How to talk to people stuck in a conspiracy theory hellscape

I talk to full-time debunker Mick West - author of "Escaping the Rabbit Hole" - about how to best engage with those caught in the grip of dangerous conspiracy thinking.

Hi there.

I’m excited to share this conversation, because I think all of us are seeing friends — or friends-of-friends — slipping into the grips of conspiracy theories like QAnon and WayfairGate.

Slowly the social media giants are catching up: Twitter just banned 7,000 QAnon accounts, and limited 150,000 more. “The company will classify QAnon as coordinated harmful activity” according to NBC, who broke the story.

But it goes on.

Kids are getting sucked in, too. It’s hitting TikTok pretty hard at the moment, as children on the platform are getting introduced to QAnon en masse. The latest thing doing the rounds is that Linkin Park’s deceased singer Chester Bennington was… John Podesta’s son?

With that in mind — perfectly rational people we know (young and old, stupid and smart) are suddenly convinced 5G will kill us, COVID-19 is nothing more than the flu, and Bill Gates and George Soros are attempting to microchip all of humanity.

I wanted to find out some tips to help them.

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Meet Mick West

One man that’s spent a great deal of his life thinking about this stuff is Mick West, a conspiracy theory debunker and all-round top guy.

He has a background in software development, and is the kind of smart I wish I was.

To be quite frank, Mick West is the man I want to be. 

Back in 1999, Mick helped create one of the best & most iconic video-games of all time, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater.

He actually co-founded Neversoft in 1994 and made a lot of other games, too — and made a lot of money doing it.  

That meant he could basically retire very early, and since then he spends a great deal of his time politely debunking conspiracy theories. Not for money — but for the love of it. Because it matters.

His main website Metabunk is a delight — as he carefully and methodically debunks various mysteries and conspiracy theories.

As a kid he — like me — loved monsters and ghosts and so on, and was also terrified of them, and now as an adult he uses that early stuff that captured his imagination and paranoia as a fuel to dig deep into the science and facts of that stuff. 

Although these days instead of ghosts and the Loch Ness Monster, it’s QAnon, chemtrails, 9/11 and crisis actors.

He wrote a book a few years bask called Escaping The Rabbit Hole, and it’s fucking wonderful and gives me hope that there is a way out of this sea of misinformation and untruths that I feel like I’m drowning in.

He understands that of course there are conspiracy theories that are real, but he’s here to do away with the ones that are unhinged they’re laughable.

I wanted to talk to him about how to talk to people like the Pete Evans’ of this world, the man I screamed at a few weeks ago in this piece: “Influencer culture should be burnt to the ground.

So I tracked him down, and we started talking over Twitter, and over the amazing forum called Google Docs.

This is our conversation, as I talked to him about the best way to help those trapped in the conspiracy vortex.

Because we all know someone in that place.

He’s super smart, and understands not just the structure of a conspiracy theory, but the best way to engage with human minds who have fallen into the rabbit hole.

A conversation with expert debunker, Mick West

Let’s just be clear here, I have you to thank for Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, right? And not just the first one but like a load of them?

The first five. I left Neversoft just after THUG (Tony Hawk's Underground)

I don’t mean to nerd about but I was fucking obsessed with MKD in 1997 and please tell me that was your company too? 

Thanks! MDK was a PC game by Shiny, and Neversoft did the conversion to the Playstation. I was quite a challenge, as the PC version used 8MB but the PSX only had 2MB, and no floating point support. Lots of work, millions of bugs, but we eventually got it done. 

Okay. Back on topic. I loved your book and it gave me hope that people can be talked out of believing a giant Cabal of Elites is running a pedophile ring and that mole children are being rescued from under Central Park. I want people to read your book, but what is the one key bit of advice you would give someone who has a friend or family member that believes this sort of thing?

The most important thing is to keep talking to them. Keep the channel of communication both open, and productive.

That means you want to avoid them pushing away from you. They make bad decisions because they have a skewed set of information sources. You help them by providing outside context.

If you are a close friend or family member, then you might be the only way they are exposed to good information.

So keep talking to them, even if it’s not directly about the things they are interested in. At the very least you will ground them somewhat, allowing for later progress.

Your constant emphasis on kindness cut through to me. In your book, you even talk of a really smart debunker on your forum that you had to ban, because his snarky anger was making things worse. I also get angry at people, and start calling them names. How do you calm that initial reaction of “THIS IS SO STUPID WHY DO YOU BELIEVE THIS YOU DUMB MORON?” to “I respect you, and let’s talk about this!”

