We’ve probably all got somebody on our friends list who’s been sharing a lot of suspect information about the coronavirus. The component pseudo-facts of conspiracy theories are floating around Facebook in abundance, and it’s super frustrating to see them rebroadcast by people you know and love. You may be tempted to unfriend them or ignore their posts—both valid options, should you choose to take them—but when it comes to pushing back against misinformation, you have more power than you think.
Your friends trust you
Yes, even the ones posting nonsense on your Facebook wall. Chances are, you are somebody’s most trusted source: Amid the rapid spread of the Plandemic video, many posted it while admitting they weren’t sure about the claims it made but found they seemed important, or sought to ask their more well-informed friends for their opinions. The implied message in posting anything to social media is that we want to hear what others think about it.
With that trust comes both power and responsibility. Think about how fans listen to celebrities, even when said celebrities have no authority relevant to the subject they’re speaking on. There are plenty of smaller scale examples of this phenomenon in every community, as we all have people we respect and whose opinions we give extra weight to. Maybe that’s your rabbi, your doctor, your mum, your yoga teacher, that coworker who always hears the best gossip first and is somehow always right about it. Sometimes you don’t ever know that you’re That Friend for somebody, but they’ve been listening closely to what you say all along.
These days, if you’re in a medical profession or if you’re particularly good at staying on top of the news, you’re pretty much guaranteed to be in somebody’s pantheon of trusted sources. People are listening to you, even if you don’t realise it.
Your words carry more weight with onlookers than with the person you’re conversing with
Someone who has totally bought in to a conspiracy theory isn’t going to be easily swayed. No matter how thoughtful your response, they’ll just dig in harder. After all, the hallmark of a conspiracy theory is that it persists no matter the evidence.
But when you have a conversation about misinformation, your audience isn’t just the person you’re speaking to. On Facebook, for example, hundreds of people might see the post without commenting and without you necessarily knowing it: your friends, their friends, members of a group that you both belong to.
For this reason, I prefer to keep conversations about misinformation public. If somebody DMs you and wants to know more, seriously consider how useful the conversation is going to be. If they’re mad and just want to fight, it’s not worth your time. If they are a person important to you, and you think you might be able to change their mind, it’s your call.
Another thing about those sometimes-invisible onlookers: Most of them have probably not bought into the latest wacky theory; they just don’t say much about it either way. To use a different example, anti-vaccine posts may outnumber posts that sing the praises of vaccines. That’s because most people get their kids vaccinated and don’t make a big deal about it. They don’t post about it any more than they’d post “Hey look, I brushed my teeth today.” So if you see a lot of misinformation out there, don’t get too discouraged.
Begin by asking questions
Some misinformation can be addressed on a factual basis. If somebody tells you that COVID-19 cases are falling in your state, you can show them the actual numbers. If they say the “well the health authority says…” something false, you can point out online where it actually says the opposite. When it’s a simple claim like this, facts work.
But most of the time, the person who brings up misinformation is more swayed by tone or implications than the actual facts. Before you get too deep into the details, ask them a few open-ended questions and listen—really listen—to their answers:
How did you come to believe this?
What concerns do you have about this whole situation?
You won’t necessarily ask them in those exact words, but ask. This is where you’ll learn that they’re actually concerned about something other than the particular news story they posted.—they may actually have a serious worry about their family, their health or their job. And don’t be afraid to share your own history and concerns. If they learn how you came to your conclusions, it may help them change their own.
Push back without insulting them
You keep the most credibility when you’re respectful and honest.
In the most scarily effective propaganda, the “talking head” is calm and collected, speaking with a laid-back authority. Good propaganda artists speak softly and let everyone else get angry and frustrated. Take Plandemic for example.
But there’s another reason to stay calm: Remember, these people are your friends. (And friends-of-friends, and whoever else is watching.) People mostly just want to be understood and have their concerns heard.
So be nice to your friends. If you’re going to drop a link debunking the thing they post about, consider the tone of the article you choose. We wrote our Plandemic post with this kind of person in mind; someone who saw the video and found it convincing can read our piece and not feel insulted. Most of the people you’re talking to are probably smart and basically good people.
And be honest. If you don’t know an answer, say so rather than making something up. If you changed your mind about something in the past, talk about why that was. And if you agree with some parts of what your friend is saying, point out those areas of agreement.
For more on how to talk to people about misinformation, check out this piece from Liz Neeley about talking to friends about coronavirus, this one from Tara Haelle about pushing back on propaganda like Plandemic, and the last several pages of the Conspiracy Theory Handbook.
Encourage them to ask their own questions
Nobody likes to feel like they were sucked in by propaganda, but ironically a lot of propaganda will tell you that you, the viewer, are clearly thinking for yourself if you read this article or watch that video. It’s all those other sources that are the real propaganda.
It’s true that a little critical thinking goes a long way. Some questions that you can ask yourself, and that you can encourage your friends to ask, include:
What makes this source credible to me? For example, if it’s a news website, is it one that I recognise?
What is this person’s background and expertise? Nobody is an expert in everything, but some will pretend to be.
How can we confirm that this information is true? If the only source is the video or article itself, or if corroborating information comes from closely related sources, isn’t that suspect?
Is there important context we’re missing? Sometimes a fact may seem scary or suggest wrongdoing, but it turns out we’re missing relevant context. Maybe the article is five years old. Maybe the study that’s being cited is about something else entirely.
Consider a drive-by
You don’t have to spend hours of your life on trying to convince people. Sometimes your good deed can be just piping in with a quick opinion, just to let onlookers know that not everybody agrees.
Maybe you have a link or a quick fact to share, or maybe just an opinion—“I saw that story and didn’t find it credible.” Here’s what you do:
Leave that quick comment.
Click the menu at the top of the post, and unfollow the conversation. (Facebook and Twitter both have an option for this; other platforms may vary.)
This way, you won’t get notifications that pull you back into the conversation. (Do your best not to go back and check for replies, either. Your job here is done.) That quick comment probably won’t change anybody’s mind, but it could change the tone of the resulting conversation. And who knows—it might get somebody to do a little critical thinking on their own.