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NewsLit Week | Use ‘PEP’ to talk to conspiracy believers


John Silva

John Silva, NBCT

Senior Director of Education and Training

In Texas, an air conditioning repairman is run off the road and assaulted by a former police captain trying to find forged presidential election ballots. Closer to home, you learn your cousin is convinced of widespread voter fraud. A suicide bomber detonates a massive explosion in downtown Nashville, possibly targeting the AT&T building over 5G technology paranoia.

Meanwhile, your college roommate frequently posts about 5G causing coronavirus. A Wisconsin pharmacist is accused of deliberately ruining doses of the COVID-19 vaccine because he believed it would alter human DNA; your spouse is worried the vaccine contains a microchip.

Conspiratorial beliefs are seemingly everywhere, and they’re being shared by friends, family and loved ones.

Talking to conspiracy believers

You might be struggling with how to talk to these otherwise rational people about obviously irrational beliefs — and you’re not alone. According to the Pew Research Center, 71% of U.S. adults have heard one or more conspiracy theories about the coronavirus outbreak and 25% see at least some truth in them. You may feel like there’s nothing you can say or do to persuade friends or family from beliefs like these that are thoroughly and credibly proven false. You might feel too discouraged to even try, but you’re not powerless to confront this.

Addressing a person with entrenched false beliefs requires what I call an ongoing “PEP” talk – an approach based on patience, empathy and persistence. It’s more than just one difficult conversation. You’ll need to understand the feelings and emotions that motivate people to dive deeper into these false narratives. You’ll have to recognize that these are genuine beliefs that “feel” true to the people who share them. Do not criticize or attack. This causes a “backfire effect,” making the person reject contradictory information and hold tighter to anything that reinforces their belief.  You need a base level of respect and a genuine desire to commit to a shared set of facts to succeed.

Start with patience, then empathy

The person you care about did not develop these beliefs overnight. Your friend or relative may have joined an online community of believers and soon become immersed in their echo chamber.  You must listen to how and why they formed their beliefs and understand the sources of their information. This can be frustrating. Take a deep breath and pause before getting angry and shutting down any conversation.

Confronting someone to tell them they may be wrong about something they firmly believe in is uncomfortable – for both sides involved. That’s why empathy is so important. Respect that this person genuinely believes their thinking is accurate and recognize how they arrived at it.  Many had fears and anxieties that they sought to alleviate, leading them to these new beliefs. This likely led to conflicting and contradictory ideas and cognitive dissonance, a form of psychological and emotional stress created by those conflicted feelings. They engaged in motivated reasoning, or the active searching for any and all information that reinforces the belief and eases the stress. The belief was reinforced in their new community and eventually became part of their identity, making it significantly more difficult to dissuade them. Understanding this will help you to be empathetic about their feelings.

Be persistent

Finally, use persistence. Regularly share new, verified information in a way that encourages the person to evaluate that information for themselves and to begin questioning their existing beliefs. Ask them, politely, to read new articles, consider new sources and tell you what they think. Express your feelings about their sources as skepticism, not outright rejection, and ask them to explain how and why they trust them. Using their criteria for a trustworthy source, share more reputable sources that might meet them and discuss why you trust them. Make this a dialogue, focusing on sharing ideas, beliefs and information.

Resolve to not give up on your friend or relative. Consider including other friends or loved ones who share your approach. The News Literacy Project has created a new Checkology® lesson to help people understand how conspiratorial thinking works; be sure to share it. Try to keep an the conversation going, without pestering. The goal is to ensure that your friend or relative gradually will accept your guidance and recognize your effort is out of love, respect and friendship, not derision and mockery.

Many of us are dealing with deep rifts among friends, family and loved ones, which are only likely to expand with persistent conspiracy theories, like recent false claims about COVID-19 vaccines. We can stop this from tearing us apart, if we devote the effort to trying. That’s at least one thing we can all agree on.

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