Well you can still have that reaction. Just recognize that calling someone stupid is not going to be helpful.

It’s perfectly fine to tell someone that you think they are wrong. It’s even fine to tell them the scale of your reaction (e.g. “to be honest, these things you are saying sound incredibly unlikely”).

So acknowledge your reaction, but also recognize that they are quite serious about their belief.

Imagine you had a grandparent who had different religious beliefs to you - that’s quite common and understandable, and yet can be (at a scientific level) as radical a disagreement as regarding a conspiracy theory. 

There is this fundamental problem, where the 9/11 truther or flat-earther is equally convinced you are wrong. How in the world do you get around that?

Find the simplest thing that you disagree about.

Start by discussing related topics to find areas of agreement.

Like you probably both agree that there’s corruption of some sort amongst politicians. You probably agree that pollution is a bad thing. You might agree that there’s too much surveillance.

So start there, and move the topics gradually towards where you disagree. 

A revelation I took from your book is understanding the spectrum of theories, and where your friend or loved one sits on that spectrum. Why is that so vital?

Firstly because it’s tempting to simply label someone, like: “oh, he’s just a conspiracy theorist”.

But conspiracy theorists are not all the same. People who think that 9/11 was a “let it happen” conspiracy are not the same as people who think the Queen is a child eating lizard, and not even the same as some other 9/11 theorists.

Secondly - you need to understand where they fall on the spectrum so you know where they draw the line of demarcation between what they think of as “reasonable” theories (that they believe) and “silly” theories that they don’t.

Understanding this helps you focus on areas where there might be change, and helps you shift that line. 

I think that leads to finding common ground, which is a bit of advice you always give — and that struck me, too. This idea that instantly shutting them down is not the way to go, but gently finding things to agree on first. 

Exactly. You need to focus on things that will be helpful.  You can’t just jump in though, you have to make sure you understand them first, and help them understand you.

Get good communication going. 

Another thing you mentioned is that it’s a super good idea to state back the conspiracy theory to the believer, but in an even better, sharper way. To basically show them that you fully grasp the argument even better than they do. Can you explain this a little, and why it’s so important? 

It shows that you are not trying to dismiss or diminish their argument.

It’s a technique known as “steel-manning,” and it’s the honest version of “straw-manning”, where you deceptively present a bad version of an argument so you can shoot it down.

It’s important to be honest. Sunlight is the best disinfectant, and often just clearly stating the argument in the most accurate way possible will reveal any flaws it has.

It’s always best if you can get the other person to discover for themselves what the flaws are. 

What is the best forum to gently talk to conspiracy theories about their beliefs? Like, I feel twitter is just a forest fire and it almost isn’t worth engaging people there.

Reading the chapters in your book, logically going through the facts around 9/11 and chemtrails, just seemed perfect as it was logical, conversational, and non-abrasive.

But yeah, what should we be doing with that tricky family member? Writing emails? Talking to them over dinner? Texting them links?

Another takeaway I have is that this isn’t going to happen overnight. It takes time. It’s like someone falling out of a cult or religion in a way — over time, lots of little things build up that eventually can’t be dismissed, and one day the whole thing crumbles, like a damn bursting. But it takes time, right?

Or is there a magic video people can watch to pull them out of the rabbit hole?

Really whatever you have available. Face to face discussion work best, but only if this is something you are both comfortable with. It might be better to start with email - but be careful as it's much easier to misinterpret things in plain text.

Face to face works well as there is a much quicker exchange of information, and you get instant feedback, and can instantly correct misunderstandings.

Texting links is generally not helpful. Always send them a relevant (and preferably short) quote, with the link as backup. Don’t expect them to ever read a link or watch a video, unless they asked you for it. 

Something that’s really come into fashion lately is QAnon - thanks in large part to Trump playing along and always retweeting QAnon accounts I think - and to me, that almost is unstoppable because it’s SO OUT THERE, any debate against it is just proof to the believer that it’s all real. This is a big problem with people like celeb chef Pete Evans.

I know a lot of conspiracy theories share this narrative (“You’re a shill!” being yelled back at you), but with QAnon it seems almost unbeatable due to its very nature.

Do you have any tips for engaging with this level of conspiracy theory?

They need more context.

They think they understand what is going on, but have a “crippled epistemology” - a limited set of information sources.

