Did any conspiracy theories have any credibility?

Corona pandemicWhen the parents suddenly believe in conspiracy theories

The pandemic is the hour of conspiracy tales. Her best friend shares it on Facebook. The own father sends a YouTube video that warns of allegedly sinister ulterior motives of the government. Old friends install the Telegram messenger app and join groups in which new myths about the corona virus are constantly being thrown into the world. What happened to these people you thought you knew?

The explanations for the corona pandemic that are circulating on the net are at least adventurous. It is said that the billionaire Bill Gates is behind the virus. He is following a secret plan to implant a microchip into all of humanity through vaccinations. Some also want to establish a connection with cell phone radiation, which weakens the immune system.

Alleged evidence that conspiracy ideologues provide for their claims are based on misunderstandings or are simply made up. That thousands of people now believe it anyway seems downright ridiculous. The pandemic is accompanied by an "infodemic", as the World Health Organization called it. But the situation is serious. Because the myths are not only a threat to health, but also to the social environment of those affected.

The number of believers in conspiracies is growing rapidly

The Sekten-Info NRW association primarily looks after relatives of people who have joined so-called sects, but also deals with those who believe in conspiracies. According to his own information, he counted 40 cases in the past year. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, head Sabine Riede has complained of a rapid increase. In the meantime, she and her colleagues were receiving requests for help on a daily basis. In the past, younger people in particular would have attached conspiracy stories. Today, relatives who were worried about their parents, who are well over 60, often got in touch.

Giulia Silberberger, who clarifies conspiracy ideologies with her organization “Der goldene Aluhut”, reports something similar. Six more requests for advice were received overnight, she told netzpolitik.org at the beginning of May.

"I just hear from every nook and cranny that people are suddenly turning to content that they have never shared before," says the psychologist Pia Lamberty, who researches conspiracy ideologies at the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz. She has written a book on the subject that will appear on Friday (“Fake Facts: How Conspiracy Theories Determine Our Thinking”, together with Katharina Nocun). The phenomenon leaves relatives of conspiracy believers at a loss. "There is still a lot of uncertainty about how to deal with the issue."

Family members need to realize just how great the threat the myths pose. In order to help friends or family members, they should understand what makes them suddenly believe the strangest things.

A worldwide phenomenon

The “Mitte study” by the SPD-affiliated Friedrich Ebert Foundation last year, in which Pia Lamberty was also involved, showed that 46 percent of the German population believe that there are secret organizations that influence political decisions . That suggests great potential for conspiracy myths in society.

A problem that is now taking on new dimensions because it obviously affects many people who have never before been noticed in such a context. People who do not socialize in the circles in which such stories usually spread.

It's no longer about people who spend hours in dubious sub-forums on Reddit. Due to the pandemic, the coronavirus content is spreading virally on Facebook or YouTube, en masse. Some platforms delete them, but can hardly keep up. Then their distribution shifts to the messenger service Telegram, for example, which just seems to be gaining many new users and is giving free rein to the hustle and bustle.

Even those who are not active on social media get wind of the supposed conspiracies surrounding the coronavirus. The pedagogue Sabine Riede from the sect counseling tells of older people who came into contact with conspiracy stories in telephone conversations, through friends who want to have heard something somewhere. “And then you go on the Internet yourself and have a look.

A super conspiracy myth goes mainstream

The dimensions that this phenomenon has reached these days are new for Germany. A look at the USA shows the serious consequences this development could have. Conspiracy stories widespread on the internet have already found their way into the mainstream there, in the form of QAnon, a kind of super conspiracy myth.

It is about alleged insiders in military intelligence, Satanism or a "state within the state", mixed with many other stories. QAnon has its origins among supporters: inside of US President Donald Trump. Since 2017, conspiracy believers have appeared in droves at his election campaign events.

American conspiracy narrative researcher Mike Rothschild has been watching QAnon from the beginning. Now he sees clear overlaps between the movement and the crude myths surrounding the corona virus. “QAnon was initially found in the worst corners of the internet. But then the baby boomer generation came across it and shared this content on Facebook. ”According to Rothschild, large QAnon groups are now spreading the lies about the coronavirus. Sometimes they can also be found in an alleged educational video called "Plandemic", which has just gone viral in English-speaking countries.

A strategy for overcoming fears

The insecurity that many people feel in the current situation plays a decisive role. The corona virus triggers a severe economic crisis, livelihoods are threatened. A danger that creates great fear, understandably. "We cannot control the virus, it controls us," says Giulia Silberberger from the "Golden Aluhut". "For many, it's now about regaining the feeling of control."

For some, the conspiracy narratives serve to make this invisible threat tangible. According to the psychologist Lamberty, crises are a typical trigger for people to slide into such worlds. They suspected major causes behind major events; they sometimes look for someone to blame.

