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Experts Explain How To Talk To Someone Who Believes Coronavirus Conspiracy Theories

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As if we don't have enough to deal with right now, coronavirus conspiracy theories and hoaxes keep going viral. The latest? A section of a longer film called Plandemic. The now thoroughly debunked hoax made a series of claims about the coronavirus pandemic, falsely suggesting that the coronavirus was made in a laboratory and spread deliberately, and that it can be "activated" by wearing masks, among other things. The 26-minute clip that went viral is an interview with Judy Mikovits, a scientist whose research was retracted by Science in 2011 and who is now associated with the anti-vax movement, per The Guardian. Even though the video has been taken down repeatedly across social media, it's gained a lot of traction.

If someone in your life has taken these kinds of conspiracy theories to heart, you may be wondering how to talk to your friend or family member about them.

Understanding The Conspiracy Theories In Plandemic

First things first: the video's claims are unfounded in science, epidemiologist Dr. Sadiya Khan, M.D., a professor at Northwestern University, tells Bustle. Among other statements, Mikovits claims that the coronavirus was released from a lab, that director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Dr. Anthony Fauci was engaged in a cover-up, and that mask-wearing may cause coronavirus symptoms.

"There is absolutely no evidence that the Department of Health and Human Services or Dr. Fauci participated in collusion, fraud, or cover-ups," Khan says. "There is no evidence that vaccines 'killed millions' [a claim that Mikovits makes], and there is ample evidence that wearing a mask protects from spread of the coronavirus and other respiratory viruses." There is also substantial evidence that this coronavirus is naturally occurring, like all others of its kind. One study published in Nature Medicine in March looked at the genome of COVID-19 and found that the coronavirus either evolved in animals and jumped to a human host, as with past viruses like SARS or MERS, or else was transmitted harmlessly to humans and evolved into something more deadly afterwards.

"Make sure to get your information from trusted sources, such as your local department of public health," Khan says.

What To Do If A Friend Or Family Member Wholeheartedly Believes The Hoax

Got a friend or family member who's decided Plandemic is the real deal? It's understandable that you'd want to talk to them about it. Conspiracy theories about the coronavirus outbreak can do real damage — and not just to 5G masts. Misinformation and myths about COVID-19 can mean that people make decisions that put them and others at risk. Sheltering in place and social distancing only work if everybody agrees to do their part.

"The epidemic of 'fake news' that has emerged is overwhelming," Khan says. "I completely understand and empathize with the desire to hear favorable and less scary news." Therapists tell Bustle it's a good idea to begin from this place of empathy.

"Start by actively listening to them on this topic and ask them questions as to why they believe this is true," family therapist Heidi McBain, LMFT, tells Bustle. This means putting aside your own motivation to change their mind for the time being, clinical psychologist Josh Klapow, Ph.D., tells Bustle. "Until you fully understand what they have processed, how they have processed it and how they have come to their conclusion, your ability to have any meaningful dialogue is simply not as strong," he says.

Starting the conversation this way and then proceeding to a discussion comparing views makes it more likely they'll listen, Klapow says. "You are setting up the situation to let them know that while you think differently, you are not having the conversation for the purpose of convincing them otherwise," he says.

McBain suggests looking at the underlying motivations for their beliefs, too. "If they are acting very out of character, this conspiracy theory response may actually be fear and anxiety-based," she says. There's a lot of uncertainty at the moment; Khan says that arguments are bristling everywhere about what we know and what we don't about the virus, and that environment understandably breeds confusion, conspiracy, and antagonism.

If you do want to present your own thoughts, McBain says, share how you feel in an open and honest way. However, you need to remember that you're likely not going to persuade your loved one to let go of their beliefs. "Trying to convince almost never works," Klapow says. "You're offering up a different opinion with no expectations of adoption." Letting go of hopes that you might make them do a 180-degree turn may make the conversation less painful for you.

If your friend or family member responds antagonistically, it's time to walk away. "If they become bothered or upset because you don’t believe the conspiracy theories about the coronavirus pandemic, then it may be time to agree to disagree," McBain says. "It’s one thing to listen with openness and curiosity; it’s quite another thing to be berated and attacked for holding different views."

Experts:

Josh Klapow, Ph.D.

Dr. Sadiya Khan, M.D.

Heidi McBain, LMFT

Studies cited:

Andersen, K.G., Rambaut, A., Lipkin, W.I. et al. (2020) The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2. Nat Med26, 450–452. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41591-020-0820-9