You are not going to flip them, but you can slowly improve things by exposing them to better information.

I often recommend political documentaries, like this list.

Show them how the sausage is actually made. 

To me it seems a big problem with conspiracy thinking in 2020 is that sometimes there is no middle ground.

It’s sort of like die-hard Trump supporters: there is no time where they say “yeah, we love Trump but that thing he said about grabbing women by the pussy was a bit iffy!

Instead it’s “NO! The media is tearing him down, it was just locker room talk, grow up! Trump is perfect, he can do no wrong, ever! FAKE NEWS!

Whereas, I feel even super left supporters of, say, Obama had more capacity to say “yeah we bloody love Obama, but his actions with drones that time was just awful shit, we disagreed with him essentially killing a load of innocent people to achieve his goal. That was bad!” I feel diehard conspiracy people way down the rabbit hole are like that, almost this cult-like thinking, and there’s no way around it.

With all that in mind, you wrote your book in 2018, and ended on a fairly optimistic tone. Do you still feel that optimism and hope? 

I do. Most people are good people.

Even the “crazy” conspiracy theorist are generally good people who think they are doing the right thing.

We know people respond to information. We know there’s a lot of bad information out there, and that there's a lot of people who have fallen for it.

But the basic goodness of people is still there, and there are a lot of people fighting against the disinformation. 

I mean, you talked at the end of your book that we’re fighting AI now, too - that essentially people are being led more and more easily down the rabbit hole of crap.

I know YouTube is putting measures in place to flag videos, and Zuckerberg claims to be tightening up on things, but bullshit still prevails because let’s be honest, that guy does not give many fucks.

You know programming and code and stuff - but is this stuff going to be our downfall? 

It’s going to be an arms race. There will probably be some problems.

But the public will eventually understand the issues, and know not to trust everything or everyone of the internet.

It’s hard to say exactly what it will look like. I think there’s work to be done, but I’m generally optimistic. 

Finally, you have to admit you have the perfect card up your sleeve, right? Like during an argument, you can just say “Um, hello, I created Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater!

That will shut anyone up. But this leads me to the question of who is the best person to talk someone out of loopy thinking?

I feel like it has to be a best friend. Or does it need to be someone the QAnon adherent greatly admires?

Both work well, and I’ve heard direct anecdotes.

Some people had a friend help them — this is partly because a good friend is not automatically pushed away, so they get more of an opportunity to make a difference.

Having someone they admire talk about the topic can also be helpful. A lot of people told me they did not trust me, until they found out that Joe Rogan agrees with some of what I say. 

Finally, is there one resource or article you’re loving lately, could you point us to it? 

I like First Draft News, especially their email newsletter — really helps keep up to date with what is going on in the world of disinformation. 

Thanks Mick. I think I’ve used enough of your time. You need to be back out there, doing what you do. 


A quick personal reflection:

With Mick’s conversation in mind, I wanted to note that I’ve had some really constructive emails back and forth with Art Green, the influencer who had QAnon adherent Pete Evans on his show.

I wrote two pieces based around that that: Influencer culture should be burnt to the ground, and Freedom of speech vs spewing out misinformation.

In that last piece, I’d noted Art Green had left my last message (warning him of the dangers of QAnon) on “seen”.

Well, I wanted to say Art ended up replying a few days later — and to be honest I really appreciated his tone (we’ve all left stuff on read, right?)

I wrote to him, keeping the stuff Mick had told me in mind.

He was funny, self-reflective and I think was genuinely taking all this stuff on board. He was really open to emailing back and forth some more. He didn’t have to do that.

God, it sounds like I have a crush on Art Green, huh.

My point is, while talking to Art, I was thinking a lot about the stuff Mick West had shared, and it really helped me in my approach.

It’s so easy to get annoyed and shitty (for me, at least) at clearly terrible ideas that are turning our discussions about how the world functions into delusional hellscapes of pointless debate.

But — that attitude isn’t gonna help someone you don’t even know re-think their ideas.

This has been a free Webworm, because it’s about techniques you can use to talk to people trapped in their conspiracy thinking — and so I want it to be as accessible as possible.

You might have a Facebook friend, an uncle, a sibling or a parent you just don’t know how to talk to anymore. And I hope this newsletter might help.

Paying monthly subscribers get more stuff — like deep dives into QAnon hitting New Zealand politics, and the story behind why Canadian murderer Luka Magnotta started writing to me from prison. Lots more is coming.

Talk soon,