A recent scientific review suggests that alternative strategies may be more effective than simply debunking conspiracy theories with counterarguments.
Interest in conspiracy theories has grown in the past decade, and skyrocketed during the pandemic when some failure to comply with public health recommendations was associated with conspiracy beliefs.
The review, reported in the journal PLOS One, is the first of its kind, as previous studies have been more concerned with understanding the psychological underpinnings of conspiracy beliefs.
The review found that many methods for changing conspiracy beliefs are ineffective, particularly those that involve arguing against entrenched beliefs.
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However, the review highlighted some emerging practices that might be successfully wielded against conspiracy theories.
The most promising was training to teach people how to critically analyze information to distinguish pseudoscience from the real thing.
“Information inoculation” can also be effective. In this strategy, conspiracy theory counterarguments are presented alongside a warning that exposure to misinformation is to follow before the subject is exposed to the theory.
The review suggests that interventions may decrease belief in certain conspiracy theories by pointing out issues in the information presented, but they do not take away the social causes underlying belief.
O’Mahony and his colleagues are developing a video game aimed at honing players’ critical thinking skills. Such games have already been shown to be effective in combating fake news.
The review is seen as a timely endeavor, but it is important to consider the spread of conspiracy beliefs as a social process.
Factors like people’s personalities, paranoias, need for closure, financial insecurities, and feelings of marginalization may all influence what conspiracies they ascribe to and what interventions work on them.
While the review points out several potentially promising lines of research, it also highlights the need to replicate the studies demonstrating successful intervention, as well as the challenge of scaling them up into policies. There is also a current lack of evidence that any of these interventions have a lasting impact.