In the 1999 movie, The Matrix, Morpheus held out his palms and said to Neo,
This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill–the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill–you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.
Neo chose the red pill and awoke to the real world– one that exists behind a veil of subdued, machine-simulated comfort. The phrase “red pill” that is supposed to allude to truth has, however, become synonymous with conspiracy theory. It’s not really surprising, is it? Everyone knows that conspiracies have occurred in the past, but how do we know if we are living through one right now?
Mick West, the author of Escaping the Rabbit Hole: How to Debunk Conspiracy Theories Using Facts, Logic, and Respect, is known for his work in “debunking” conspiracies as the administrator of metabunk.org. He’s not “a government turboshill-undercover CIA agent poser,” or a “creep-ass troll that is paid to cover up the real story,” he’s a former programmer and advocate of truth who, until the publication of this book, has never made a dime from debunking.
Regardless of what you believe of him, Escaping the Rabbit Hole is a genuinely well-written field guide for those of us dealing with conspiracy theorist friends or family members, with a lot of great information on topics like flat Earth, chemtrails, and even Morgellons.
Everyone loves a conspiracy
There’s a large number of conspiracy theories circulating on the internet (and in our headspace), and the number continues to climb each year. What is a conspiracy theory, though? Escaping the Rabbit Hole defines it as “a theory that explains a situation or event as resulting from a secret plot by some powerful group”.
Some argue the term “conspiracy theorist” is negative in connotation, but West believes it’s the most accurate and common usage, with many positive associations in popular culture; the term itself has been around since 1870, but gained major attention in the 1990’s, coinciding with The X-Files and (rather less appealing) the Oklahoma City bombing, then with 1997 films Conspiracy Theory and Men in Black.
The conspiracy spectrum is extremely varied and wide, and West lays out a general list of conspiracies from mild to extreme. Despite ranking them, one of West’s major points early on in Escaping the Rabbit Hole is to always be respectful and understand that conspiracists are genuine people with genuine concerns. He encourages you to avoid dividing people in terms of “conspiracists” and “regular people”. West stresses, “We are all conspiracy theorists in one way or another.”
According to West, certain personality or psychological aspects may correlate with the tendency to fall into an unfounded conspiracy theory. He suggests that the need to feel unique, one’s attitude about authority figures, an “overdeveloped tendency to find patterns in things”, and even intelligence could play a role in delivering a person into the conspiracy realm. YouTube access also seems to be a major factor. All of the people quoted in Escaping the Rabbit Hole mention using YouTube as a “research tool” to find videos that quench their curious thirst for “truth.”
Though research is still ongoing, West admits there only seem to be minor correlations with personality type and conspiracy belief. He suggests everyone has a “demarcation line” — a special spot where they draw the line below which things are sensible, and above which things are silly.
It can be something as mild as believing a politician is accepting campaign contributions to vote a certain way on various legislation. There are average conspiracies such as JFK being assassinated by more than one shooter. Of course, the more extreme claim we are being governed by shape-shifting lizard people. He touches on factual conspiracies (such as Watergate) and false flags (like the Gulf of Tonkin Incidents). There really are conspiracy theories for everyone.
The “how-to” part
Having a friend or loved one spiraling into conspiracy is tough. The deeper your friend gets into certain topics, the more apt they are to self harm, or to do harm to others while fighting for what they perceive to be true. People with issues against “Big Pharma” may wind up refusing medical treatment and opt to use homeopathic methods that will exacerbate or not provide adequate help for their situation. False flag shooting believers may harrass parents that have lost their children. 9/11 truthers went so far down the rabbit hole and became so extreme that they have socially isolated themselves from family and friends.
How can any of it be helped? West keeps it simple:
- Maintain Effective Dialogue – Find common ground and validate their genuine concerns while being respectful and polite. Listen!
- Supply Information – Show them mistakes made in their thinking or their sources, things they might have missed, and things that may provide some perspective
- Give it Time – Allow them time to process information and to distance themselves from their ideas, as some people have invested a lot into their “personas” and may struggle with trying to find themselves again
Easier said than done. Patience and understanding can go a long way. Sometimes you can do all of these things and it will still not pull them out.
Escaping the Rabbit Hole also has chapters dedicated specifically to assist debunking the ideas of chemtrails, flat Earth, and false flag operations. These chapters provide a lot more information and include resources to find help or for further reading. They can get a bit tedious if you aren’t comfortable with some physics concepts, a light bit of astronomy, or a tad of geometry.
After each section are personal stories from those that have climbed out of their “rabbit holes,” which is a really nice way to break up the heavy stuff, as well as information on dealing with those that may have mental health issues. The end of every chapter has key points and references, which is absolutely fantastic if you’re using this as an actual “how-to” guide. It gets a bit repetitive at times, but it really drives home the steps of helping someone out of the conspiracy ditch they’re in.
Key to the future
The current political climate is discussed at the end of the book, as well as the future of artificial intelligence and bots. Algorithms and their role on YouTube (and across all of our social media platforms) have a way of dragging us into specific directions of conspiracy theories through gradual steps, and it’s not a pretty sight.
However, there is hope. The fight against misinformation has begun. Some very large organizations are trying to find ways to alert users to false information, and some forms of legislation are looming in the near future. Debunking with automation and artificial intelligence will come, in time.
Until then, it is just you and me against the conspiracists. Escaping the Rabbit Hole: How to Debunk Conspiracy Theories Using Facts, Logic, and Respect by Mick West is the first weapon of choice in my arsenal, and I think you’d be well off to add it to yours.