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My loved ones are caught in a web of conspiracy theories — here’s what it’s like

How fear, love, and a new hobby snowballed into a set of concerning beliefs
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I have a middle-aged relative, and all her life, she’s had no hobbies. 

For decades, her full-time job, family, and household responsibilities took up most of her time. That’s why I was thrilled when she started a new hobby during the pandemic. Something had finally sparked her interest: a friend had just introduced her to essential oils and to the whole world of naturopathy.

Thus began my relative’s passion for learning about health. She started watching naturopaths lecture online about the importance of eating balanced meals, exercising regularly, and sleeping for enough hours. Eagerly, my relative would share how she’d learned about the unethical practices happening in large-scale poultry farming and social media’s negative effects on mental health. For a while, I was constantly surprised because I wasn’t used to seeing her so animated.

I felt the happiest when I’d catch her watching lectures on her phone and jotting down notes in a pocket-sized notebook, or when I’d find her taking her newly minted 30-minute daily walk outside. She became more mindful of where her food came from. She seemed happier, more radiant. People told her that her skin glowed. 

I think that was one of the first times in her life that she was committed to doing something for herself.

But my excitement was short-lived. One day, when I went into her kitchen to grab myself a snack, I noticed that something was missing. Her microwave was gone. 

Earlier that day, she’d read that microwaves emitted radiation and therefore caused cancer. I tried explaining to her that microwaves were indeed a type of radiation, but their wavelength was too long to cause any harm. I suggested that the wavelength of light was even shorter than microwaves, but that we didn’t question whether visible light caused cancer.

She only told me that I should keep an open mind. That was when I began to worry. 

Fear

Weeks later, the various internet modems in her house had been moved out of the rooms and into the hallways. She’d read that they, too, caused cancer. After watching a doctor-turned-naturopath declare that big pharma drugs were designed to make patients dependent on them for profit, she discarded most of the biomedical drugs at her house as well.

I’m typically non-confrontational. But when I heard from my sibling that my relative was telling others about Bill Gates’ plan to depopulate the earth through the mass production of COVID-19, I had to say something. She also allegedly warned a pregnant woman at her workplace to avoid being physically close to vaccinated individuals: doing so, she believed, could cause pregnancy complications.

I wondered how she came to believe these claims, so I ventured to read the same articles that she was consuming. I read “Head of Pfizer Research: Covid Vaccine is Female Sterilization” from Health & Money News, “Has Drug Driven Medicine Become a Form of Human Sacrifice?” from Green Med Info, and “Bill Gates — Philanthropist or Eugenicist?” from The Truth About Cancer (TTAC), among others.

A few things struck me right away. These articles are from unrecognized websites, lack nuanced analysis and contextual information, format key arguments in bold capital letters, and use highly emotive words for dramatic flair. 

These elements all tell me that these articles should not be immediately trusted. 

Yet I would be lying if I said I didn’t momentarily doubt official guidelines and data while reading these articles. I would be lying if I said that during the time I was reading them, I didn’t feel absolutely terrified.

I think what makes some conspiracy theories so compelling is that they contain nuggets of truth. My relative’s mistrust in big pharma, for example, is not completely unfounded — the current opioid crisis has taught us that pharmaceutical companies sometimes knowingly withhold or manipulate information to generate profit. 

The problem with conspiracy theories, however, is that they take one phenomenon and connect it to other disparate events without proof. They construct a sinister plot out of a flimsy patchwork of personal anecdotes, speculation, assumptions, and — perhaps the most convincing factor of them all — fear. 

Imagine being exposed to alarmist headlines like “It All Makes Sense Once You Realize They Want to Kill Us,” “What is EMF and Microwave Radiation & How to Protect Your Family,” and “The Human Heart Is Not a Technological Construct. Block 5G from Gaining Momentum” everyday. They paint a menacing world, and promise you and your family salvation as long as you take certain precautionary measures. 

I get a sense from reading these articles that people who believe in conspiracies see themselves as underdogs as champions of the truth being hunted down by the wealthy and the powerful. 

Every article from TTAC, for example, starts with, “TTAC is experiencing heavy censorship on many social media channels since we’ve been targeted by the mainstream media sellouts, social media bullies, and political turncoats. Be sure to get the TRUTH by subscribing to our email list.” 

They’ve come to inhabit an identity that is marked by oppression, but insist that they will keep fighting to save lives and set others free. “They’ve come for us… And they’ll come for you next,” they warn. They compare themselves to war victims; they call themselves the true critical thinkers. 

It sounds like a movie — it’s us against the world. But this is also the reason why my relative’s husband ends up stashing boxes of ivermectin in their medical cabinet and why their 11-year-old child ended up becoming vaccine hesitant.

Fear breeds fear. Once a fire sparks in the forest and spreads, it’s hard to put it out. All it takes to spread a conspiracy theory is for someone to sow doubt into the public — to sound the alarms. And I can’t necessarily blame people who were caught in those crosshairs, and who would rather be safe than sorry.

“I think what makes some conspiracy theories so compelling is that they contain nuggets of truth.” ANDREA ZHAO/THE VARSITY

Literacy

I wondered why my relative thought that these unrecognized websites were not only legitimate, but even more legitimate than official and fact-checked sources. I think the key to this is a lack of media literacy.

One day, an uncle of mine shared a news article from a website called “COVID Call to Humanity,” detailing the Tokyo Medical Association Chairman’s support for using ivermectin to treat COVID-19. 

I told my uncle that this information wasn’t reliable because it wasn’t from an established source, no authors were listed, and it didn’t contain contextual information. He said he’d never thought about those factors before, and thanked me for teaching him about what to look for when reading articles online.

