When I woke up at 8 am on my 68th birthday, I was confused to see that it was still dark. In a day unlike any other in my life, daylight never came.

The sky remained dark with a purplish red hue. Cars drove with headlamps lit. It was frightening. What was going on? People all over the SF Bay Area posted photos on Facebook asking, “Is this the apocalypse?” Take a look – what would you think?

I could see how the haunting, spooky feeling of toxic air and an invisible virus taunting us could push people into the murky zone of conspiracy theories. Conspiracy theories that fly across our screens come from all sides of the political spectrum.

Let me use a non-political one that claims the earth is flat.

In the Physics World article, Fighting the Flat Earth Theory, the authors state: “Physicists may mock the notion of a flat earth, but the idea is gaining traction, particularly among people susceptible to other conspiracy theories.

According to Lee McIntyre, an expert in the phenomenon of science denial, “They actually really do believe it.”

Conspiracy Theories Are Dangerous

Not all conspiracy theories are benign. They can be dangerous, violent, and life-threatening. For example, the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” an anti-Semitic text, proclaims a Jewish conspiracy to dominate the world.

Although it was proven to be a hoax and plagiarized, it led to the murder of Jews across Europe and was widely distributed by the Nazis. Sadly, it still circulates among Holocaust deniers, another brand of conspiracy theorist.

Conspiracy theories play on fear. It is the fear of the unknown, fear of the “other,” mixed with the fear of being manipulated and dominated. Fear takes hold when people feel their lives are spinning out of control, playing on desperation.

Unlike false information, conspiracies are attributed to a group of people, who are claimed to be secretly conniving to cause harm.

They target someone to blame: the government, the opposing political party, other governments or nationalities, or groups of people perceived as different whether it is by nationality, language, religion, race, gender, or ethnicity.

Conspiracy theories have probably been with us since tribal days. Yet, now they spread like wildfire through social media algorithms that feed them more and more content.

Current conspiracies are far more dangerous than “flat earthers,” leading to teens being recruited by neo-Nazis, parents choosing not to vaccinate their children, and seniors who do not take Covid-19 precautions seriously.

Although social media outlets like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have made some efforts to adjust their algorithms and remove false information so as not to promote conspiracy-focused material, dangerous theories continue to spread.

Face Our Fears and Use Common Sense

As women in our 60s living in an uncertain world, it is not surprising that we have fears. I believe that the best thing we can do is face our fears, look them right in the eye.

We must ask ourselves, what exactly are we afraid will happen? What can be done? Most likely, for the bigger problems in life, there are multiple causes and many possible solutions.

When we hear something akin to a conspiracy, we can take a commonsense approach to examining the issues. We can consider what is in our control and what we can do.

Here are three things to do:

Fact Checking

Go beyond your gut reactions. Check things out. Always check the sources of information. Recently Sixty and Me published an informative blog post, How to Steer Clear of Fake News, that offers useful guidelines.

Cross Examination

Listen to multiple points of view and make up your own mind. Take the time to examine various reputable sources. Try not to listen only to those who agree with you. Open your mind to hearing other perspectives.

Conscious Awareness

Be wary of the conspiracies no matter how they find you: from social media, friends, or family. Sometimes, people influence each other, creating hysteria and panic. Rather, than responding by lashing out with name calling, or engaging in a social media tirade, invite the person into a verbal conversation.

Be kind and listen to one another without interrupting. Don’t expect you will change the other’s mind, so assure them that you want to preserve the relationship and will “agree to disagree.”

The Truth of the Rabbit Hole

Upon investigation, I learned that the phenomenon of the dark red sky on September 9, 2020 was caused by the fires that were raging up and down the West Coast of the US. There was a lot I could do – starting with closing windows and keeping the toxic air out.

I could check air quality on the Internet daily and clear my own yard of debris that could catch fire. I could work to support fire victims and support others in our state working to minimize fire danger.

Conspiracy theories are not going away. However, if we continue to face our fears, use common sense, and take action on things in our purview, we can avoid going down conspiracy rabbit holes.

How often do you stumble upon (on social media or via hearsay) conspiracy theories? What’s the most recent one you’ve read about or heard? How does it sound to your own ears? How and where do you do your fact checking? Please share what you know of conspiracies and how you handle them.

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