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Conspiracy theories: How to identify them and help your loved ones separate fact from fiction

An individual is using their thumbs to type on a smart phone. Their hands are resting on a wood table as they type. The rest of the person is not pictured.
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An individual is typing on their cell phone. Cell phones and social media have allowed us to stay connected, but have also led to some difficult conversations and misinformation to be spread.

Conspiracy theories: they run as far back as the Salem witch trials and we bump into them quite often now a days on social media. But sometimes separating fact from fiction isn’t easy, and perhaps even more difficult is helping a loved one sort out a belief which lacks backing. So how do we identify conspiracy theories and combat them?

University at Buffalo Professor Emeritus Phil Stevens knows a thing or two about this tricky cultural phenomenon and how we can have productive conversations about these theories.

MAIN TAKEAWAYS:

  • Conspiracy theories might be an interesting conversation topic, but they can be quite dangerous.
  • Intelligent people can believe in conspiracy theories. Trying to draw a link between intelligence and a belief in conspiracy theories isn't productive, Stevens claims.
  • Conspiracy theories can be rooted in or contain elements of real events, which is part of what makes them feel more realistic.
  • Conspiracy theories originate out of a human fear of the "other" or someone/something different from us. Stressful events or situations often elevate these fears which drive people to create theories.
  • Critical thinking is key to identifying and combatting conspiracy theories. Stevens argues that when we critically evaluate the claims at hand, and what would go into those claims actually being true, they often fall apart.
  • To help your loved one understand that what they are believing might be a conspiracy theory, non-judgmentally walk through the belief with them and help them critically evaluate the elements and what would have to happen for these elements to be true.
FACT OR FICTION? How to identify and combat conspiracy theories
WBFO's Emyle Watkins talks with University at Buffalo's Phil Stevens on Morning Edition about the dangers of conspiracy theories and how to talk with loved ones about them.

FULL TRANSCRIPT:
The audio interview was edited for clarity and time. This transcript may include longer quotes or Stevens' full answers.

EMYLE: Hi Phil, thank you for joining us on Morning Edition. To start, could you tell us a little bit about your background and how you became interested in the topic of conspiracy theories?

PHIL: I'm a cultural anthropologist, and I got interested in human behavior, across culturally and really, ultimately, human behavior. Anthropologists are interested in ethnology: the cross cultural study of humanity. And among the many phenomena that we find are in human cultures all over the world are the beliefs that there are potentially dangerous “others” outsiders, they may be supernatural, or they may be other groups of people, who are of potential or real danger to us. And people, all over the world, have such fears of "others." And during times of social stress, social anxiety, rapid social change, such fears coalesce into theories of what those "others" are doing.

EMYLE: What dangers do you feel conspiracy theories present or what dangers historically have they presented?

PHIL: We have some evidence that these conspiracies are in fact causing people to behave not just irresponsibly, but dangerously. On one hand, our democratic process, which is the result of more than 200 years of political manipulating, right? Is in danger, but also possibly human lives are in danger.

EMYLE: I understand that sometimes conspiracy theories are rooted in real events to make them feel more realistic. How can we identify conspiracy theories and separate fact from fiction?

PHIL: We have to look at the epic claim, look at the presumption and say, "OK, in order for this to be true, what else needs to happen? What other structures need to be in place for for this?" And when you start asking that kind of question, many of the of the elaborate conspiracy theories we hear about start to fall apart.

EMYLE: I know sometimes a tricky conversation to have can be when a friend or loved one shares a conspiracy theory, and we might be able to identify it as such, but they don't. So how would you approach that conversation?

PHIL: I would try to examine the belief and ask that question, "what else is going on?" and talk in a conversational way.

There's a tendency to criticize people who think differently from yourself. There is a tendency to want to invoke words like intelligence.

Intelligent people can believe in conspiracies. As I suggested, that kind of thinking is universal, it's fundamentally human.

EMYLE: I really appreciate you making the time to speak with me, so thank you so much

PHIL: You’re very welcome.