Conspiracy Theory Rabbit Holes Are Everywhere. Here's How to Avoid Falling Into Them.

Claire Splan

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This is a rough time to be a news junkie. Every day we are getting bombarded with reportage that feels overwhelmingly negative, often dire even. There has always been bad news to report, but we seem to be in a particularly long, particularly intense news cycle and it appears it won’t be ending any time soon.

Whether we get our news from television, newspapers, or social media, the effect can be the same: despair, depression, and a pervasive sense of helplessness and hopelessness.

Headline stress disorder

During the 2016 election cycle therapist Steven Stosny, Ph.D., coined the term “election stress disorder” to describe the elevated stress levels that people were reporting related to the presidential election. But when the election was over and the stress levels didn’t seem to decrease, Stosny came up with a new term: headline stress disorder.

What Stosny identified was that, even after the election concluded, people were still reporting “a sense of foreboding and mistrust about the future.” Following most elections, people tend to feel like things are settled — even if the election didn’t have the outcome they hoped for. The 2016 election was different, however, and many people felt even more unsettled afterward.

News-related stress seems to affect people across the political spectrum, but women tend to report a greater level of impact. Millennials may also feel the effects more intensely as they tend to be more immersed in social media

There are many who advise limiting your time reading or watching the news or following social media, but hiding from the news is not the best tactic. It can leave you feeling disconnected and disoriented, especially when events become so big that they directly affect you and ignoring them is no longer a possibility.

In fact, it is more important than ever that we stay informed and engaged with what’s going on in our society and in the world around us. Information, when it is accurate, can literally save our lives.

The solution is not to avoid the news but to become a smarter consumer of the news. Don’t look away; instead, look closer and with a more discerning eye,

Avoid provocateurs

From cable news pundits, radio show hosts, and newspaper columnists to ugly social media trolls, there are people everywhere, on both ends of the opinion spectrum, whose raison d’etre is simply to get people riled up. The biggest problem with provocateurs is that they tend to play fast and loose with facts. There is plenty of real news to be outraged about — there’s no need to waste your anger on ginned-up stories.

How do you identify provocateurs? There are two big tells. The first is that they use a lot of emotional language to tell the story. The second is that they don’t cite sources.

Change the channel when provocateurs come on the air and let network executives, producers, and editors know you don’t appreciate them wasting your time by giving those people a platform.

Block trolls

On the Internet, trolls are the provocateurs who don’t have their own platform, so they pop up everywhere, seeking to stir things up. They don’t have insider knowledge and they haven’t studied the relevant topics in any depth. All they have to offer is their own opinion, which is often uninformed or based on rigid ideology, fringe conspiracy theories, or hate.

On social media use the Block or Mute buttons early and often to keep trolls out of your feeds. You won’t miss out on any necessary information because they have none to share.

Get real about conspiracy theories

Conspiracy theories are rampant and they’re not only damaging to the public discourse, but they can also be dangerous to our health and safety. One conspiracy theory about a pedophile ring run out of a pizza parlor led an armed man to shoot up the place in a misguided attempt to rescue children. (There were no children being abused.) Another one prompted some people to drink toxic cleaning fluids after Donald Trump wrongly suggested that injecting or ingesting disinfectants could cure the COVID-19 virus.

In a society that aims to allow free speech, there is no way to shut down baseless conspiracy theories completely. But with a little common sense and a little investigation, you can avoid becoming caught up in them.

First, the common sense: If something sounds so outrageous that you can hardly believe it can be true, there’s a good chance it’s false. Stop being a sucker.

Second, the investigation: If a story sounds outrageous, begin with an Internet search. Don’t rely on one source. Look for multiple news outlets to confirm. Consult fact-checking organizations such as Snopes.com or FactCheck.org. (Although they are sometimes dismissed as being left-leaning, the truth is that these fact-checkers consider sources from all sides of the political spectrum and clearly cite those sources.) And to do your own fact-checking, follow these tips.

Subscribe intelligently

When you find news sources that are trust-worthy, support them with your subscription. Journalism is an expensive business and newsrooms have been decimated in recent years. The real, trained, hard-working reporters that fight back against fake news require paychecks and reader support. Leave the tabloid trash in the supermarket and give your dollars to the local and national news agencies that follow the principles and ethics of professional journalism.

Get in and get out quickly

It does no good to wallow in the news. Read or listen each day to keep up with what’s going on, but once you’ve gotten up to date, get on with your day. When major news is breaking, you may feel the need to keep checking in, but be aware that there are often diminishing returns to following a story obsessively. There is greater benefit to following more comprehensive reporting with deeper analysis and that takes time to develop. Allowing the story more time to unfold and become clear helps you to avoid establishing a false or distorted viewpoint.

It’s true that information is power. Consuming information intelligently is the only way to wield that power intelligently.

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Writer/editor. Author of "California Fruit & Vegetable Gardening" and "California Month-by-Month Gardening."

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