Here’s how to spot conspiracy theories

The Corona pandemic has spawned damaging and misleading conspiracy theories, spread primarily over the Internet. Using ten charts, the EU Commission and UNESCO now want to help identify, refute and counter conspiracy theories.

Beware: the Corona pandemic has spawned damaging and misleading conspiracy theories. It’s sometimes hard to recognize them or know how to deal with them.

What are conspiracy theories? Why they are booming?

The belief that certain events or situations are being manipulated by secret forces with negative intentions.

1. An alleged secret conspiracy.

2. A group of conspirators.

3. "Evidence" that seems to support the conspiracy theory.

4. They suggest that nothing happens by chance, and that there are no coincidences; nothing is as it seems – and everything belongs together.

5. They divide the world into good and evil.

6. They make scapegoats of specific people or groups.

On the surface, they often offer a logical explanation for complex events or situations and provide a false sense of control and interpretive authority. This need for clarity is particularly strong in times of corona.

The starting point of conspiracy theories is often suspicion. The question of who benefits from the event or situation leads directly to the conspirators. "Evidence" must then necessarily support the theory.

Once conspiracy theories are in circulation, they can take on tremendous forms. They are so difficult to refute because anyone who tries is immediately suspected of being part of the conspiracy.

Most people actually believe they are true. Some, on the other hand, deliberately seek to provoke, manipulate or target others for political or financial reasons. Beware: conspiracy theories circulate everywhere – on the Internet, among friends or relatives.

The first step against conspiracy theories is knowing they exist. So beware. Do not disseminate further.

Are we dealing with a conspiracy theory? Do not pass on unchecked

1. Verify author: Who is writing here – and with what intent?

  • The author is a recognized expert in the field.
  • The author relies on verifiable facts and scientific evidence.
  • The author is a self-proclaimed expert and does not belong to a reputable organization or institution.
  • The writer provides references, but they turn out to be thin or outdated.

2. Check source: Is it reliable and recognized?

  • The source has been cited by several reputable media outlets.
  • The information is supported by science and research.
  • Independent fact-checking websites confirm the source and related statements.
  • Where the information comes from is not clear.
  • The information is only shared by self-proclaimed experts.
  • Independent fact-checking websites do not confirm the source and have debunked related statements.

3. Pay attention to tone and style. Is it balanced and fair or lurid and one-dimensional?

  • The author shows complexity and different perspectives.
  • The author admits to reaching the limits of his knowledge.
  • The tone is objective and factual.
  • The author presents his information as the sole truth.
  • The writer raises questions rather than providing answers.
  • The writer demonizes everyone behind the supposed conspiracy.
  • The tone is subjective and emotionally charged.
  • Emotional images or anecdotes are used to illustrate the message.

What is a real conspiracy?

Real conspiracies exist on both a large and small scale. They usually involve single, self-contained events or individuals, such as in an assassination or a coup d’etat. They are uncovered by whistleblowers and the media using verifiable facts and evidence.

An example of a real conspiracy? In 2006, several major cigarette companies were found guilty of conspiracy by the U.S. District Court in Washington DC. For decades, they covered up health risks associated with cigarette use so as not to jeopardize their sales figures. (LA Times, 2006)

Check sources: When in doubt, do not share. Do not disseminate further.

Conspiracy theories: What do I myself actually believe in?

No one is free from prejudices or fears that might make him or her susceptible to conspiracy theories.
Where do my fears, beliefs, and values originate??

Hand on heart: why do I believe what I believe?

  • What are my fears, beliefs and values?? How do they affect my decisions and my interactions with people??
  • Do I have prejudices and do I think in stereotypes? Why?
  • Feel disadvantaged? In what form?
  • Do I have to blame someone else? Why?
  • How do I choose my sources of information?
  • Has anything changed in the Corona crisis about this?

COVID-19 is a cause for concern. So it’s perfectly normal when we feel overwhelmed and are looking for answers.
Do not forget: No one is responsible for creating the virus, but we can all help contain it.

Beware of an overabundance of information. Trust only verified information. Don’t spread anything unchecked.

What do I actually believe myself?

Conspiracy theories can be dangerous.

Conspiracy theories are often discriminatorily directed against entire groups perceived as the cause of a real or perceived threat. They polarize society and foment violent extremism. Most people who spread conspiracy theories really believe in them. Others make use of them out of pure cynicism.

Here’s how conspiracy theories do damage:

  1. Making out an enemy and a secret plot that threatens our lives or beliefs and triggers a defense reflex, that can lead to discrimination and hate crimes and be exploited by violent extremists.
  2. They undermine trust in the state‘ which can lead to political apathy or radicalization.
  3. They erode trust in scientific and medical information‘ which can have serious consequences.

Caution: People perceived as social "fringe" groups are especially vulnerable to conspiracy theories, hate speech, and lying campaigns. This applies regardless of origin, religion or sexual orientation. In the context of Corona, certain groups have often been incorrectly blamed for the spread of the virus in Europe, such as people of suspected Asian origin, Jews, Muslims, Roma, and LGBTI+ (FRA, 2020).

