- Stay calm: One of my patients mentioned that he was not going to get vaccinated because he knew that he could be cured with ivermectin. Staying calm was not my first response. That said, becoming strident is the fastest way to end the conversation. Having the facts on your side will not be enough to win the argument.
- Listen: Conspiracy theorists, as a rule, are not dumb. Instead of lecturing them (or rolling your eyes), try asking about their beliefs and whether they have considered alternate theories. Asking questions may be more effective than making assertions. Asking questions may also help the conspiracist recognize inconsistencies in their own theories.
- Agree: Look for the grain of truth that may underlie the conspiracy theory. Finding common ground may make it easier to move the conversation forward.
Inevitably, some conspiracists are not ready to rethink their world view. If you sense that someone may be looking for the exit, however, these are some things to suggest:
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- Expand your sources: Encourage the conspiracist to seek out alternate media streams, which may represent other points of view. Ask them to notice how articles are referenced; if someone is quoted, they should try to find out if that person has the education or background to speak with authority;
- Be wary of content that plays on emotions: Misinformation campaigns often play on emotions. Encourage the conspiracist to be suspicious of articles that seem to be written to induce emotions, such as fear or outrage; and
- Get offline: It’s no secret that social media is a major source of information. Decreasing one’s reliance on YouTube, Facebook, Reddit and Twitter as news sources may be a good first step to leaving a conspiracy theory behind.
Moon landing conspiracy theories are relatively benign, as far as conspiracy theories go. Coronavirus vaccine conspiracy theories are not. Vaccine conspiracists flood our emergency departments, our intensive care units and our morgues. We need to find some way to change people’s minds before they are at death’s door.
Updating the Communications Decency Act of 1996 would be an important step in the fight against conspiracy theories. Section 230(c)(2) of the act prevents websites from being sued over content posted by a user.26 This one line of federal code is directly responsible for the deluge of misinformation that inundates our patients. If internet companies were legally (and financially) liable for the misinformation carried on their sites, they would surely find a way to turn off the spigot.
Until then, the battle to vaccinate must be fought patient by patient. In this battle, mere facts are not be enough. Each vaccine conspiracist needs to be approached with compassion and understanding. Putting an end to conspiracy theories is our generation’s moonshot, and “that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”27