Your cousin knows for a fact that coronavirus vaccines have mind-controlling microchips. “Stop the steal” conspiracy theories maybe flooded your social media feeds during and after the 2020 US presidential election. Your friend shares an article about why 5G technology will harm everyone’s health.
“We even see misinformation about trivial matters,” said Carl T. Bergstrom, a biology professor at the University of Washington, in an email. Bergstrom co-teaches a course that trains students on how to evaluate the onslaught of information in their lives. “Every year, a photograph of an adorable fuzzy rail chick goes viral as a picture of a ‘baby crow.’ (Newly hatched crows are blind, featherless and look nothing like this).”
An inaccurate story about wild animals might have limited repercussions, but misinformation about serious issues such as elections or the pandemic can be “deeply damaging,” affecting people’s motivations, beliefs and decision-making regarding their health, politics, the environment and more, said Bergstrom, the coauthor of “Calling Bullsh*t: The Art of Skepticism in a Data-Driven World.”
“Sharing health misinformation and disinformation can get people killed,” Bergstrom added. But “what if I share misinformation about something like the Afghanistan withdrawal? It’s not like sharing vaccine misinformation, in that my friends and family who read it aren’t in any way involved in making decisions about US foreign policy.”
However, if we’re flooded with false information about the Afghanistan withdrawal and other issues, we won’t be able to collectively make the wise decisions we need to thrive as a society, Bergstrom said.
“Second, misinformation often serves or even drives political polarization,” he added. “If we become convinced that half of our fellow Americans are irredeemably stupid, let alone evil, what does that do to our faith in the democratic process? I think it undermines this faith severely, and that is a grave threat to our society.”
The problem’s exacerbated when family and friends share misinformation, because we tend to trust what they’re saying is true without verifying it. Confronting loved ones about the falsity of their posts isn’t easy, but if you’re ready to speak up, here’s how to handle it.
It’s worth remembering that people who share misinformation may have good intentions.
Some false posts related to the pandemic may fall into this category, Bergstrom said. “When we hear things around threats like this where there’s a lot of uncertainty, it’s very natural to try to get information and then share it with the people we care about to keep everybody safe.”
Identifying false claims can be difficult since, misinformation usually contains elements of both truth and falsity, Bergstrom said.
That content, which people also may share to confirm their worldview, is sometimes “viewed as equally credible to a trusted source,” said Sam Vaghar, executive director of the Millennium Campus Network, a global student and alumni network aiding young people in addressing humanity’s challenges. Vaghar is also part of the team behind the I’m Making a Difference Instagram profile, which works with social media influencers to provide young adults with verified information about the pandemic. And sometimes misinformation blogs have been designed to look like news websites.
Approaching the situation
If someone’s sharing high-stakes-misinformation, “it’s very tempting to want to shake them by the shoulders,” said Joshua Coleman, a psychologist in private practice in Oakland, California, and a senior fellow with the Council on Contemporary Families, a nonprofit organization providing modern research about American families. But “you really have to resist that temptation and keep communication in a more empathic place.”
Being prepared with information from sources such as credible news outlets, the CDC, the World Health Organization or state health departments can help ensure your argument is more fact- or science-based than emotional or opinionated, Vaghar said.
Coleman advised avoiding a “harsh startup,” a phrase used by John Gottman, a marriage and divorce researcher and professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Washington.
“(Gottman) says that conversations end in the way they begin,” Coleman said. “You start a conversation out with hostility, anger, contempt or criticism; it’s probably going to end that way.”
But the more you respectfully communicate, he added, “the more likely people are going to lower their defenses and be interested in what we have to say.”
Find ways to continually assert that you’re not saying the person is foolish, and that if the stakes weren’t so high you would agree to disagree or wouldn’t say anything at all, Coleman suggested. Telling loved ones you’re only bringing up the issue because you really care about them can communicate you’re speaking from a mindset of love and concern.
Also be mindful of what your relationship with that person has been like, he suggested. Coleman said he might get into loud debates with certain friends, “but at the core of it is the friendship, and we know that we’re engaging in a semi-angry manner because we both care a lot about what we’re speaking. We also know that once we’re done with the conversation, no harm, no foul, whereas other people might experience that level of intensity or frustration in a much more hurtful way, and it will shut down the conversation.”
If you suspect the person you’re confronting is going to react defensively, you could say to them, “I know a lot of people do think that’s true, and I know there’s a lot out there about that, so I could see how an intelligent person could conclude that’s right. I don’t know how much reading or investigating you’ve been doing, and I’ve actually been spending a lot of time reading or researching this topic. Do you care if I share with you what I’m learning?” Coleman suggested.
This way, “it’s not like you’re hitting them over the head” with your opinion, Coleman said.
For people who have access to credible information but share misleading narratives they like, “rather than responding with a list of facts, it can be more helpful to engage the underlying beliefs or perspectives that make this information attractive in the first place,” Bergstrom said.
“If someone is afraid to take an FDA-approved COVID vaccine because they believe that government agencies cannot ever be trusted, listing statistics about vaccine safety won’t get you very far.”
Two things that might help are focusing on supporting evidence outside of the US regulatory system and sharing perspectives from others who share the person’s beliefs about government but still advocate Covid-19 vaccination.
These approaches don’t guarantee you’re going to be persuasive, as people can cling to their strongly held beliefs, but they’re good starts.
The truth about texting, and public vs. private confrontation
There are proper ways in which people should have these conversations, and texting isn’t one of them, Coleman said. Since written communication lacks inflection, get on the phone so the person can hear any genuine care in your voice.
If you’re concerned about whether to address a misleading social media post in a public comment or private message, doing both might be helpful.
With a public comment, you might educate anyone “vulnerable to the misinformation that’s being perpetrated by the person,” Coleman said. But there is a possibility that people posting could think you’re humiliating them in front of their peers.
To prevent that, also send a private message saying you hope they don’t mind you publicly sharing your thoughts, given the importance.
And what should you do if you confront someone about misinformation, and they acknowledge its falsity, but won’t delete the post? Unfortunately, that person just might not care or could be leaving the post up as a reaction to criticism, Coleman said.
Coleman is doubtful that a stranger will be responsive to a follow-up conversation. But if you know them, reiterating why you think the person shouldn’t leave the post up might be worth another shot. And sharing any personal stake you have in this – such as mentioning your experience being sick with Covid-19 to someone sharing pandemic-related misinformation – “can make it more compelling,” he added.
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If the person you confront is receptive to facts and your thoughts, that could foster a humanitarian perspective, in that we have shared purposes, sacrifices and fates, Coleman said.