does tough love really subdue real world conspiracy theories?

A new experiment shows that ridicule as almost as effective as debunking when it comes to dissuading people from falling for conspiracy theories.
Illustration by Victor Zastolskiy

After years of being told that people will cling to conspiracy theories and whatever they want to believe, especially if you confront them with facts to the contrary, and an anecdotal experience in the responses to my Pizzagate post seemingly proving that point, a new paper from Hungary claims that a little rough debunking actually tends to lower beliefs in conspiracies for at least a limited amount of time. Unlike many other studies which tended to pick summaries of existing conspiracy theories or make up their own in a few bullet points to be presented to research subjects, this team exposed its participants to some very common and real anti-Semitic theories floating in Eastern and Central Europe and in line with Alex Jones’ rants about all the evil “globalists” pulling the strings of politics and commerce, and used three different approaches to dispel them with curious results.

Basically, after giving participants a rundown of how Jews and the EU are a menace to Hungarians with their evil machinations, the researchers tried to debunk the theories by either appealing to empathy for the groups targeted, a merciless fact check line item by line item, and a stream of ridicule for all those who seriously believe what they just heard. Empathy didn’t work, but line by line refutations and ridicule actually made a noticeable dent when comparing how the subjects scored on a standard questionnaire designed to measure agreement with conspiracy theories, modified slightly to include a few more Hungary-focused questions. Empathetic appeals dropped scores by just 1.25 points, ridicule by almost 3 points, and rational fact checking by 3.5 points. Giving a control group a weather forecast to listen to instead made pretty much no difference at all, as one would expect. These were not huge dips, fewer than 10% of their pre-test scores, but they do show that trying to present the fact did chip away at their certainty.

Of course this study is far from definitive and its authors go out of their way to warn readers about its limitations. They only measured initial reactions to their attempts to debunk the theories, they do not know whether the effects lasted, all they can say is that a factual debunking really works in the short term, as does ridiculing the believers as irrational because frankly, no one is okay with being associated with irrational people who jump to conclusions, especially conspiracy theorists who usually tend to think of themselves as an incisive bunch. The authors don’t suggest just being hostile to theorists for a pretty obvious reason, but they are hopeful that their research shows that a steady stream of facts that tackle conspiracy theories head on can work, and considering the dire situation with the quality of news we have today, many skeptics should also be hopeful others can replicate their findings. After the extended shit show of this thankfully waning year, we could use some news and at least a little reason to be optimistic for the immediate future…

# oddities // research / skepticism

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