Conspiracy theories can have serious consequences. So please take them seriously. Do not pass on unchecked. Do not spread.

Conspiracy theories: The link to anti-Semitism

Not all conspiracy theories target Jews. Jews, however, have been targets of conspiracy theories for centuries. Jews have been wrongly blamed for plagues, wars or economic crises.

One of the most common anti-Semitic patterns is the insinuation that "Jews" instrumentalize politics, media and banks. Despite extensive historical evidence to the contrary, some anti-Semites still claim the Holocaust was caused by Jews or never happened.

Beware of:

  • Clearly offensive and demeaning language use
  • implicit and hidden anti-Semitic phrases (e.g. B. "East Coast elites" in the United States)
  • alleged conspiracies involving Jewish individuals or groups (z. B. be pinned on the Rothschild family or philanthropist George Soros) or the state of Israel
  • Refer to the Protocols of the Wise Men of Zion, a fake pamphlet designed to prove their alleged plans to take over the world.

Anti-Semitism is a form of discrimination. Do not pass them on unchecked. Do not disseminate.

The connection with anti-Semitism

Preventively refute and debunk conspiracy theories

Stopping the spread of conspiracy theories is not always easy. There is no one solution to this problem. It depends on how susceptible you are. People who strongly believe in conspiracy theories are extremely hard to reach.

Level 1: Low susceptibility to conspiracy theories

PREVENTIVE OPPOSITION – Enlightened people are less susceptible:

  1. Warn people early on that conspiracy theories exist.
  2. Encourage critical thinking, questioning and fact-checking.
  3. Point out claims behind the most common Corona conspiracy theories and the central features of conspiratorial thinking – distrust of official accounts, immunity to counterevidence, interpretation of random events as elements of a broad pattern.

Stage 2: High susceptibility to conspiracy theories

DISCLAIMER – What matters are facts and logic


  1. Focus on the facts you want to communicate, not the tall tale you want to expose.
  2. Take a targeted approach – author, source or logic behind the conspiracy theory.
  3. Always emphasize that the information is false before talking about a conspiracy theory.
  4. Offer a fact-based alternative explanation.
  5. Clarify your view of things, if possible, using illustrative material.


  1. Do not focus on the conspiracy theory first. This way you only reinforce it.
  2. Dose the information.

Approach the matter in the right way. Do not further disseminate.

How to confront conspiracy theorists?

Most conspiracy theorists are deeply convinced of their beliefs. In fact, it shapes the worldview of these individuals.

In discussions with conspiracy theorists, keep the following in mind:

  • Every argument against a conspiracy theory can be seen as proof that you are part of the conspiracy and can be water on their mills.
  • They may believe in more than one conspiracy theory.
  • They will likely defend their beliefs vehemently.

So what can we do?

  • Encourage an open conversation and questions.
  • Ask detailed questions about their theory to initiate self-reflection.
  • Cite former conspiracy theorists who once believed the same thing.
  • Tread carefully and cite a variety of sources around the topic.
  • Do not ridicule. Try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes.
  • Show empathy. Maybe your counterpart is just scared and in distress.
  • One step at a time. Focus on simple facts and logic. No unnecessary details.
  • Don’t apply pressure. Massive pressure can backfire. Let it sink in and then try again.

Show empathy and ask questions. Do not disseminate further.

How should you counter conspiracy theorists?

Conspiracy Theories: The connection to COVID-19

COVID-19 is a new disease caused by the recently discovered coronavirus. Scientific evidence supports animal transmission of coronaviruses. It has not yet been confirmed that COVID-19 is also transmitted by animals (WHO, 2020).

Uncertainty, fear, and the complexity of the COVID-19 pandemic have fueled related conspiracy theories. You are trying to "explain" why the pandemic occurred and who is capitalizing on it.

According to a study conducted in 28 countries worldwide, over 30% of respondents believe that a foreign power or other force is behind the spread of the coronavirus (Gallup International, March 2020).

Beware – conspiracy theories are deceptive: They blank out scientific evidence and put individuals and groups who are nothing Have something to do with the pandemic, pillory it. Do not buy into conspiracy theories.

Warning Signals:

  • Make claims that the virus is man-made (z. B. In a lab) out of a particular interest (e.g. B. decimation of the world population) arose.
  • Claim that the virus was deliberately spread or. Have its natural spread been artificially forced to cause as much damage as possible (z. B. through 5G radiation).
  • Claims that vaccines and cures are being deliberately withheld so as not to curb the spread and harm as many people as possible.
  • Allegations that certain anti-corona measures are taken just to harass or control society (z. B. vaccines, masks).

Don’t forget: No one is responsible for creating the virus, but we can all help contain it.

Trust only verified information. When in doubt do not share. Do not spread further.

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