Trying to innoculate my parents against right-wing conspiracy theories
August 28, 2021 5:52 PM   Subscribe

Various people in my elderly (early 80s) parents' social circle have started expressing antivax sentiments and elements of the related conspiracy theories. My parents are both fully vaccinated but it alarms me to hear them say that so-and-so "makes some good points" about (e.g.) the microchip theory. I plan to talk to them about those conspiracy theories, their history and why they are wrong so that they'll recognize it when they see it and know to be suspicious. Is this a good strategy? Does anyone have any advice?

Note: we are Canadian and so this is mostly cross-border leakage of
American politics. My parents are conservative but by Canadian
standards. They strongly dislike Trump, for example.

Also, I'm enough of a computer expert and they trust me enough that I could debunk the "microchip" thing, but I'd rather they primed to question this stuff in advance.
posted by Squirrel Expert to Human Relations (14 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I have read that it is helpful to explain to people how Google works, and how search engines and recommendation engines work. This is true especially for the elderly. Rather than debunking each conspiracy theory one by one ("no, there are no microchips," "no, it does not change your DNA"), you teach them to be skeptical about the web, and that Google, Youtube, Facebook, are just engines of "garbage in garbage out".
posted by Winnie the Proust at 6:18 PM on August 28, 2021 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Critical thinking skills are needed.

A lot of conspiracy theories are "self-sealing", in that they can explain away any counter-evidence by claiming it's a part of the conspiracy. It's basically a circular argument. So it may be possible to teach your parents how to spot that, and realized it's one huge circle-jerk.

The microchip bull**** can be roughly traced to a Bill Gates comment about COVID eVaccineCard and a bunch of biohackers believe that an embedded chip would be the ideal way to carry such a card. The published idea got mutated like a game of telephone into the "COVID vaccine = implanted microchip" conspiracy theory.
posted by kschang at 6:21 PM on August 28, 2021 [3 favorites]

I would emphasize that you’re always happy to talk to them if they’re not sure if something is true, and you’ll never make fun of them or be unkind if they’re mistaken.

I’d also talk to them about looking at the source when reading things online. It’s easy to google something your friend told you, then end up on some weird conspiracy website that looks like a legit website.
posted by insectosaurus at 6:23 PM on August 28, 2021 [7 favorites]

Agree with Winnie the Proust that search engines are designed to search for stuff that agrees with what you're searching for, not the truth unless someone actually created a page specifically as a "debunking" page, and then it may be reverse SEO'ed and buried by the various sites that "agree". In other words, search engines often reinforce echo chambers by linking people who want vindication for their pet theory with like-minded websites and forums, rather than verifiers, trustworthy websites, debunkers, and truly neutral sites.
posted by kschang at 6:57 PM on August 28, 2021

I recommend the book Escaping the Rabbit Hole by Mick West.

It emphasizes focusing on trying to understand where their anxiety comes from and why they might be worried before attempting to debunk things. It's much easier to discuss things with people if you can empathize with their position.

It also recommends focusing on things that they're on the fence about, rather than pushing back against whatever the most outlandish thing they believe is. (It sounds like your parents don't believe anything too outlandish yet, so luckily that seems not relevant yet, but it might come up with other relatives)
posted by wesleyac at 6:59 PM on August 28, 2021 [5 favorites]

I’ve been searching for videos and curriculum on this topic (critical thinking and digital/media literacy) to use with my adult students, and came across a joint project, Civic Online Reasoning, by Stanford University and John Green/Crash Course. So far it looks good. Here’s the Navigating Digital Information video playlist—there is a preview, an intro video, and 9 videos on specific topics, most of which are about 15 minutes long. You could scan the videos and see if their style would be appealing to your folks. Here’s the topic list:
  • Fact checking
  • Lateral reading
  • Who can you trust?
  • Using Wikipedia
  • Evaluating evidence
  • Evaluating photos and videos
  • Data and infographics
  • Click restraint
  • Social media
You probably don’t want to get too didactic with them, but if you decide to share these with your parents, it might be worth it for you to check out the free instructor materials (you have to create an account) just to give you some talking points.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 7:27 PM on August 28, 2021 [12 favorites]

Your intuition that inoculation might be a good strategy is spot on, and accords well with current state-of-the-art thinking (which actually does refer to it as inoculation or "pre-bunking"). Here is a good recent popular article that goes over some of the basic methods and links to them in more depth.
posted by sir jective at 7:48 PM on August 28, 2021 [1 favorite]

It's a nice thought, certainly. Do not be attached to a specific outcome, like them understanding and agreeing.

The sad truth is that cognitive abilities decline with age, particularly critical thinking skills. At a certain point, you are going to have to accept where they are mentally and emotionally with these issues. They are not bad people, or stupid, or willfully ignorant. They are aging, and the amount of misinformation is vast and deliberately made to appeal to people experiencing input overwhelm.
posted by ananci at 8:04 PM on August 28, 2021 [6 favorites]

Best answer: I like to present the issue in terms of "quality control" because it's an easy mental construct to grasp and check against. Something like this:

Would you buy food in a supermarket that was purchased from a factory that has no quality control? So I mean the food could contain lots of bugs and other contaminants, and maybe not even contain what's on the ingredients list, and might have a fake expiration date?

