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Talking Points

How to talk to your loved ones about misinformation without ruining Christmas

We talked to experts about how to approach that Facebook theory-loving family member.

CHRISTMAS CAN BE fraught at the best of times. It involves sitting and talking to people we might not see regularly and who might hold vastly different opinions to us. Then we add alcohol and a confined space like a living room. All things that could lead to tears before turkey. 

Differences of opinion are one thing, worrying that loved ones have become victims to misinformation and disinformation is another. Particularly during what the World Health Organisation has labelled an ‘infodemic‘ which it defines as the ‘overabundance of information, both online and offline.’ The infodemic includes the unsourced Whatsapp rumours, Facebook memes with bad science and fake HSE posters on Twitter all running parallel to the current Covid-19 pandemic. 

When public health advice and misinformation collide the stakes are extremely high. 800 deaths were related to just one Covid-19 prevention myth, according to a study in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene

The study said the myth of consuming highly concentrated alcohol in order to kill the virus proved popular and spread across the world. 

“Following this misinformation, approximately 800 people have died, whereas 5,876 have been hospitalised and 60 have developed complete blindness after drinking methanol as a cure of coronavirus.”

While that is an extreme outcome, it can still be frustrating and concerning when someone you care about believes misinformation that could affect their health even in a more benign way. 

So how can you talk to someone when they might have fallen down a Facebook conspiracy rabbit hole? What can you do to get a loved one to think critically about the media they consume?

Here’s a list of dos and don’ts if you are contemplating having that chat:

1. Do understand there is no one size fits all approach. 

It might not always be appropriate or safe to challenge someone’s beliefs. Weigh up your individual circumstances before considering any approach. 

Dr Eileen Culloty, a disinformation expert and DCU Assistant Professor in Communications, advises caution. 

“It can be very difficult to talk to family members and there’s no magic formula,” she told the Journal.

“Any advice should be considered carefully in terms of whether it’s suitable for someone’s particular family or situation.”

2. Do understand why someone might be drawn to a particular theory or conspiracy.

Are they afraid? Have they been isolated in the pandemic? Is it less scary for some people to think the Coronavirus isn’t real rather than worry about being infected?

“It’s key to humanise,” according to Dr Daniel Jolley, a senior lecturer at Northumbria University who specialises in the psychology of conspiracy theories. 

“In essence any of us could be a conspiracy theorist … it’s a way for us to make sense of the world.”

IMG_3510 Dr Daniel Jolley. Senior Lecturer in Psychology. Dr Daniel Jolley Dr Daniel Jolley

Conspiracy theories offer a simple solution to what are often very complex problems, he said.

“To believe that Covid is a conspiracy caused by 5G and Bill Gates – it puts a cause to these events that we’re all experiencing and for someone trying to make sense of the world around them it can be particularly appealing,” Dr Jolley added.

For people who are socially excluded or isolated, misinformation spaces can be alluring. 

“Potentially being a part of a community of like-minded people could be quite empowering,” said Dr Jolley. 

“Conspiracy theories can be quite entertaining so in isolation they can keep your mind going.” 

According to the academic “going to a protest with a sign saying vaccines aren’t safe” may provoke further anger and anxiety but “it might also make someone feel that community spirit and a connection to others.”

It is important to think about what emotional factors might be at play for the person concerned before you have a conversation about their beliefs. 

3. Do think about whether someone is ready to be questioned.  

Giving people the facts can reduce conspiracies, said Dr Jolley. But once that misinformation/conspiracy becomes part of someone’s identity they might not like having it questioned. 

If someone is at the start of their journey and is just simply curious, they might be more open to evaluating evidence.  

“For someone who’s just asking questions, they’re going to be open to a discussion and a think about the information and sources,

“But for someone who has this belief is a part of them, they’re going to have this overriding suspicion of the evidence, if you even get to the evidence,” he said. 

Given that most people want to keep their belief system intact, some can be resistant to being challenged on something they hold as a core idea. 

Dr Jolley’s advice is “you have to gauge how extreme this person seems to hold this belief” before you proceed. 

4. Don’t lecture. Pick your approach carefully. 

No one likes to be told they are wrong. Direct confrontation may not be the way to go. 

“No one wants to be lectured at or patronised,” said Dr Culloty, stressing the importance of keeping things conversational in tone. 

“Keeping it conversational means asking questions and listening to what the other person has to say. Perhaps you can gently introduce some critical thinking about the credibility of the sources the person relies on or obvious flaws in the argument.”

A less confrontational and more exploratory approach might suit those whose beliefs are deeply ingrained, according to Dr Jolley, who advises asking questions such as:

“Talk me through how you evaluated evidence in general? What do you do?” 

He added: “Try and instil some skills in an abstract way. Go in with compassion as a trusted person who is helping them make sense of the world.”

5. Do ask questions. Don’t just debunk. 

Instead of directly debunking something and shoving evidence in someone’s face Dr Jolley advises asking questions first. 

“What do these beliefs give you?” and “How do they make you feel?” are good places to start. 

These are intended to get at the root of why someone might be engaging in misinformation, which might prove more useful long term than having an argument over figures and stats. 

“You may find that person says ‘I’m anxious’ or ‘I really like the community element.’ Then you can try and deal with their journey to that belief.

“If you went in trying to debunk it – they could be defensive, you could be defensive and end up in an argument,” he said. 

6. Do your homework. 

If you’re going to try to convince someone to change their beliefs, come prepared with facts. People usually have reasons for believing misinformation, don’t mistake their beliefs as evidence they haven’t researched the topic. 

“Before talking to someone, do some research to be informed about the topic. Try to understand the nature of the claims and the evidence,” said Dr Culloty.

People who believe conspiracy theories often spend a lot of time researching it so it’s important to be informed.

7. Don’t think they’ll change beliefs overnight

Be realistic about the outcomes of a single conversation. It’s important not to get frustrated and take it out on the other party if they don’t change their mind instantly. 

“People have beliefs for a long time,” said Dr Jolley

But the conversation can highlight that you’re there and that you’re a support network for them.

Dr Culloty echoed the sentiment, advising “give it time”.

“You can’t expect people to suddenly change their minds. And that’s why empathy and support are key over the long-term.”

At the end of the day you also have to know when to let it go and change the subject for the sake of everyone else at the table. This year has been difficult and uncertain for everyone, it’s important to understand that might manifest in others. Don’t let your dinner go cold over an argument.

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