Skip to main content
Understanding Conspiracy Theories with abstract graphic

🛸 Area 51 is home to secret government experiments on aliens.

👣 Bigfoot is real.

🌑 The moon landing was faked.

These are some examples of ones many of us are familiar with. While some conspiracies are real–like Watergate or the FBI’s surveillance of John Lennon–conspiracy theories exist in a gray area between fact and fiction. Their plausibility often hinges on the existence of genuine conspiracies, which can make even far-fetched theories seem credible. While believing in conspiracy theories can be harmless, some conspiracy theories promote violence as a valid or even necessary response.

All violent extremist beliefs function like conspiracy theories.

Some examples include:

  • The federal government is not a legitimate government elected in a democratic process.
  • The government is excessively controlled by powerful elites.
  • Drag queens are grooming children through library story hours.

Conspiracy theories do not respond to fact, data, or evidence. There are generally seven defining features:

1

Contradiction

While there may be a consensus on the topic of a conspiracy theory, the what, why, or how may differ so greatly that some of the explanations within a theory will directly contradict another.
2

Bad Intentions

Conspiracy theories include an individual or group who is actively working to harm or deceive society, often to gain power or control over the public or governing institutions.
3

Suspicion

Conspiracy theorists believe the information from official sources are attempts to deceive them, breeding doubt and mistrust of official sources.
4

Dedication to the Theory

Individuals may change or adjust their specific explanations should they become unsustainable, but their commitment to the theory itself remains unchanged.
5

Victim-Hero Complex

People who believe in conspiracy theories see themselves as victims of those trying to control or manipulate a narrative. They see themselves as smarter and better informed than people who don’t agree with their beliefs. They see themselves as a hero for not falling for those nefarious official explanations and for exposing the truth to others.
6

Resistant to Facts and Evidence

By claiming that a community, society, or a government is implicit in a cover-up on the chosen issue, any attempt to present factual evidence for why the theory is wrong is seen as another effort to cover up the truth. By challenging the conspiracy theory, you inadvertently give it support.
7

No Coincidences or Randomness

Things that may normally be considered as occurring by chance are instead attributed to a larger plan. Everything that happens is connected to or a result of the conspiracy.

What may lead a loved one to believe these things?

What should you do if your loved one espouses these beliefs?

  • Change the subject – Discussing it provides them the opportunity to advocate for these theories. It’s okay to say, “I don’t want to talk about this, but I’m happy to talk about (unrelated topic).”
  • Set boundaries – Let them know hateful, derogatory language is not acceptable in your household. If you’ve attempted a change of subject and they persist, set boundaries by letting them know you will leave if they don’t stop. Should they continue, get up and leave the discussion.
  • Affirm their critical thinking – Conspiracy theorists believe they are critical thinkers that aren’t deceived by mainstream explanations. By emphasizing their ability for critical thinking, you may be able to get them to use those perceived strengths against the conspiracy theory itself. Use the perceived strength to ask how they have investigated evidence that supports the theory.

Avoid

  • Trying to respond with facts or evidence – Discussing it provides them the opportunity to advocate for these theories. It’s okay to say, “I don’t want to talk about this, but I’m happy to talk about (unrelated topic).”