread conspiracy theories often use a lot of technical terms. This rhetorical strategy is called "technobabble" (from the English terms "technology" and "babble"): Expertise is feigned with supposed technical terms. "Pay attention when someone intersperses technical terms and whether they are used correctly", Brodnig says. If you don't know what a word means, you shouldn't let it get to yourself - instead, for example, you should google it afterwards to find out what's behind it.
Tip 9: Private chat instead of group chat
If someone posts misinformation to a chat group, experts recommend that you first text the person privately. "By doing this in private, I try to offer the person the right information in a very low-threshold way", Brodnig says. If you do this in front of an audience in the group, there is a risk that the person will feel exposed.
Tip 10: Consider for whom you are discussing
In discussions, for example at family celebrations, it is more difficult to take a person aside than in a chat. Here, according to Brodnig, you should consider for whom you are discussing. For example, if an uncle is spreading rumours: Is it really about reaching the uncle himself? Or is it more about making sure that the others at the table - for example, one's own parents - are not unsettled? The arguments should then be aligned with this person, i.e. with their values or by referring to sources they appreciate ("That's what the newspaper you like to read says"). This increases the likelihood that they will believe you.
Tip 11: Show appreciation
If you tell someone that they believe in something that is wrong in your own opinion, there is a danger that the person will perceive it as an attack on their whole personality and will no longer be willing to listen. Therefore, it is important to show that although you disagree on a matter, you appreciate the person. "Say, for example, 'I know you actually just want what's best for your environment, for your family' and then disagree on the matter", Brodnig advises. What should be avoided is calling a person a conspiracy theorist: "The moment you contribute to the fronts getting bigger, you will at the same time have a harder time getting the person to still listen to you", Brodnig says.
Tip 12: Stay in touch
Even if you make many attempts to talk, you always have to expect that the person will stick to their views. But how do you stay in contact - without arguing? Marius Raab from the University of Bamberg recommends openly stating that you do not agree on the topic and would like to talk about other things. It is important to signal that you are still there for the person and that you value them as a person - even if you do not share all their convictions. If it is difficult to find other topics with the person, joint activities such as sports or involvement in an association could also help. "Something where the person realises: It is important that I exist. And what I do even has positive consequences", Raab says.
Responding to and disagreeing with someone who believes in a conspiracy theory is basically good - but it is important to remain appreciative. One should set realistic goals in a discussion, stay on topic and ask questions sensitively. Instead of just denying, experts recommend emphasising what is the most important argument for oneself. In group chats, it is better to text the person privately. If someone sends a lot of dubious links through chats, it is advisable to pick out only one of them and talk specifically about it. In larger groups, the question is for whom to discuss: The one who is making claims or the others who are just listening and might be unsettled. And lastly: Even if you don't come to a common thread, it is good to keep in touch anyway.
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