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Conspiracy theorist: ‘I have my own opinion on the whole thing. I research it’

Jean Murray says her family thinks she’s crazy for believing Covid-19 is a hoax

In March 2020, mother-of-three Jean Murray was posting tips on how to combat the spread of Covid-19 which had just arrived in Ireland.

“Open all your windows for fresh air. Get a bucket of hot water and Domestos bleach. Wash bathrooms, doors, handles, surfaces and floors with it!” she said on her blog. “And if you drown yourself in Jeyes fluid in the process, that’s an added bonus! #Killthevirus.”

Today, Murray says Covid-19 is a hoax orchestrated variously by Bill Gates, the UN, the World Health Organisation and the pharmaceutical companies.

In 2015, Murray was calling on her social media followers to sign a petition to combat climate change. Today she believes climate change is also a hoax, which is being used as an excuse to depopulate the earth.

At the start of 2020, she was posting about the value of family and friends, having just attended a family wedding. Today, she says she is isolated from many of those people due to her beliefs.

Murray (54), who lives with her husband and teenage daughter in Co Meath, is part of the growing number of Irish people who subscribe to conspiracy theories about Covid-19 and its vaccines.

The numbers are stark. The Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) studied 40 Irish conspiracy theory groups on Facebook relating to Covid-19 and found membership almost doubled over a six-month period, from 68,500 users to more than 130,800 by February 1st.

In January alone, these groups hosted more than 20,900 posts, generating almost 500,000 interactions. According to other studies, anti-vaccination groups are vastly more effective at convincing people than pro-vaccine advocates.

While the vast majority of Irish people are willing to take a Covid vaccine, women are four times more likely to decline the jab than men, according to the most recent survey.

Then when I first heard someone mention lockdowns I thought woah, what is this about?

Our long lockdowns are the perfect breeding ground for conspiracy theories, says Emily Duffy, deputy director of the campaigning group Uplift which has been researching Covid-related misinformation.

People are spending more time indoors, isolated from family and friends, and “doomscrolling” on their phones.

Furthermore, people are not just falling down rabbit holes. They are being dragged down by high-profile figures. Some of these genuinely believe in what they are saying, but most “are just out to make money or build their profile”, Duffy says.

And all of this is being facilitated by social media companies whose algorithms constantly recommend low-quality information to “keep people engaged and keep them angry”.

The media has been full of stories recently of family members becoming isolated from each other due to conspiratorial beliefs. On Monday, RTÉ's Joe Duffy read out a letter from a man who feared for the future of his marriage because of his wife's unquestioning consumption of conspiracy theories from Facebook.

All this raises the question, how should you speak to people who have gone down that rabbit hole? And is there any way to bring them back?

Like most of us, Murray started 2020 only marginally aware of a virus causing chaos in China. A more pressing issue was who she would vote for in the upcoming general election.

"I was looking at all the parties, seeing who I liked. I actually ended up voting for Fianna Fáil. I didn't like Sinn Féin, I didn't think they would stand up for the businessman," says Murray, who runs a construction business with her husband from their home.

After the election she considered supporting Sinn Féin when she saw how much effort the other parties were putting into keeping the party out of government. “But I know they are absolutely 100 per cent corrupt now,” she adds.

Murray started to pay closer attention to the virus before her adult son and his family were due to go on their first cruise in February. Knowing that passengers would not be allowed board if they had a cold or flu, she started keeping track of the spread of the disease from China to Italy and then the rest of Europe. It was at this point, Murray says, that she "started to smell a rat".

“Then when I first heard someone mention lockdowns I thought woah, what is this about?”

A review of Murray's social media from last year – she usually posts several times a day – shows that her pivot occurred remarkably quickly

At the start of the pandemic, Murray was sharing articles from RTÉ, watching Sky News and listening to talk radio on Newstalk. She soon turned towards alternative online sources, some of which have since become infamous as spreaders of Covid misinformation.

One source was Richie Allen, whose UK digital radio show has become a haven for far-right personalities and Holocaust deniers. Murray herself featured on the show last year speaking about the virus.

Another frequent source of Murray's information became the website of David Icke, the former footballer who is perhaps now best known for claiming the world is run by reptiles disguised as humans.

Murray has been to many of the lockdown protests, including the event on Grafton Street where gardaí were attacked with fireworks. She later claimed the attackers were "paid infiltrators".

She has also visited hospitals to check if they are actually treating Covid patients.

Murray says she supports any person willing to speak about "our freedoms being taken away. People like Gemma O'Doherty, Dolores Cahill, Dee Wall, the freedom parties, the Yellow Vest, the National Party."

However, she insists she is not led by these people, and she does not share material without checking the sources first. “I have my own opinion on the whole thing. I research it.”

A review of Murray’s social media from last year – she usually posts several times a day across various platforms – shows that her pivot occurred remarkably quickly.

I've lived my life. I'm happy enough. I'm not doing this for me. I'm doing it so my children can live a happy life

On March 16th, 2020 she was advocating the benefits of sea swimming as a great way to stay healthy while social distancing.

A month later she posted: “It seems to me that pharmaceutical companies and their financial investors such as Bill Gates is behind this pandemic and lockdown and control of our government…”

It is difficult to pin down exactly what Murray now believes about the virus. She has variously shared material that says it is exaggerated or non-existent, or even that it is actually the PCR tests which are making people sick. 5G gets a mention sometimes, as does George Soros. Many of the posts on her Facebook page are now greyed out, replaced with an official message that they have been fact-checked and found to contain false information.

