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How to talk to your friends and family about misinformation and conspiracy theories

Misinformation is everywhere online — and it’s hard to decipher. But confronting your friends and family after you’ve seen them share it? That’s harder. 

If you are an active user of social media, chances are you’ve seen a classmate, colleague, or cousin share content from the widely debunked far-right conspiracy theory QAnon or political misinformation disguised as a fake local TV news outlet. 

These are chaotic times. And some studies have shown that people are seeing and believing misinformation more now than four years ago thanks in part to another contentious presidential election year and a deadly pandemic scientists are still learning about

Polarization can lead some people to become entrenched in ideologies that are flat out false, and some that can even cause real-world violence. Platforms like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram have come under fire for delayed moderation of dangerous content. And even though social media sites have vowed to take down misinformation, it still spreads

So how can you talk to friends or family about this when it shows up on your timeline without starting a flame war? Digital Trends spoke with two misinformation experts, Kinjal Dave, a Ph.D. student at the University of Pennsylvania and affiliate of the Data & Society Research Institute, and Philip Napoli, a professor of public policy at Duke University, to find out.

You’ve spotted misinformation on your Facebook feed. It was shared by someone you know personally. What do you do? 

According to Dave, this is the moment where you begin to practice empathy. Know that this is a stressful time for everyone, and people tend to cope in ways that affirm their own outlooks. Do they really believe that the world is run by a “deep state” of satanic pedophiles, a key ideology in QAnon. And if so, why?

“I think it’s really easy to get caught in a Facebook fight, and I really don’t know if that’s entirely helpful, even just for you as a person, it’s emotionally exhausting,” Dave said. “I think it’s really important to remember that people want to be seen as being insightful, they want to be seen as paying attention.”

Next, instead of commenting on the post and potentially igniting a public debate, where more often than not most people will stick to their guns, message them privately. This gives you an opportunity to refocus the conversation. Be respectful. It may make it easier to identify the person’s anxieties and learn what they are truly worried about one-on-one.

When you are ready to address the misinformation, start by asking what the post is about, or tell them very clearly that the information they’ve shared lacks evidence.

“Turn the burden on them to provide proof for what they’re doing,” said Dave. “I think the way that conspiracy theories are set up are that they don’t adhere to what we would consider classical logical proof, so it’s not logical to counter it with logic. That’s kind of a fatal effort.” 

Set your own boundaries

Before moving further along into the conversation, Napoli said to make sure to be aware of how far you are willing to go, and make an honest assessment of the person you are confronting. 

“This can always get very personal, very fast, and for you to be effective, your only hope, to be frank, is that you are somebody that this family member genuinely respects and trusts,” he said. “More often, these folks can’t wait to have an argument with you about it, and they tend to be fairly unshakable.”

Determine the best medium for this conversation. Would a phone call be better? If it helps, write out a script before engaging with the person, and collect fact-checked research and data to counter. But remember, “for some people, facts and figures are not persuasive.”

“Sometimes an anecdote or narrative can be more effective than the facts,” said Napoli. 

Know when the person isn’t up for a conversation

This is where setting your own boundaries comes in handy. Once you realize someone isn’t responding in an amenable tone, know that this may be where the discussion ends for the foreseeable future.

If your friend or family member is embedded in the misinformation they are sharing, or a firm believer in a false conspiracy theory and can’t talk about it without becoming angry or upset, leave it be. 

“It’s OK to have boundaries and not engage with people who don’t wanna engage in good faith,” said Dave. “How I navigate that is that I have clear boundaries, so if somebody is my cousin or my relatives, I see them as more of my responsibility, but then I also recognize that I have limits to what I can engage.” 

The Washington Post / Getty Images

Exercise the social media platform’s “Report” button

Napoli said if a conversation is not feasible, report the misinformation right when you see it. Most of the time, a person on social media is sharing misinformation from another source — not creating it themselves — so reporting the content is a way to flag it to the platform’s content moderators in order to take it down. 

“Being a responsible user of these platforms should include reporting this information and disinformation whenever it crosses your path,” said Napoli. “Those are very important signals that the platforms rely on. Once they received enough signals on a certain piece of content, that’s what then triggers the work of the third-party fact-checkers.”

However, according to Dave, reporting a piece of content containing misinformation “might not be as helpful as reaching out to the individual who shared it.”

How to catch misinformation in the future

If you’ve managed to have an effective conversation about misinformation with a friend or family member, consider also educating them on how to spot it.

“If something seems almost too good to be true, in terms of the extent to which it confirms our existing beliefs and values, and it probably is,” said Napoli. 

Both Napoli and Dave agree that people should be wary of content that stokes a visceral reaction — whether anger or agreement. Is a post making you incredibly upset about child sex trafficking under the guise of the #SaveTheChildren movement? Is it sharing specific statistics? If the numbers shock you, be sure to double-check them.

“I would say that if it falls into a convenient narrative or if it really hit some extreme emotions, either positively or negatively, that’s worth interrogating,” said Dave. 

Next, check for additional, reputable sources about this topic outside of social media. Do a quick Google search to see which news outlets, academic or scientific journals are reporting on this event, if there is any context, and the sources they are including. 

“Before you hit share or accept something that’s true, take the extra effort to see if you can find another source … multiple sources, especially those from different political orientations,” said Dave.

And finally, consider your own beliefs and the platform you are sharing and receiving information on.

Dave said each person’s identity will contribute to what they will believe. “For instance, under a president who espouses white supremacy, Black folks are going to have a different burden to bear,” said Dave. “So when it comes to prescribing what you should or shouldn’t do in terms of who’s responsible for combating misinformation, it’s important to keep in mind that this is a different emotional tool for everyone.”

Napoli agrees, and also wants people to understand the intentions, and function, of the platforms they are prescribing to. 

“I just think it’s important to know that, again, that purveyors of disinformation know an incredible amount about us because our social media activity leaves troves of data that makes it possible to target us with content that we are uniquely vulnerable to,” he said.

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Meira Gebel
Meira Gebel is a freelance reporter based in Portland. She writes about tech, social media, and internet culture for Digital…
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