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Column: What to do when your uncle believes coronavirus conspiracies

  • NEW YORK TIMES
                                A City of Detroit Department of Transportation worker power washes a bus stop in Detroit on March 27, 2020.

    NEW YORK TIMES

    A City of Detroit Department of Transportation worker power washes a bus stop in Detroit on March 27, 2020.

It’s not unusual for my relatives or friends to talk about kooky ideas. But now others’ believing in hoaxes or bad information feels dangerous. This drug is a miracle cure! Blame this billionaire for the virus!

I tried to figure out what we can do when someone we love believes in coronavirus conspiracies they see online.

What I learned is we need to have empathy for people who are afraid of a scary illness. We should be on the lookout for those who have reasons to talk up misinformation. And with trust in authority figures falling among many Americans, we can step in and spread good information to people who trust us and model good behavior.

“Conspiracy theories seem especially likely to take hold during disasters and tragedies when people experience a loss of control and are trying to make sense of the world,” said Brendan Nyhan, a Dartmouth College professor who studies misperceptions about politics and health care.

Nyhan said the worst thing you can do is shame people in your social circle for what they believe. Don’t be too hard on your cousin who posts that cellphone towers contribute to coronavirus infections. Don’t be that lobbyist who typed “IDIOTS” about people protesting stay-at-home orders.

We’re fallible. Sometimes we worry about the wrong things. Reasonable people can disagree, particularly when knowledge about this virus keeps shifting.

We also need to train ourselves and our loved ones to look behind the curtain for people with a political message and others who have incentives to fan our fears in crises, said Renée DiResta, who researches disinformation at the Stanford Internet Observatory.

But Nyhan said it’s counterproductive to spend too much energy trying to refute people we disagree with, whether it’s friends, talking heads on television or politicians. If we put all our attention on misinformation, he said, “the communication becomes too focused on what’s not true rather than what is.”

Instead, he said it’s better to amplify accurate messages. Nyhan credited sports stars like Steph Curry, health care officials and entertainers who helped spread the message that the coronavirus was dangerous and that people could best protect themselves by staying home as much as possible and keeping their distance from people outside their households.

Like those celebrities, we can spread helpful information to people who believe what we say.

Nyhan and DiResta, who has written extensively about misinformation about vaccines, said they were worried that fear-mongering or a lack of trust in government authorities will undermine a potential coronavirus vaccine. We might be able to help there, too.

Maybe your brother doesn’t trust the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Nyhan said, but he probably does trust you, his kid’s school principal and his church deacon. They should tout the importance of vaccines. Someone in our lives relies on us. And we can harness that trust to help keep ourselves informed and our communities safe.

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