[Obvious answer.]

Would you expect your phone to work reliably and safely if there were no quality control in the manufacturing process at the assembly factory and at the many factories that make the parts that go into the phone?

[Obvious answer.]

OK, so by the same token, it really doesn't make sense to consume information from the web, where there is basically zero quality control, unless it's coming from an established source with certain professional standards and practices and appropriately qualified people. Does this way of looking at it make sense to you?
posted by Dansaman at 10:08 PM on August 28, 2021 [1 favorite]

I'd suggest you find a different term from "microchip theory". Using the word entirely incorrectly is part of the problem -- people who don't understand reality often have no idea what the word "theory" means, and a basic understanding of this is key to defending yourself against any kind of conspiracy BS. Perhaps you could start from there?
posted by tillsbury at 11:23 PM on August 28, 2021

Sometimes just applying some common sense tests helps.

Maybe governments are creating chips so small that they can be injected though an extremely small needle, yet are still able to transmit information. These would be tiny, tiny chips, orders of magnitude smaller than ever produced before - so small that they would completely revolutionize the tech industry if the tech industry could make them. Maybe the American (say) government is spending the millions, billions or trillions in r&d needed to invent and manufacture these chips in secret, instead of letting some American companies use this revolutionary invention in new must-have gadgets that would do wonders for the American economy. Maybe they're managing to keep this enormous technological revolution secret, despite its world-changing potential, and despite the fact that anyone working on it could make a lot of money selling the secrets to some tech company.

Or maybe if they want to track us they can just use our cellphones, which we're already willingly carrying around the place. If you were a government, which would you do?

Around the start of the pandemic I was getting forwards from family members about things like how drinking hot water would kill the virus. "Expert doctors" attested to it, according to these forwards. So even if it sounds plausible, you apply some common sense tests: if hot water kills the virus, then you'd expect people who drink lots of tea and coffee to not get sick. And you would expect countries where people famously drink tons of tea and coffee and hot water to not have big outbreaks. Is that what's happening? Or: one of the ways the virus gets in your body is through the nose. Even if you believe that hot water can kill the virus that's in your throat or stomach, how does it reach the virus that's in other parts of your body? Or: if that's all it took, then wouldn't most governments around the world be spreading the news and making sure everyone knew, instead of having to close down the economy and spend trillions on healthcare and unemployment and take a beating for how badly they're managing the pandemic? Wouldn't hospitals just serve hot tea instead of spending all their money on PPE and ventilators?

It's not a panacea, but trying to develop a habit of asking yourself some basic common sense questions can be a first line of defense.
posted by trig at 1:36 AM on August 29, 2021

I don’t know if this is a proven way to deal with this which is to fight conspiracy with conspiracy. It has been somewhat conclusively shown that a very small group of people have been behind a massive amount of disinformation, scare-mongering, and mean-spirited messaging in order to simply sow chaos. They have produced anti-vax and pro-vax content in order to keep people engaged and enraged. The effort on their part is pretty low. Chaos and division in the U.S. and Canada and other western countries has unknown ends. But chaos creates opportunity. Battling this disinformation is exhausting. It’s important to check in with known trusted sources and not get too spun up on the latest outrageous theory with unknown origins.
posted by amanda at 9:10 AM on August 29, 2021

@Amanda -- it's documented that a dozen people are responsible for 65% of antivax misinformation on social media platforms, as compiled by "Center for Countering Digital Hate". As expected, when some of their accounts got canceled, antivaxxers screamed "censorship" to anyone that would listen.
posted by kschang at 1:10 PM on August 29, 2021 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for all of the advice and input. It was really hard to select a "best answer" for this so know that you were all helpful.

I spoke to my father earlier in the week and told him why I was concerned. Then I outlined the basics of right-wing American conspiracy theories as a phenomenon (tied to US politics, tends to use churches as a vector, full of grifters) and that it works like a cult and gave examples of how this stuff has destroyed families and led to murders and the like. I used the pizzagate shooter as an example of the latter and also talked about the woman responsible for the whole horse dewormer thing as an example of one of the grifters.

I also told him about the MIT News article that seems to have launched the whole microchip paranoia and clarified some other technology-related stuff I'd told him previously because I want to be completely honest about the stuff I know so that I will continue to be trusted when I need to pull rank as a tech expert.

Finally, I admitted that I might be worrying too much (which is true but it also gives him an out) but that some of his friends and acquaintances might be involved in this stuff. He immediately agreed that yes, he knew people who believed this stuff.

In any case, I feel a lot better about the situation now. One good thing about my parents is that they virtually never use the Internet. They do a little email and sometimes use FaceTime and that's about it. And they've heard me grumble about how awful the web has gotten long enough that (I hope) they now have a healthy skepticism of the stuff they find there.
posted by Squirrel Expert at 6:13 AM on September 2, 2021 [5 favorites]

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