Writing in The Atlantic late last month, the political scientists Joseph E. Uscinski and Adam M. Enders observed that the coronavirus has created an environment dangerously conducive to conspiracy theories. “We have a global pandemic, a crashing economy, social isolation, and restrictive government policies,” they wrote. “All of these can cause feelings of extreme anxiety, powerlessness, and stress, which in turn encourage conspiracy beliefs.”
This past week, a widely discredited video—a 26-minute clip from a slickly produced documentary called Plandemic—circulated online. It promotes a number of harmful and false ideas, including that wearing a protective mask can make people sick and that the novel coronavirus most likely emerged from a laboratory. (Facebook, YouTube, and other companies are trying to scrub it from their platforms.)
If someone you care about sends you a link to this video—or any piece of media that pushes a conspiracy theory about the pandemic—how should you respond? I put that question to experts on conspiracy thinking, public-health risk communication, and psychology, and their responses converged on some basic guidelines.
Uscinski, a professor at the University of Miami and a co-author of American Conspiracy Theories, made an important preliminary distinction: Some people are sharing links to videos like Plandemic because they are curious and uncertain about the claims being made, but others are doing so because they’re already deeply convinced. If you know someone is a “true believer,” to use Uscinski’s term, you probably can’t do much to sway them. You’ll have a better chance of getting through to the curious and the uncertain.