How To Help People You Love When They Fall Down The Conspiracy Theory Rabbit Hole

It's more common than you think.

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The term ‘conspiracy theory’ used to conjure images of men typing frantically in their mother’s spare room while wearing a tinfoil hat. Or a laugh as you discussed the possibilities of aliens roaming around a military base in America. For the most part among our own social circles, they can seem like harmless silly rumours you chat to your friends with over pints.

For example, for a long time, I tried to start one that Australia wasn’t real! Margot Robbie and Chris Hemsworth were simply pretending to be from this wild unknown land. Unfortunately, half of my friend group upping sticks to live Down Under brought a swift end to that attempt at a theory.

Now more than ever though, conspiracies have a much darker face with groups of ‘like-minded’ people holding protests in cities around the globe and sharing dangerous points of view on the internet. When did conspiracy theories go from being silly ideas to dangerous ideologies that put not only the believer but those around them at risk? And when did they suddenly become a mainstream part of everyday life?

Aoife Gallagher, author of Web of Lies and Senior Analyst with the Institute of Strategic Dialogue, puts it simply: people are looking for comfort when it comes to conspiracy theories. They want answers to questions that are unanswerable.

“Experts have concluded that people embrace this kind of thinking because there is a physiological need that isn’t being met,” she explains. “These tend to be the need to be safe and secure in the world, the need to be confident that you know what’s going on in the world and the need to feel good about yourself in your social circle.”

It won’t come as a surprise that lockdown and covid led many people down the rabbit hole. “The pandemic is when people really started to realise that people were falling for this stuff. Think back to the start of the pandemic when no one knew what was going on and were locked in their home. We only had the internet for entertainment in a lot of ways. When people were served up conspirational explanations for the pandemic it gave people a sense of purpose.

“It gave them an answer to why everything was going on when there were no answers. It gave people a sense of comfort. That nice, neat narrative that it wasn’t a deadly virus it was a part of a global plot and there’s something to fight back against, gave people purpose.” The way the social media targets users plays a huge factor. For example, you might like a post that isn’t strictly a conspiracy theory, but it is misinformation.

Once you do that, you will get served more posts just like that. More misinformation, more conspiracies, until your newsfeed is just filled with conspiracies that get more and more dangerous. “Most social media platform feeds you the content that you engage with and the content that keeps your eyes on your screen. That mechanism of social media is a supercharge of that rabbit hole. It pushes people into usually more extreme beliefs. And the internet also provides a community and purpose.

“People could have been becoming more isolated from their family and friends because of their beliefs and were joining these chats. They found a tribe of people to reinforce this belief system. This is a really powerful way to get people involved in a movement.”

Aoife’s quick to point out that our idea of who believes in conspiracies might not be accurate. Anyone is susceptible to these theories. “It’s just the way our brains work. Everyone believes in them to some extent but they fall along a spectrum. There are funny ones that don’t do any harm and then you get to the other side of the spectrum where if you believe the covid vaccine is going to kill you, then you could end up catching covid and getting really sick,” she adds.

If you believe that a pub might be watering down drinks to make a profit then that’s a conspiracy. Just because that isn’t dangerous, it’s still an example of “conspiratorial thinking”.

So, how does one fall down the rabbit hole?

“The harmful conspiracies are really good at playing on people’s biases. Either subconscious ones or the way people see the world. They will often point to the government lying to you, the media lying to you or pharmaceutical companies lying to you. None of these organisations are perfect; politicians do lie, news organisations do get it wrong and pharmaceutical companies do engage in unethical marketing practices. So conspiracy theorists are really good at holding onto that grain of truth to twist it into something that is unrecognisable. That grain of truth is something people really hold onto.”

There is a combination of factors, Aoife adds: “People are looking for answers and meaning that they have lost somewhere in their lives. And if that is coupled with that distrust of institutions, these conspiracy theories are very good at giving people that purpose that maybe they lost at some point in their life. When you get into that level of conspiratorial thinking and that mindset, then they start to snowball. A lot of the themes of conspiracy are the same.

“The people who are blamed for the way the world is are all the same. So as soon as you believe in one, you’re likely to believe in more than one.” Just like any other part of the internet, there are conspiracy ‘influencers’ who sit in front of a camera and spew conspiracies for people to eat up.

“Everyone who is an ‘influencer’ in this conspiracy space is either selling something on the side or is trying to pull in donations. They make a shitload of money! They market themselves as fighting for the truth and that they’re not tied to any organisations. They are doing this because they love it,” Aoife adds.

Conspiracy theories were once confined to one part of the internet – think website 4Chan and conspiracy group QAnon. But now the internet is morphing and changing. “Everyone is bound to come across at least some misinformation on social media, especially on TikTok where you don’t get to choose what you see. If you look at Instagram and Twitter which have changed their feed, it has accounts that are pushed in there that you don’t follow. As social media starts relying on the algorithm rather than just accounts you follow, I think conspiracy theories are going to become an increasingly large part of social media,” Aoife states.

How do you help people who have fallen into the conspiracy rabbit hole?

Aoife shares her advice: 

  • If you have a person who is falling into dangerous conspiracies, try to keep them in your life. I know it’s not always possible. But keep some line of communication open because if they do want to come back to reality they’ll want to have people who they can reach out to. 
  • If you want to help people come out of the rabbit hole, don’t do the things you think you should do. Don’t send them information or fact-checking articles. They’ll just reject that. You have to approach it with a whole lot of empathy and a lot of understanding. You have to figure out what they get from conspiracy theories and what initially pulled them down the rabbit hole. It’s a really long process, it can’t happen overnight, it probably won’t happen over a couple of months. It is one of those things where you need a lot of empathy and trust. 
  • On the preventative side, we need more social media regulation. There are first steps happening. That will hopefully get social media to enforce the policies they have. 
  • We need more media literacy and digital literacy, which teaches people how the online world works and how journalism works. This will help people see how journalism works and what goes into reporting a news story. People need to question sources and to be empowered in knowing what real information is.

This article first appeared in the October 2023 issue of STELLAR magazine.