I am a psychotherapist and have been for a number of years. And as such I am an observer of people. The current COVID-19 pandemic has certainly been an unusual time in our world’s history and a pretty scary one too. One of the things, I have observed lately is an increase in the frequency and dissemination of conspiracy theories. One of the ones currently making the rounds goes something like this, COVID-19 is a fake pandemic that is related to cell tower radiation. That sounds pretty serious, right? The idea is that 5G cellular phone technology caused COVID-19 or it has accelerated the spread. And any attempt to say otherwise is false. It is an attempt by the government along with their close ally the telecommunications industry to pull the wool over our eyes. And this conspiracy, like many, has its famous supporters including Woody Harrelson and John Cusack, who are two of my favorite actors, not necessarily my go to sources for truth, however. Both have since deleted social media posts linking 5g to the pandemic.
My focus though is not the truth or believability of the conspiracy. Like many conspiracy theories it has kernels of believability or else people (many intelligent and reasonably well educated,) would not believe them. As a mental health practitioner my focus is on the believers. I have had multiple encounters now with such people, and they seem to all outward appearances sane. Still, once they begin talking about the conspiracy something happens to their tone, their appearance… their affect as we therapists sometimes refer to it. They sort of lean-in and speak with a hurried/troubled cadence. It is really important not only that we be told this “information” but that we believe it. Someone recently said to me (and others) upon disclosing said conspiracy “it is important that we raise awareness… to make people feel better.” Funny the opposite seemed to happen. And that may not have been the conscious aim of this particular person, but it was not an accident either. In my experience there are two common emotional threads among all conspiracy theorists, a lack of trust and fear. These folks are often radiating fear and distrust. Inviting other people into this scary, dishonest world seems comforting to them. And that makes sense, aren’t we all just trying to connect with one another? Isn’t that the cure for all that ails us?
Yes, of course. But some attempts to connect have the opposite effect. Those of us who work in mental health know this all too well. I work with traumatized kids who say things like “go fuck yourself, leave me alone,” followed quickly by “where are you going.?” It is possible, if not likely, that the people who feel most attracted to conspiracy theories have significant childhood trauma which when triggered by world events, brings about strong feelings of fear and distrust. So it is important to try to bring understanding and acceptance to these people who are really suffering – though they don’t seem to realize it. That is an important component here as well. These folks believe they are well informed, and they could well be. One such person’s response to me in a recent conversation about conspiracies was, “you know, I read a lot.” I am not sure if the presumption was I don’t or what. Challenging them on the veracity of the conspiracy, while very tempting, is completely futile. This just allows them to enlarge the conspiracy (i.e. wherever you are getting your information from is a source that has a vested interest in lying to you.) Again though, that is not really the point.
Assume that the conspiracy is true, the question is how does the person feel thinking and talking about it? That is a good question to ask. And further, I might say “it sounds like we have no control over this, that is very scary. Is there a time in your life where someone in authority (parent, relative, etc.) made you feel powerless and afraid?” Another area of inquiry might be… “it sounds like we can’t trust what we are being told, I can certainly relate to that. Is there a time in your life when someone in authority (parent, relative, etc) lied to or deceived you?” Again if you put this in the context of an attempt to connect and you respond in an authentic feeling way, you might foster a connection. Or if the person you are speaking to resists the connection they seem to be seeking, they are likely to change the subject, either way the discussion about the conspiracy is likely over. Which is probably for the best anyway.