Often it is about supposed secret knowledge: You think you have seen through what is really going on, while everyone else is blind. This reduces the impression of powerlessness and increases self-esteem. "We notice that people are more vulnerable who are fearful themselves," says Sabine Riede.

According to the experts, there is often a history. For example a penchant for alternative healing methods such as homeopathy or massive reservations about vaccinations. Signs of a worrying development that is only just getting underway.

Clear parallels to joining a so-called sect

Much of what happens to those affected is reminiscent of joining a so-called sect. "It starts similarly," says Giulia Silberberger, who herself was with Jehovah's Witnesses for years until she managed to get out. “Sects preach outside, conspiracy ideologues online. And people who are in emotional distress jump on it. ”In such an environment one tends to simply ignore disturbing elements of reality and believe things that are completely contradictory.

As with so-called sects, conspiracy ideologies reduce complex issues to simple explanations. Tolerance for dissenting opinions is dwindling, says Sabine Riede from Sekten-Info NRW. Sometimes believers even become aggressive. A typical feature for both is the division of the world into good and bad. "That should make you suspicious."

In the end, those affected may isolate themselves and stay with like-minded people. "People can be so convinced of a conspiracy theory that they change their entire life and break off contact with loved ones," said Riede. "These are the same symptoms as when someone slipped into a so-called sect."

QAnon led to violence and destroyed families

The development of the followers: inside of conspiracy myths about the coronavirus is only at the beginning. The US experience with QAnon offers a gloomy outlook on its possible consequences.

Mike Rothschild reports relatives of conspiracy believers who have contacted him. Relationships that have suffered, families that have been torn apart. "A woman told me that she would no longer let her daughter see her mother-in-law because she would otherwise play QAnon videos for her," says Rothschild.

The FBI warned in 2019 that QAnon could result in acts of violence. It happened a long time ago. In New York, a man killed a mafia boss with six shots and painted a Q on the palm of his hand for his court hearing. In Arizona, a man in an armored car blocked a bridge to force the Justice Department to issue a report on behalf of QAnon. Police officers found firearms in his car.

Since the outbreak of the corona virus, conspiracy believers have also been taking action in Europe. In the UK, they set 5G masts on fire. "Conspiracy narratives guide the action," says Lamberty. Those who believe in supposed conspiracies are also more prone to violence. Some also see this as a justification for achieving political goals with violence.

Talk about the dubious information together

Relatives of people who have recently followed these ideologies are downright desperate, says Sabine Riede. “You call our advice center and would love to hear a magic word that you can use to get your mother or father back on track.” But of course it's not that simple.

First of all, relatives have to recognize how far the affected person has developed. Because not everyone who sends a link to a conspiracy story has already slipped into the dangerous world that lies behind it.

If the relatives are only at the beginning, a substantive examination of the myths can be an effective means.

Riede advises asking where the information comes from and calling them up together, also talking about the sources. This may also include looking at what additional content can be found on the relevant website or on the YouTube channel. From the context it can then become clear to the relatives that they have fallen into a lie - for example because the authors of the articles are well-known conspiracy ideologues who want to enrich themselves.

Fact checks can help - but only at the beginning

The stories often spread because people lack the necessary media skills. You simply cannot assess how credible certain Internet offers are. In order to counteract this, you should visit serious news offers together.

Day after day, media like Correctiv or Mimikama take apart the lies about the coronavirus with fact checks. They have already refuted many of the claims that haunt the net.

As absurd as the myths may be: Riede warns against laughing at the conspiracy believers for their views or reacting angrily to them. Instead, you should speak to your relatives on an equal footing and take them seriously - even if it is difficult. If you fail to do this, you may achieve the opposite of the desired effect. "That will more likely lead to a hardening of the fronts," said Riede.

Then the relatives may turn away from one group and turn to another group. "On the fringes of our society are conspiracy ideologues who are just waiting for us to exclude these people from our midst so that they can accept them," says Giulia Silberberger from the "Goldenes Aluhut".

The aim is therefore not to find counter-evidence for every false statement. Relatives need to be patient. Changing your mind is something that takes time. In addition, nobody wants to embarrass themselves in front of other people. According to Riede, parents in particular could be embarrassed to have to admit in front of their adult children that they have fallen for a conspiracy myth.

Conspiracy tales have more to do with emotions than the mind

If the development is already too far advanced, even a well-intentioned contradiction will no longer help. Relatives can then only start at the cause. Precisely because belief in conspiracy narratives is a strategy for overcoming fears, it has little to do with the mind and a lot with emotions.

