• The novel coronavirus brought with it a flood of conspiracy theories.
  • When the future looks uncertain, or people feel a lack of control, they turn to conspiracy theories to make sense of what is going on in the world.
  • Experts say it's always better to get to the root of the problem of how they feel than it is to try and debunk specific theories.
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With so many unknowns about Covid-19, there are plenty of conspiracy theories circulating. There are so many floating around the internet that the World Health Organisation has declared an "infodemic" of false information about the virus.

While conspiracy theories have always existed, social media means baseless, and even harmful, conjecture can reach millions of people in seconds before it can be vetted or censored.

In response, fact-checking site Snopes has created a special collection of Covid-19 conspiracy theories, and the evidence that disputes them. Wikipedia has created a special team of 150 editors with health and science expertise carefully watching for people adding conspiracy theories to the online encyclopedia.

But many of us feel a responsibility to add in another layer of fact-checking when those conversations take place offline among family members. It can be complicated to shut down conspiracy theories, especially if you're quarantining with someone that believes them.

Here are some tips on how to push back on conspiracy theories your family is sharing.

People turn to conspiracy theories to explain what's going in uncertain times

Throughout history, people have turned to conspiracy theories in times of great uncertainty and stress. Belief in conspiracy theories is fueled by "a lack of certainty and a loss of control," says Joanne Miller, associate professor of the University of Delaware, who's studied conspiracy theories.

"Clearly during a pandemic many of us are facing uncertainties about our jobs, our kids, school, everything, and it's only natural for us to try to explain the event."

People turn to conspiracy theories to explain what's going on.

"Believing that the coronavirus is being spread by 5G towers actually gives us a little bit of control because there's something to fight against," said Miller. "Having a villain is more comforting than saying this is a naturally occurring virus that is spreading, and we don't know how to stop it."

But believing conspiracy theories has a cost.

One doctor treating Covid-19 patients told NBC News dealing with conspiracy theorists who believe the effects of Covid-19 have been exaggerated by the media is the "second most painful thing I've had to deal with, other than separation of families from their loved one."

The first thing to do is think about where the conspiracy theory is coming from

"When talking to friends and family member, you should always try to first understand the root of what they believe," therapist Weena Cullins told Insider. "People are scared. And conspiracy theories are usually motivated by fear."

Try to shift the conversation to the root of the issue instead of the details of the conspiracy. "Talk about their fears and concerns instead of getting into the finer details that neither will agree on," said Cullins.

Then consider who is sharing the theory. "Think about is this somebody who has functioned in the family as a kind of bully or an antagonist, or is it someone just sharing something they saw online," psychotherapist Matt Lundquist, of Tribeca Therapy, told Insider. "I urge people to start by being suspicious and to say wait a minute, are we talking about an issue or is this person looking for a fight."

If it is the former type of person, Lundquist says it is best not to engage at all. "You can say, we're better off not talking about politics and cut it off," he said. "If somebody thinks that a bunch of global public health officials are involved in some big conspiracy, you're not going to have a reasonable conversation with that person."

Ask for explicit consent when engaging in a discussion

If it is someone you have a loving relationship with, Lundquist says the first thing you need to do is ask for explicit consent.

You can say something like, "you're mentioning something that may not be true. Are you open to me sharing an opposing viewpoint that might bring some clarity to the issue?" Then the other person has to decide if they want to engage in the conversation.

If they agree to a conversation, start by asking for more facts. "Ask your loved one, what steps can you take to get more evidence to support the claims that you're putting out there," suggests Cullins.

Think about your sources

"It's important to understand that we are living in a moment in history where credible, well sourced facts in scientific research or news reports are not meaningful to lots of people," said Lundquist. That means it isn't enough to credibly debunk a conspiracy theory; you have to use sources that the person you're talking to won't reject.

In fact, Miller says that if, for example, you are talking to whose beliefs align more with the Republican party, it is better to reference conservative outlets' debunking of a conspiracy theory, rather than an outlet which they may distrust entirely.

"Research has shown that if the debunking comes from an unlikely source in that partisan way, it can be more effective," said Miller. "Don't cite sources that people don't trust."

Your tune should be calm and removed

"What we know doesn't work is ridicule," said Miller. "Ridicule only pushes people into further and further into an information bubble with people like them."

She recommends fact-based arguments instead, and for people to never use the term conspiracy theory in a discussion, because it's seen as insulting.

"When talking to someone you love, the tone should be a kind of loving curiosity," said Lundquist. "If it's somebody who is taking a more 'I know the truth' posture I think a more intellectual tone is the way to go."

"The golden rule is absolutely at play here," said Cullins. "Speak to others the way you want to be spoken to. And no matter how out there you believe their theories are, you have to treat them the way you would want someone to treat you in a conversation."

If you find you're going in circles, it's time to end the conversation

Lundquist has a "rule of threes."

The first time you try to discuss something, you can give a medium-to-long version of your spiel, said with generosity and backed up with facts. The second time you discuss it, you give them the shorter version of that and encourage people to take a second look at the facts. The third time, acknowledge you may not be on the same page and let it go.

"There's a certain point where if you keep trying to convince a crazy person that they're crazy, you become the crazy person," said Lundquist. "If your heart rate is starting to rise, if you're starting to get angry and worked up, it's time to stop."

You aren't obligated to debunk every conspiracy theory

Miller recently collected some data, in which 3,000 American adults were asked about 11 different Covid-19 conspiracy theories. Miller found that people who believed in one conspiracy theory were likely to believe in four or five more, and that these conspiracy theories fit into an overall belief system.

"That means debunking any individual conspiracy isn't likely to be all that effective for people for whom this whole belief system is serving as a response to the lack of control," said Miller. "It's like playing whack-a-mole, where you try to knock down one but then another one pops up."

What that means is that sometimes debunking conspiracy theories isn't useful, or helpful, and what might be more useful is preserving your mental health.

"It's okay if you don't really have the capacity to debate this at all," said Lundquist. "Live to fight another day, choose a different battle."

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