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On Conspiracy Theories with Professor Karen Douglas

Professor Karen Douglas is a professor of social psychology at the University of Kent, UK. She has studied the psychology of conspiracy theories: what causes them, how they spread and how it affects our perception of society. Her research has been widely covered across various news platforms such as The Conversation, CNN, The Huffington Post etc.

At CitizenTech, we interviewed Professor Douglas about the prevalence of conspiracy theories during COVID-19. We asked her about the role of technology in conspiracy theories, and the way forward to combatting such fake news.

  • How have technology and social media affected the nature and spread of conspiracy theories?

Conspiracy theories have always been with us and there isn't a lot of evidence to suggest that they are on the rise purely because of social media. However, it is the case that amongst some communities, belief in conspiracy theories might become stronger because of social media.

The relationship between social media and conspiracy theories is quite complex but social media/the internet are definitely the main way that conspiracy theories spread. It's just that they typically influence a certain type of audience who is already inclined toward conspiracy explanations.

  • Why do people believe conspiracy theories over logic and science? During the pandemic, why did the prevalence and trust in conspiracy theories increase so rapidly?

Research suggests that people are attracted to conspiracy theories when one or more psychological needs are frustrated. The first of these needs are epistemic, related to the need to know the truth and have clarity and certainty. The other needs are existential, which are related to the need to feel safe and to have some control over things that are happening around us, and social, which are related to the need to maintain our self-esteem and feel positive about the groups that we belong to. People might be attracted to conspiracy theories to try to satisfy these needs.

This perspective essentially means that anyone can fall prey to conspiracy theories if they have psychological needs that are not being met at any particular time. This is perhaps one explanation why we seem to be seeing a lot of conspiracy theories about COVID-19. People are scared and uncertain about the pandemic and are looking for ways to cope with the uncertainty, insecurity, and loss of social contact. Indeed, conspiracy theories do seem to thrive in times of crisis.

  • During the COVID pandemic, how did conspiracy theories affect safety regulations like vaccines and masks? More broadly, how did the massive number of conspiracy theories spread affect the response that people had to the pandemic? What types of conspiracy theories were more likely to be popularly spread and believed more than others?

I think you will find some answers in this paper. There were a lot of negative outcomes of COVID-19 conspiracy theories and studies on this topic are still being published.

  • What is the best way to combat conspiracy theories? How do we convince conspiracy theorists of the truth?

In conversations with people who believe in conspiracy theories, it is important to remember that these people can feel quite confused, worried, and alienated. In a conversation with them, it would not be constructive to be hostile, or behave in a way that ridicules them. This dismisses their views and might alienate them even further. It is therefore important to keep calm and listen.

Another thing to bear in mind is that strong conspiracy believers will have "done their homework"; that is, they usually know a lot more about the topic than other people do. So, when you get into a conversation with someone who believes strongly in a conspiracy theory, it is quite difficult to change their mind, or even to keep up with the discussion, because they are always one step ahead.

However, I think that one useful strategy would be to appeal to the value of critical thinking. Many conspiracy believers also believe that they are critical thinkers who are trying to uncover the truth whereas others are still in the dark, or are "sheep" who believe everything they are told. One strategy therefore might be to appeal to this value and ask the conspiracy believer to critically think about their information: Where did it come from? Who said it? Is this information reliable? This might uncover flaws in the conspiracy theory and you might be able to challenge them this way. Critically appraising information sources will of course also help people from adopting conspiracy theories in the first place.

On a larger scale, there are also some interesting methods based on the principle of inoculation that you might be interested to look up. Sander van der Linden at Cambridge University is pioneering some realistic games to combat the spread of fake news.

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