As we approach the 2020 holiday season, misinformation is thriving. A recent POLITICO/Morning Consult poll showed that 70 percent of Republicans do not believe the presidential election was “free and fair.” On the COVID-19 front, an October Gallup poll revealed that a third of Americans say they would be very or somewhat unlikely to comply with a recommendation by public health officials to stay home for a month due to a serious outbreak of the virus in their community.
Misinformation is widespread, and it can be dangerous. And while correcting misinformation can feel urgent, a team of experts told Sojourners that challenging our loved ones’ beliefs is a difficult and time-intensive undertaking. This is because misinformation about politics, religion, and health often ties into our deepest beliefs about ourselves: Challenging them isn’t just correcting facts, it’s resetting an entire worldview.
“You’re likely not going to be very effective if you spew facts and tell them that they’re wrong. That’s a threat to their self esteem,” Madeline Jalbert, a researcher at the University of Southern California who studies misinformation and judgements of truth, told Sojourners.
But when loved ones do share alarming misinformation, there are ways to speak up. Here are research-based ways to have an effective conversation.
We’re not that different after all
It’s easy to question how members of other political affiliations could possibly believe certain ideas. Yet, according to Jalbert, words like “Republican,” “Democrat,” “liberal,” “conservative," “Left” or “Right” program our brains to process information from within an already established worldview.
The first step in challenging misinformation is to remove political affiliations from the conversation entirely, Jalbert said.
Jalbert cited a 1999 study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology that analyzed group bias. In one scenario, students were reminded that they had different focuses of study (math/science and humanities). In a second, they were reminded of their shared identity as students. The first set of students reported feeling adversarial toward the opposite group, while the second reported feeling a kinship with each other.
The takeaway: Calling to mind a certain identity leads us to process the same information differently.
When we remove ourselves from our political affiliations and instead focus on what we have in common, we’re more likely to be receptive to a different view.
“You want to remind people of how you’re similar,” Jalbert told Sojourners. “There might be lenses other than political affiliation through which [your loved ones] view the world, including as Americans, a critical thinker, a veteran, a mother, a member of a church, a student, or a teacher.”
Begin conversations with loved ones by naming a worldview that you both share. Examples might be faith, hometown, school affiliation, or even being mothers, siblings, or family members. Then, continue the conversation from there.
Validate their perception
When someone shares misinformation, it feels intuitive to correct them as quickly as possible. However, every expert interviewed for this piece said that taking a calm, patient, and affirming posture is vital to having an effective conversation around misinformation.
In addition to remaining calm, Chrysalis Wright, director of the Media & Migration Lab at the University of Central Florida, recommends validating the person’s stance before saying anything else.
Simple affirmations like “I saw that, too,” or “Yes, that is disturbing” are a good way to start. Then, you can follow up with new information that you encountered, making sure that you cite your source.
Briony Swire-Thompson, a senior research scientist at Northeastern University, has conducted studies that indicate that people will actually change their belief when presented with evidence-based data.
“Most of the time, corrections can be very effective,” Swire-Thompson told Sojourners. “Showing people evidence and providing good sources goes a long way.”
Do the research together
When showing sources or asking for them, it’s a good idea to hunker down for a while and sift through reputable sources with the other person, Kolina Koltai, a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for an Informed Public at the University of Washington, told Sojourners.
“If you can do your research together, that’s a great way to go because it shows that you want to have an open, facilitating conversation,” Koltai said. “See if there are certain sources that you can agree upon.”
As you look for sources that you both respect, try to test out what other common views you both have. Do you both want people to be safe and healthy? Do you both think that elections should be fair? Reiterate your similarities rather than focusing on what you don’t agree on.
“You can then say, ‘let’s try to work through this together’ and take that approach,” Koltai said.
Leave it to the courts
According to Wright, you don’t always have to provide corrective information to continue the conversation effectively. For instance, when talking about voter fraud, Wright recommends trying to reinforce trust in the judicial system and our democracy rather than citing specific sources.
“If it hasn’t been officially proven false just yet, the response should be ‘I did see that, I understand there’s lawsuits in place; we should wait on the court’s decision to see what’s going on,” Wright said. "This way, you’re kind of taking yourself out of the equation.”
Rather than arguing about a topic that’s still pending a decision, remind the person that you’re also eager to see how the courts rule on it and you can’t make a call until then.
“We have to be able to respect the courts’ decision as a citizen if we respect our democracy and respect the systems that we have set up,” Wright added.
Know your audience, know your mission
Before you begin the conversation, be clear about the purpose of the conversation. Are you trying to convince someone that something they believe or have shared isn’t true? If yes, do it kindly, calmly, and as privately as possible.
“There’s no need to humiliate a person,” Ira Hyman, a cognitive psychologist who studies memory and attention issues and misinformation and psychology professor at Western Washington University, told Sojourners.
On the other hand, if someone you love has shared something publicly on social media and you know you have no chance of changing their mind, a public approach can be more effective.
“On social media, when it’s something important and the goal isn’t changing the mind of the person, I comment directly on the post with a link to corrective information from a reliable source,” Hyman said. “I do it because of all the other people who are being exposed to the misinformation; I’d like them to see it at the same moment because it’s really important to correct misinformation immediately.”
A 2017 study corroborates Hyman’s view: Participants who saw misinformation repeatedly were more likely to believe it. Yet, those who saw a warning before they encountered misinformation or those who saw a correction at the same time as misinformation were less likely to believe the misinformation.
The key is timing: Providing a link to corrective information likely won’t change the original poster’s mind, but seeing the truth at the same time as misinformation might prevent those in their greater social network from believing false claims.
It’s about more than facts
The spread of misinformation is more vast than many understand. Although Wright is a researcher and professor who has studied fake news extensively, it wasn’t until she participated in a February 2020 private panel for the FBI's Foreign Influence Task Force that she learned how extensive and dangerous the spread of misinformation is.
“The majority of fake news is not created by American citizens,” Wright said. “Foreign entities share memes, links, fake news articles with the intent of doing exactly what we see right now: causing division among Americans and causing us to argue amongst ourselves.”
Wright said that these non-American groups pick hot topics that they know will elicit an emotional response from readers like gun control, abortion, the election, immigration, COVID-19, race relations, etc.
That’s why if you want to change the heart of a loved one beyond proving that a specific data point is false, it takes time and persistence.
“The more we’re engaging in un-civil conversations, the more we’re going to be divided,” Wright said. “You can’t move forward as a society if it’s divided, and that understanding is exactly why foreign influence has the intent of causing division. They’re able to make us fight against ourselves rather than fighting us.”
In a world rife with misinformation, your time and energy just might be worth it.