On the phone, Murray comes across as a charming and intelligent woman who cares deeply about her family and is worried about her teenage daughter’s education and future.

“I’ve lived my life. I’m happy enough. I’m not doing this for me. I’m doing it so my children can live a happy life.”

She gives a somewhat diluted version of the theories she shares online, conceding there probably was a coronavirus going around, but that it was at its worst before Christmas 2019 and the numbers have been vastly inflated since.

We have to stay outside the gate if we want to see the grandchildren and wave at them

She is quick to answer when presented with contradictory evidence, such as the images of Italian hospitals being overwhelmed last year. “It only looked like they were overwhelmed because they were all sent to one hospital.”

One of the worst things about the pandemic for Murray is the wedge it has driven between her and some of her family members. “They all think I’ve gone crazy.”

In December she posted on her blog that she had blocked many of her family and friends on Facebook. “This is not because I fell out with them. My aim for sharing all the information about the scamdemic was to help them see the truth. But, unfortunately, they don’t want to know.”

One day she posted about a member of her extended family dying after a Covid diagnosis. “Now the whole family are back on track believing this is a killer virus,” she said.

Speaking this week, she described going to hug one of her young grandchildren last year, causing her son to get upset.

“He is not having us around the house any more. We have to stay outside the gate if we want to see the grandchildren and wave at them.”

While misinformation spread on social media has played a major role in Murray's beliefs, some can also be linked back, at least in part, to events in her own life

Like many others who believe in conspiracy theories related to the virus, Murray has also been drawn into adjacent rabbit holes. She posts about the “LGBT agenda” which, she believes, is “manipulation and coercion to help children destroy themselves psychologically, emotionally and physically”.

Climate change is another Bill Gates-related hoax and governments have the capacity to control the weather, she posts. However, she has little interest in the QAnon conspiracy theories which have gripped much of America. “There is enough going on in Ireland to deal with,” she says.

While misinformation spread on social media has undoubtedly played a major role in Murray’s beliefs, some can also be linked back, at least in part, to events in her own life.

The family business was devastated in the 2008 crash. Murray says she then watched in disbelief as the government bailed out the banks. It was about then when she first started questioning if the State had her family’s interests at heart.

Asked about her scepticism about vaccines, she recalls her daughter being given the MMR vaccine by mistake as a baby when she was due to receive another vaccine. Needless to say, Murray will not be signing up for the Covid-19 vaccine. “Not in a million years. I have to fight that at all costs.”

With the response to the pandemic boiling down to a race between the vaccination rollout and the ever-expanding list of variants of concern, there is a growing urgency in convincing people of the overwhelming benefits of vaccines and drawing them away from misinformation.

It's a task made harder by the news that, in extremely rare cases, the AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines have been shown to cause blood clots (the chance of getting a blood clot from a Covid-19 infection is far higher).

There is a growing consensus that compassion, rather than arguments or ridicule, is the key to reaching people

For many, trust has also been dented by changing public health advice as doctors and scientists learn more about the pandemic. At the start, people were told masks were not effective in stopping the spread. Then, after more research was carried out, it turned out they were highly effective.

Initially, many public health officials dismissed the idea vitamin D supplements might help fend off the virus. Now there is growing evidence it offers some (limited) protection.

Similarly, suggestions that Covid-19 escaped from a lab in China were roundly dismissed as conspiratorial. Yet, at the end of March, WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said more studies were needed to conclusively rule that possibility out.

Given the complexity of information out there and the apparent ease in which people are being drawn down the conspiracy theory rabbit hole, there is a growing consensus that compassion, rather than arguments or ridicule, is the key to reaching people.

The messaging research conducted by Duffy and their colleagues at Uplift, which is due to be launched next month, found the best way to talk to people who believe misinformation about vaccines is to avoid “acting superior or patronising people”.

Instead of focusing on statistics showing why someone is wrong, it’s best to refer to the benefits of vaccines in ending the pandemic, Duffy says.

“We tested four messages and the one that won out was hugs. The idea of getting to hug your family members again when we beat this.”

Worryingly, the message that getting the vaccine will protect others in society was the least effective, Duffy says.

Similarly, if you see misinformation being shared online, it’s best to resist the temptation to “pile on” the person sharing it, Duffy says.

“Effective responses hinge on compassion and empathy. And we all know those are things that are dialled down on social media.”

How to talk to family members about misinformation

Mick West – author of the 2018 book Escaping the Rabbit Hole. How to Debunk Conspiracy Theories Using Facts, Logic, and Respect – has detailed five tips to The Irish Times on speaking to family members about misinformation:

1. Keep talking

“The most important thing you can do with a friend or family member is maintain communications. If you’re not communicating, you’re not going to be able to help.”

2. Don’t start by contradicting them

“Try to establish some kind of mutual understanding. The best way to do that is to try to find out where they are coming from.

“You might think they are being ridiculous; they likely feel the same about you.

“It’s a symmetry of perceptions. They think you have been brainwashed by the mainstream media. They are going to get angry and frustrated at you because you are not listening to them.”

3. Listen

“This will both allow you to understand where they are coming from and will show that you respect them. It doesn’t mean you have to agree with them.”

4. Don’t focus on trying to debunk claims

“Most of the time they won’t trust the sources you give them. Instead, ask them where they got their information from and get them to explain to you why they believe what they believe. A lot of people aren’t very introspective. By themselves, they’re not going to consider why they believe something.”

5. Don’t give up (but maybe take a break)

“People often take a very long time to get out of the rabbit hole. If they are in a phase where they are obsessively consuming content, it is going to be very difficult for you to make any headway because they’re always moving on to something new.”