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Obsession with Conspiracy Theories

My friend is obsessed with conspiracy theories to the point where It’s negatively effecting her life and disconnecting her from reality. She spends excessive amounts of time online reading about them. She was sexually abused as a child. Is there anything I can do as her friend to help nudge her back into reality and encourage interest in other pursuits?

There is no shortage of conspiracy theories on the internet. They are immensely popular. Conspiracy theories have existed for centuries but social media has made them easier to share, particularly on platforms such as YouTube and Twitter. In fact, one former YouTube engineer claims that YouTube prioritizes conspiracy theories in their algorithms. If you watch one video, the “next up” or suggested recommendation is a similar type of video. Thus, if a person is watching a conspiracy-oriented video, the “next up” selection is likely another conspiracy-oriented video. Colloquially, some people refer to this as the “YouTube rabbit hole.”

One popular conspiracy theory is that the victims of mass shootings are “crisis actors.” Jonathan Albright, a researcher at Columbia University, studied how these conspiracy theories spread on social media. It was his opinion that many popular conspiracy theories originate on YouTube. He observed that the view count for 50 of the top mass shooting related conspiracy videos was around 50 million.

Another recent study by MIT researchers published in the journal Science analyzed millions of tweets between 2006 and 2017. They concluded that falsehoods (including many conspiracy theories) spread “significantly farther, faster, deeper and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information.” In other words, lies spread much faster than truth.

It appears that conspiracy theories and other types of falsehoods are here to stay. The ability to think critically has always been important and more so now in the age of the internet.

If you have yet to express your concerns to your friend, that would be a good place to start. She may not want to hear it or she may be open to your concerns. Hopefully, it’s the latter.

Another possibility may be sharing your concerns with her family. They too might be worried. Perhaps there is someone in her family who might be able to convince her to stop.

Once you’ve tried the aforementioned ideas, there’s probably little else you can do. You can’t force someone to do things they don’t want to do. You can express your concerns and make suggestions for change but beyond that, adults are free to do anything they want even if it is harmful to them.

Do all you can. Express your concerns and suggest that she stop or seek help but beyond that realize that your powers are limited. You can’t control other people. No one can.

Hopefully your friend will be receptive to your advice. Good luck.

Dr. Kristina Randle

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