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Anna Roche's column

"You're brainwashed!" Why conspiracy theories are so popular during crises and disasters


"It's a fake!" - declared Sofia, a friend of mine from Hamburg.

We were discussing another picture of the wounded in Ukraine. If Sofia lived in Russia, I wouldn't be so surprised by her response, but she has been in Germany for ten years, speaks perfect German and English, and has a phone that allows her to access any website without any VPN. Nevertheless, Sofia is sure that in Ukraine "everything is not so clear-cut".

"I don't believe what the German media writes. They are all bought," she declares.

I open my mouth to start an argument but bite my tongue. This is not our first conversation on the topic, and no amount of argument from me has previously changed her mind.

Maybe it is because in her social circle it is customary to watch Russian state channels? But then that wouldn’t explain why some Europeans share her point of view?

A week ago a horse breeder called Jean-Louis - from the south of France and without any ties to Russia - "calmed me down" about the situation in Ukraine: "Don't worry, it's not what the media are telling us here.

These people are not convinced by the high Freedom of the Press Index in Europe, nor by the possibility of cross-checking different sources... They prefer to believe in a different version of events.

Following my argument with Sofia, I have had a constant thought running through my head; a thought I cannot grasp. I've heard it all before somewhere... Bingo! I have, after all, once lived for two years with a man who believes in a theory that has no proof and seems like complete nonsense to most people.

My ex-boyfriend was convinced that there was a so-called "Jewish-Masonic conspiracy" - a secret coalition of Jews and Freemasons that actually ruled the world. Where did he get his "proof" from? From some websites claiming to be the only source of truth in a world where all the media is paid for by the government, the oligarchs and those very Jidomasons. We argued a thousand times in two years, very similar to my conversations with Sofia.

Any arguments on my part were always dismissed with a simple "You can't see for yourself that you are brainwashed by the traditional media".

People who say in Europe or the USA that evidence from Ukraine is all fake can be compared to conspiracy theorists . Both are convinced that there is no such thing as free and objective media: they believe that the "system" is deceiving everyone and are convinced that they themselves are the only ones who see the truth.

I decided to remember everything I know about conspiracy theories. Maybe it will help me understand what's going on in Sophia's and Jean-Louis' heads.

When I studied sociology at the Sorbonne, my favourite subject was called the Sociology of Collective Beliefs. What attracted me to it was not only a good-looking professor, but also the opportunity to understand why our brains sometimes stray from rationale and common sense.

One thing I remember is that conspiracy theories and other bizarre beliefs flourish in times of great upheaval.

Sometimes the brain simply refuses to comprehend what is going on, so people are willing to believe anything. For example, a cloud of conspiracy theories arose after 9/11 or during the covid pandemic (my personal favourite: the covid was created by the descendants of the Rurikids in order to revive Tsarist Russia and regain the throne). Plague, war, terrorist attacks, any crisis, makes for fertile ground for belief in strange things.

And yet, even in times of cataclysm, not everyone believes in conspiracy theories. So why do some people's brains choose this route? Karen Douglas, professor of social psychology at the University of Kent, gives three psychological reasons.

The first reason is an internal need to understand why what is happening is happening. Our brains don't like doubt and uncertainty. Belief in signs, in fate, in the fact that "coincidences are not random", are all a reflection of the human desire to find a system where there is none. And when something out of the ordinary happens, the effect is many times stronger.

Many people find it easier to believe that the covid was created on purpose than to accept that the world has been turned upside down because of some Chinese bat.

The second reason has to do with the fact that people want to feel safe. We can't bear the feeling that we have no control over our own lives. In such a situation, conspiracy theories give people the illusion that they at least have an explanation as to why they are helpless. If you believe that all your problems are the fault of the Jewish Masons, it becomes easier. Just as it is if you believe that there was some good reason for the attack of one state on another that could justify it.

Finally, the third reason lies in one's desire to be satisfied with oneself, and with the group to which one belongs. The usual rhetoric of the adherents of conspiracy theories is: "Everyone else is a mindless herd, but us... We know the truth!" This belief gives them a sense of their own uniqueness. Researchers often find narcissistic traits in such people.

They manifest themselves both at the individual level and at the group level. Often believers in conspiracy theories consider the group to which they belong to to be special. At the same time, it is often special, but underestimated by everyone else.

A picture of Sophia wearing a T-shirt with the words "God is with us" comes to mind.

It is logical that those Russians who are convinced that Russia has some "special way" do not want to believe information that presents Russia in a bad light. Would this still be true if they were in Europe, where Russia's policies are criticised on every corner? They would rather team up with like-minded people than check their sources.

Figuring out the reasons is great, but how will it help me to change Sofia's mind?

The bad news is that it is very difficult to get someone who firmly believes in a theory to abandon it.

However, you can still try.

It is important to avoid the biggest mistake of all in such disputes: don't be "outspoken.

"Why are you reading this nonsense?" - I used to roll my eyes when my ex would take a break from one of his favourite websites and inform me that NASA was hiding aliens found in the jungles of Ecuador from us. As you can imagine, after such a start he didn't want to hear anything. I seem to be repeating the same mistake with Sophia.

Don't do what I did.

If you decide to get into an argument with someone about world government, vaccinations or war, find common ground first.

Chances are you both believe that people have a right to quality healthcare or that killing civilians is bad. Start with that rather than how wrong the person is.

People in general don't like to hear that they are wrong. Their theory may seem delusional to you, but it's how they try to make sense of the world. They believe they are asking the right questions, and often they really are.

For example, it is perfectly right to check where each media outlet gets its funding from. Only further down the line their logic falters. From the answers to their questions, they select only the part that supports their theory - and draw false conclusions ("some media are funded by big firms, so all media are lying").

To create space for dialogue, you can try to make sense of the world together. Cautiously ask the same questions, but about the sources and theories that your interlocutor believes in. Only when there is some trust between you can you begin to make arguments and evidence.

You shouldn't expect the person to change their mind immediately, but perhaps they will think about it. So, before you dare to change someone's mind, assess your own strengths. And have patience and a good bottle of wine (or valerian).

Author: Anna Roche
Photos by the author

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