Help! My Friends Are Conspiracy Theorists
How to cope with losing people you care about to COVID conspiracies
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“It all started when he casually dropped into conversation that he wasn’t planning on getting the COVID vaccine because he’s ‘not an idiot’,” Emma* tells me. Emma’s brother has become consumed with conspiracy theories circulating on social media surrounding the Coronavirus Pandemic in the last 6 months. Putting an intense strain on their once-close relationship, Emma explains that she’s worried the damage that’s currently being done to their relationship will be irreversible as she can’t understand how her little brother could be so ‘selfish’. “‘But, what about Mam and Dad?’ I told him, ‘And what about Nanny? You’re putting everyone else at risk by not getting a vaccine’ I wanted to challenge him and I was convinced that he would see sense and change his mind, but he hasn’t,” Emma continues.
In the wake of the pandemic, some months after the initial hysteria wore off, panic subsided and made way for misinformation to begin to harvest. It’s hard to wander through your social media feed without threading on a conspiracy theory these days and as time marches on and patience wears thinner, the dumpster fire of paranoia blazes bigger.
But buying into these theories isn’t something that happens overnight, conspiracies as dangerous as those surrounding the pandemic prey on the vulnerable, mental health professional Tara Quinn-Cirillo explains. It’s a set of beliefs, albeit radical, that seek to bring control and logic to a situation that’s entirely unprecedented, “The pandemic thrust us into a new way of living virtually overnight” Tara begins. “Adverse situations such as this can create anxiety and uncertainty. And so it’s a common phenomenon that people will try and regain control over situations where they feel threatened or uncertain. Uncertainty and lack of control are certainly predisposing factors to believing in conspiracy theories.”
For Emma, she says her brother’s radicalisation was a slow one and she believes that social media is the catalyst for his new views.“I had no idea my brother believed any of that stuff,” she tells me.
“He just casually mentioned that he wasn’t planning on getting the vaccine during a conversation one day.”
“We’re not friends on Facebook and I rarely use it anyway but I decided to look on his page to see what sort of stuff he was putting out on there and if it lined up with what he was telling me and there it all was. Post after post about why the virus isn’t real, how the government is duping us, and why we need to take back control. I was shocked. The thing about my brother is that he’s really quiet. He was always that way and it takes a lot for him to open up, so he doesn’t shove his theories down the throats of the people he lives with, but that also makes the situation even more frustrating because he isn’t open to any conversation with me where I could maybe change his mind.”
Conspiracy theories as a subject are nothing new to us, we’ve been surrounded by them our whole lives, Elvis isn’t dead and Avril Lavigne was replaced by a clone called Melissa, they’re nothing more than anecdotes to flex your pop culture knowledge during the latter hours of a house party. So what is it about conspiracy theories that feels so overwhelming right now? The answer is simple, they’re posing a direct threat to us. Avril Lavigne’s clone has little impact on our personal lives, but someone refusing to wear a face covering, resulting in the further spread of a killer virus, well, that does have an impact.
At best someone occupying their time researching reasons why the pandemic is fake is wasting their time, but at worst it’s spreading misinformation that goes on to spark hate speech, resulting in the Asian community facing racial abuse, along with the unnecessary loss of lives ignorance towards containing a virus brings to a nation.
Up and down the country COVID related conspiracy theories have penetrated many friendship groups as the pandemic surges on. Chatting about how conspiracies have infiltrated his own close circle, Eoin* 24, tells me how shocked he is to see some of his friends who he considered intelligent and ‘politically clued in’ fall victim to conspiracies “If you told me a year ago that some of my friends would believe the bullshit they read online about the virus being planned etc I would have never believed you. But now, over a year into things a number of my friends have totally changed their minds on the situation and it’s scary to see,” he begins.
Eoin says that in the beginning he and all his friends handled the pandemic responsibly, however he feels that the prolonged restrictions of living through a pandemic were the cause of their attitudes shifting.
“At first, every single person I knew took it seriously, but then as time went on and the ‘novelty wore off I noticed more people breaching restriction rules and blatantly showing no regard towards the wellbeing of others.”
“I think as humans we’re programmed to be selfish, and some of my friends obviously feel that taking the pandemic seriously is ‘wasting their youth’. So now it’s convenient for them to justify their selfish actions by convincing themselves and others that the pandemic isn’t real.”
Tara explains that although it’s damaging, this behaviour is in fact normal and sheds light as to why the number of ‘Covid-deniers’ is growing rapidly the further into living with the pandemic we go, “Many have ‘covid fatigue’ after a year of restrictions on the way we live our lives and socialise with others. As a result, we may be more susceptible to certain types of information as our ability to weigh up and objectively look at information may be compromised due to fatigue and also desire to ‘live life again’ and ‘get back out there’.”
If your relationship with someone you care for has been damaged by the dangerous discourse spreading online, it’s sadly clear to see you’re not the only one. However, knowing you’re not alone does little to help you in situations where your WhatsApp group chat is hopping with people sending dodgy YouTube videos about microchips.
So, what can we actually do in that situation? Remain calm, says Tara. “Talk to friends and loved ones about your beliefs in general and feel able to perhaps have conversations about what may draw people to conspiracy theories. It’s important not to ‘enable’ conspiracy theories or minimise those that may behave in unlawful ways as a result of believing in them.” Tara adds that where you feel it’s necessary or appropriate you can direct them to trusted and reputable sources for information on COVID 19.
Tara does warn however that no matter how hard you try to convince them otherwise, you may not change other people’s opinions, and it’s important to put your own sanity and mental health first if that is the case. “Remember that your wellbeing is of importance. Make sure you don’t become fatigued or overwhelmed by what you are reading or in efforts to ‘change people’s thinking’. It can be healthy to set limits on your news, media and social media time which is good for your psychological wellbeing in general.” As we know, Rome wasn’t built in a day and you can’t change the minds of people overnight either. But with time, we may be able to pull the ones we love from the echo chambers they’re trapped in, placing them once again beside us, on the right side of history.
*Names have been changed.
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