I grew up with the internet, so I’ve had to be used to distinguishing between reliable and unreliable sources since I was young. But my older relatives did not. They were never taught media literacy. To them, publication equates to trustworthiness, and every article looks legitimate.

All voices are amplified on the internet, which I think creates the illusion that all information online is equally reliable. A Green Med Info article titled “Fully Vaccinated Are COVID ‘Super-Spreaders,’ Says Inventor of mRNA Technology” can sit right above a Health Canada post encouraging people to get vaccinated, and both would take up equal space online. To untrained ears, “Health & Money News” may sound as official as “CBC News.” There is an appearance of equal legitimacy here.

Imagine not being familiar with the internet, and how disorienting that could be. The demarcation between official and unofficial sources dissipates and all of them coalesce into one big online information dump.

Context is also replaced by phrases that lend an appearance of reliability. In my view, phrases like “scientists said,” “a study finds,” and “based on research” are often brandished to legitimize unofficial sources, while context is strategically left out.

To someone who buys into COVID-19 conspiracy theories, it doesn’t matter that the “Head of Pfizer Research” who claimed that vaccinations are mass sterilization tools, for example, had left Pfizer nine years ago and was not a virology expert, or that his predictions about the pandemic consistently did not turn out to be true — he was a Pfizer scientist, and therefore legitimate.

It also doesn’t matter that the sparse ivermectin studies that showed positive results had serious flaws in data collection, that the majority of the scientific community does not recommend using ivermectin, or that the Tokyo Medical Association chairman himself was not a government official — the chairman was a scientist, and therefore legitimate.

Personal anecdotes have proven to be particularly salient as well, and have held their grounds against official information. As an international student who received two non-mRNA vaccine doses, I had to take a third mRNA dose as per Health Canada’s guidelines. When I told relatives about this, they were very worried for me. 

They said that an uncle who’d recently gotten an mRNA vaccine dose claimed that he felt his heart get physically heavy for days because of the vaccine. They said he wasn’t planning on getting the second one anymore. Some of them wondered if I could find a loophole in order to avoid complying with the third dose requirement. They told me to be careful, and to build up my immune system in order to fight the vaccine — as if the vaccine was the enemy here.

Loneliness

As much as conspiracies and alternative facts can provide a person with a sense of community, I imagine that believing in them can also be an isolating experience. 

Soon after I started challenging my relative’s beliefs, she stopped telling me about the new things she’d learned. I only came to know more about her beliefs through secondhand accounts. Perhaps I am at fault here too; I should’ve been more patient and understanding when I was explaining things to her. 

But, in reality, it’s difficult for her to hear me out, and it’s difficult for me to hear her out. Both of us think that the other has been brainwashed — I think that she has been brainwashed by conspiracy theorists, and she believes that I have been brainwashed by media sellouts. As you can imagine, it’s an impossible conversation to have. 

We still talk a lot — just not about COVID-19, vaccines, or medicine. Those topics are now off-limits. 

Still, I wonder how she’s doing. I wonder if she catastrophizes by herself, and if so, how often? I want to pull her out of the rabbit hole of doom she has found herself in, but I don’t think it’s my place to do so anymore.

I’ve often heard that people tend to seek out information that aligns with their beliefs and opinions, and that they reject information that may challenge their perspectives. This is why people latch onto conspiracy theories, even if the information in them may be unverified or inaccurate.

But there is a critical first step to all this. From what I see, conspiracy theorists first sow distrust toward official statements and authority figures by constructing their own bulletproof logic. And when people adopt this logic, they render themselves bulletproof against the ‘brainwashing’ of experts, big companies, and the state. 

For example, social media companies’ crackdowns on vaccine misinformation are meant to stop the spread of inaccurate information that may prolong the pandemic. However, conspiracy theorists brand these measures as censorship of the truth, and point to them as textbook evidence that big companies are conspiring with the government to hide secrets from the public for profit.

What I see as unverified and inaccurate information, they see as truth. What I see as responsible reporting, they see as bribery from the government and big companies. What I see as necessary measures to maintain a healthy information ecosystem, they see as censorship for spreading the truth. And if there is a lack of evidence for their theories, it’s because the government and big companies are very good at covering their tracks. 

There is an ironclad counter-argument to every argument. As psychologist Jovan Byford wrote, “Conspiracy theories are, by definition, irrefutable.”

If two people from both parties had a conversation about these topics, I wouldn’t be surprised if they were hitting their heads against the wall by the end of it.

Love

Here’s the impasse I face. My relative only wants what’s best for her loved ones, and I only want what’s best for her. We both want the same thing, which is to keep each other safe. But we each think that the other is putting themself at risk.

Disinformation is defined as “intentionally fabricated or manipulated information.” But I’m not sure if she — or any of the people whose content she watches and reads — intentionally seeks to manipulate information for any personal gain. I wonder if conspiracy theorists, too, are just afraid and anxious people, caught up in a world painted in shades of doom and despair. 

I wonder if they, too, are just not equipped with scientific and media literacy. In an article titled “Conspiracy of Censorship by the Medical Mafia & Totalitarian Tyrants,” TTAC founders wrote, “From the origin of COVID-19 to the best prevention methods, it seems like the truth continues to change as time marches on. But the truth — by definition — is constant; like true north or gravity, it is absolute and unchanging.”

To me, it seems like they simply lack an understanding of the scientific method. Rather than staying consistent, scientific thinking and guidelines always naturally evolve in light of new data.

Certainly, there are those who have ideological and political agendas. But I wonder if they truly constitute the majority of those who believe in conspiracies. The majority of my loved ones who believe in these theories do not have political or financial agendas — they’re usually just parents, fearful for their own safety and that of their families.

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