According to Sabine Riede from Sektenberatung, there are various features that suggest that relatives may have reached this point. For example, when they speak of a collective “we” that stands up against “them”, often an anonymous elite that supposedly pulls the strings in the background. The idea suggests the “New World Order”, the alleged goal of the conspirators: inside. With this ideology, the boundaries to anti-Semitism are fluid.

The claim that this shadow power has long controlled politicians and the so-called mainstream media is a further sign that the next phase of conspiracy belief has been reached. At this point in time, believers often no longer consume any serious news, says Riede. Because these would only increase their fears.

You begin to isolate yourself, you commit an escape from reality. A new worldview has emerged from the initial doubts. They are now hardly accessible for arguments because they commit so-called confirmation errors: information that does not correspond to their established ideas is hidden. “Anyone who comes from outside with a fact check is the enemy,” said Silberberger. "Fakes, on the other hand, are taken as further confirmation of the existing worldview."

Deconstruct your own worldview

So those affected continue to invest in the conspiracy story, wanting to convince others of its correctness. Any link they share on Facebook or Telegram makes it less likely that they'll be ready to break away from it when faced with conflicting evidence, according to psychologist Pia Lamberty. She suggests asking questions instead. And to help the relatives to deconstruct their own view of the world themselves.

The cult advice follows a similar strategy. “We like to talk to people about other ideologies, for example Scientology. We let them see for themselves what is wrong with that, ”says Riede.

Anyone seeking to help loved ones needs to find out why they attach conspiracy narratives, what that belief means to them, and ultimately what it brings them. "In the conversation you can tell whether there is a fear of vaccinations, for example, or whether someone wants to make themselves important above all," says Riede. "When older people want to make themselves important, they are often very lonely and are afraid of standing there helplessly."

Tell stories, reduce fears

Much can also be achieved with emotional anecdotes, preferably with reference to yourself. Horror tales about the alleged consequences of vaccinations could be countered, for example, by making it clear how little you fear them and the dangerous consequences of the coronavirus had for many people who have it because there is still no vaccine.

Ultimately, it is a matter of giving those affected a feeling of security that they would otherwise gain from believing in conspiracies. Riede advises talking to the relatives very calmly. "Sympathy calms people down more and releases them from their thoughts rather than speaking against them."

But this strategy can also fail. Often this happens when you hesitated too long at the beginning and those affected have already slipped too deep into this world, says Riede.

But what then? Is it possible to accept that relatives have fallen into conspiracy beliefs?

In the end, the separation threatens

“You can completely ignore that,” says Silberberger. In the case of her own mother in the Jehovah's Witnesses, she ended up doing that. "The question is: does the person really leave you alone?"

Riede, however, thinks this is at most a temporary solution.She advises talking about other things in the meantime so that the mind can calm down. If necessary, suggest a break yourself. And then possibly to wait until the relatives come back to their conspiracy beliefs on their own.

According to Riede, one prerequisite for being able to help those affected is an emotional bond with them. Therefore you shouldn't risk this. "If this person already feels more connected to his supposed friends on the Internet, there is not much that can be done."

If at some point a limit is finally reached, Sekten-Info NRW can only advise you to withdraw. Joining so-called sects also resulted in divorces. “Because at some point you are exhausted and nothing works after all the attempts to save the other,” says Riede. "Then you have to deal with the breakup - even when it comes to older people who surprisingly slipped into something like that."

Counter-speech on the net

Last weekend, thousands took to the streets in Germany. They play down the disease and encourage anti-democratic efforts. As part of so-called "hygiene demos" they protested against the coronavirus measures taken by the government, Bill Gates or 5G.

These people are an integral part of the problem. They carry the virus of "infodemia", as the World Health Organization called the lies at the beginning of February. A virus that your own relatives could literally be infected with like Corona itself.

There may be a way to at least slow down the spread of “infodemia”. Even those who have no relatives who believe in the conspiracy narratives can seek out the channels on which they are spread - and oppose them.

Sabine Riede doubts that strangers can be dissuaded from their belief in conspiracies in this way. The emotional connection to it is missing. But the myths must not remain undisputed on the Internet. "Others who read this notice that not all of them are of the same opinion."

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About the author

Daniel Laufer

Daniel Laufer is an investigative journalist and works as an editor at netzpolitik.org in Berlin. There he mainly writes about right-wing extremism, disinformation and the dark corners of the internet. He started his career with regional television in Freiburg, later he worked for the Badische Zeitung and as a freelance journalist for public political magazines. Because of his research, Medium Magazin named him one of the “Top 30 to 30” in journalism in 2019. E-mail:[email protected] (PGP). Phone: +4930577148222. Signal / WhatsApp: +491638832328. Website:daniellaufer.de. Twitter:run through.
Published 05/13/2020 at 6:00 PM