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Una Mullally: Conspiracy theories threaten public health

Those who fall for wild unfounded internet ideas must be helped with compassion

We are currently dealing with a huge public health issue in the form of the pandemic, and within that there are multiple other public health issues. From cancer treatment to maternity services, the disruption to our health system has been tremendous.

But there is also another public health concern in Ireland that has been growing steadily yet remains unaddressed, has been exacerbated by the pandemic, and is something about which many people seem to be at a complete loss as to how to make their loved ones better.

This burgeoning public health issue is the mental health crisis that falling down a rabbit-hole of conspiracy theories induces.

That many people in this country believe unhinged fantastical versions of the world is no laughing matter

More and more, I’m hearing from people whose friends, colleagues, acquaintances and family members are dealing with serious mental, emotional and relationship crises because of people being radicalised online, their thinking and critical capacities altered, and the huge impact this is having on friend groups and families.


In recent months, I’ve been developing a toolkit to help those who are reaching a point of crisis with loved ones who have fallen down the conspiracy rabbit-hole, working on an advice sheet with the assistance of people including Aoife Gallagher, an analyst at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, who specialises in disinformation, extremism and hate, and is one of the foremost experts on this issue in Ireland.

The recent anti-lockdown protests in Ireland yielded some excellent reporting from those covering the breadth of beliefs of those participating, but it has also yielded frustrating false equivalence, and quite irresponsibly, people laughing off or laughing at some of the more outrageous beliefs many protesters were espousing, particularly those that are QAnon-related or Q-adjacent.

That many people in this country genuinely believe completely unhinged fantastical versions of the world is no laughing matter. It is distressing for their loved ones and it is a public health issue.

Political extremism

The spectrum of those who end up altering their thought patterns via the internet and emerge as conspiracy theorists is diverse. Although many people become radicalised into participating in political extremism and develop specific – often fascistic – political ideologies that embed themselves in existing faultlines in their thinking (such as racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, misogyny, and religious fundamentalism), falling for conspiracies that overtake one’s rational thoughts is different.

However, there is plenty of overlap between extremism and hate, and conspiracy. Indeed, far-right entities, for example, are only delighted to take advantage of those gravitating towards conspiracy, and prey on their fears for their own nefarious political desires.

Social media platforms – especially Facebook – and entities such as YouTube create a radicalisation pipeline that works quickly and often privately. Algorithms are designed to hold your attention, and inevitably nudge you towards more extreme content in order to do so.

Many who gravitate towards conspiracy value their own intelligence, consider themselves 'smart' and therefore they couldn't possibly be 'duped'

Some people find a new community in conspiracy, and can double down when others express alarm about their thinking patterns, which has a pulling-up-the-drawbridge effect, and sees them gravitate further towards those who legitimise the conspiracy theories and affirm their newly embedded beliefs.

So what can you do if you’re in this situation and a loved one seems to have changed, is espousing conspiracy theories, is lashing out at those close to them, is gravitating towards bizarre and false ideas, and developing worrying beliefs? Ordinarily, our impulse is to debate and to engage on a rational level. Yet when it comes to conspiracy, the rules do not apply, and that includes the tactics for countering it.

Correlation with depression

First up, keep the channels of communication open, no matter how testing that is. Don’t cut people out, because they may retreat further towards disinformation. Don’t get into arguments or “debate”. Don’t try to counter with communication such as “but that’s completely ridiculous”. Instead, ask questions, listen to their responses, and observe what their sources of information are.

Empathise and understand. Gravitating towards conspiracy has some correlations with depression. It can feel like a comfortable space to languish in, but pretty soon control is lost and reality breaks. There may have been a trigger that led to their current state: financial trauma, unaddressed personal trauma, heightened stress, isolation, job loss, relationship breakdown, loss of purpose, a desire to feel special, excessive time spent online.

Many people who gravitate towards conspiracy value their own intelligence, consider themselves “smart” and therefore they couldn’t possibly be “duped”. Many feel like they are on an almost spiritual mission to expose “the truth”.

People who believe conspiracy or disinformation often place a lot of emphasis on “research” and confuse “information” with that information being real. Arguing this point can often entrench people’s positions, leading to reactions such as “you would say that, wouldn’t you?”.

Conspiracy theorists also tend to believe that they have a higher level of critical thinking, but research has shown that conspiracy thinking is associated with lower levels of critical thinking.

Empathy is always the first starting point, even when people have become “cold” or “not themselves”. You don’t have to talk about the conspiracies someone is espousing, but should talk about the circumstances of their lives that may have them to this point.

Many people are trying to make sense of a chaotic world and form narratives that frame and justify that chaos. We cannot laugh off this public health issue, or simply hope it will go away. It’s real, it’s serious, and it needs to be addressed holistically.