While online debate is far from a new concept, the rise of social media and widespread impact of a global pandemic has sparked a surge of posts across the web.
Among these, many people are sharing their own takes on current events – sometimes disagreeing with public accounts of events or even suggesting a global conspiracy.
But it can be difficult to know how exactly to approach these conversations without starting an argument or descending into a difficult situation.
UK charity Sense About Science has released a five-point guide to talking about Covid conspiracy and understanding both sides of the debate.
1. Find out their beliefs
The charity says Covid conspiracy theories tend to be “irrefutable”, with a lack of evidence to disprove them.
But with Covid, many people sit in a “grey zone” where they may not fully believe it, but want to share it to provoke a reaction or discussion.
It recommends finding out what people have been watching or reading, and asking what they’re also interested in learning about to plug gaps in their knowledge, rather than shutting down their curiosity altogether.
2. Don’t over-reach
Sense About Science says it can be tricky to find sources people can trust – with many theories “driven by feelings of injustice, resentment and cynicism”.
It said: “If anything, ridiculing conspiracy theorists only confirms their suspicion that everyone is being brainwashed.”
We’re advised not to argue every fine detail for “point scoring”, but take discussions away from public pages and ask if they want to hear your side of the story.
3. Understand the need for theories
The charity says believing in conspiracies can help people who feel anxious about a loss of control, who want to “feel unique” – that they have “seen through the lies” – or want to belong to a wider community.
It suggests bonding over common ground, such as scepticism about official explanations, and looking together at where the gaps in knowledge lie.
4. Know the difference between conspiracies and theories
While conspiracies and cover-ups do exist in the real world, they are few and far between, often involving very small numbers of people.
Sense About Science recommends having discussions about the implications of these theories – who would need to be involved in covering it up, and what would the benefits be?
5. Encourage scepticism
The charity said conspiracy theorists often “pride themselves” on being suspicious about everything – and you could encourage them to be sceptical about their own sources.
It recommends being even-handed – criticising both sides of the debate equally – and looking at the techniques used to distract or disguise from holes in logic.
The guide says: “Conflicting results from medical research early in the pandemic were to be expected.
“Some findings turned out to be important and were then confirmed, but others gave false leads, and were dropped as scientists gained better understanding of Covid and vaccines.”
The full guide can be downloaded from the Sense About Science website.
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