TORONTO -- Misinformation and conspiracy theories can sometimes seem as rampant online as genuine news. And while media outlets and health officials have worked to debunk and disprove many of them—as with the World Health Organization’s “Mythbusters” page—people close to you may still believe them.

That’s because people need to make sense of our world and anxiety can lead them to non-reputable sources of information, said Ont.-based social worker Gary Direnfeld.

“We typically appreciate certainty in our lives. With certainty we can plan. With uncertainty, our lives become a mess and we become more anxious,” he told over the phone on Friday. “The more anxious we are, I do believe the more likely we’re going to latch on to a conspiracy theory as it provides us with an answer. Even if it’s not a good answer.” 

But there are strategies you can employ when your neighbour, friend or loved one has found the wrong answer to pandemic uncertainty. Here’s a start.

Misinformation vs. conspiracy

First, it’s important to spot the difference between conspiracy theory and misinformation, says Direnfeld. Misinformation is a more benign culprit. “We just got bamboozled by some information,” he said. “If it’s misinformation, people are generally quite ready to have their thinking corrected.”

In that case, it may be simple to point them toward the correct information. For example, there is no evidence that injecting disinfectant can treat or prevent COVID-19, as was suggested by U.S. President Donald Trump in April.

Conspiracy theory is another breed that involves the incitement of fear and blame. One recent example is the “Plandemic” video that claimed the COVID-19 pandemic was “planned.”

“These are persons who are not swayed by contrary or more accurate information,” he said. “These people who are attached because of a belief system that they’ve bought into. And belief systems tend to be quite rigid, quite strong.”

To meet their belief system with confrontation can result in defensive behaviour that drive that person further into their belief system, said Direnfeld.

Is it worth it?

Not all confrontation with friends and family is worthwhile. Direnfeld suggests doing a little “cost-benefit analysis” before attempting to question the person who may have fallen victim to conspiracy theory. The end result could be conflict if approached poorly. 

“You may find that when you do a cost-benefit analysis, it’s better to leave a person with their belief system than undermine the quality of the relationship,” he said.

Politeness and public health

It may be tactful to consider striking a balance between politeness and concern for public health. For example, when faced with someone not wearing a face mask, Toronto physician and medical research Dr. Iris Gorfinkel told in July that explaining how their behaviour affects you is a place to start.

“If the goal is trying to engage and create more of a community, it’s always better to start off with the perspective of how it makes you feel,” she said. “For example, ‘I feel uncomfortable mentioning this, but I’m concerned because...’ or, ‘I feel protected when you wear your mask.’” 

Approach with curiosity 

Instead of confrontation, a better strategy is to come from a place of curiosity and ask questions that encourage and facilitate the use of the other person’s judgement, suggests Direnfeld.

“You want to cause the person to reflect on their belief and their thinking versus imposing your own,” he said.

Some questions to start, particularly aimed at conspiracies that purport multinational plots: Who benefits from this theory? What would have to happen in order for this to be true? How many people would have to be involved? Do you think those persons or those countries would ever collaborate on something as big as this to make that happen?

Determine your own knowledge

In some cases, it may be apt to avoid argument or lengthy discussion based on your own level of knowledge on the subject matter. Some conspiracy theories have intricate layers involving many decades of falsehoods. In a recent post online, Direnfeld was confronted by a conspiracy theorist on a subject related to George W. Bush, but chose not to engage.

“I would have had to be an American history scholar,” he said. “Some conspiracy theories, to refute them intelligently, may require you to have a depth of knowledge beyond which you possess.”

If that’s the case, your best route might be acknowledging your knowledge blind spots while also acknowledging that you don’t agree with the other person’s perspective.

“You want to be respectful in the interaction,” said Direnfeld. 

Take it offline

It may also be suitable to take your discussion offline or over the phone, where there is less of a chance someone might misunderstand your tone and intention. 

“Don’t draw each other into a negative rabbit hole,” said Direnfeld.

Duty to intervene?

During a global health crisis, the safety risks associated with misinformation and conspiracy theory may be heightened if the falsehoods are informing someone’s behaviour. Direnfeld told that he feels an obligation to intervene “if I see somebody is about to engage in something harmful to themselves or others.”

But as noted earlier, it’s important not to intervene from a confrontational position that could push someone further into a rigid belief system.

When to stop

It won’t always work. Depending on the relationship, the adage that good fences make good neighbours, may be appropriate. If the conversation or intervention deteriorates into defensive reactions on both sides, perhaps it’s time to cut your losses, said Direnfeld.

“Then it is not an exercise in seeking better judgement and truth,” he said. “It becomes an exercise in winning.”