I’ve been meaning to write about this for a while, but, you know, school. I finally found a moment between writing final papers to jot down a few thoughts.
As all of the various theories from my communications classes began melding and overlapping, I’ve started to devise a plan for a different way to respond to misinformation on social media – one that I hope will circumvent the usual cognitive biases and filtering that we all put in place to protect our beliefs. And then I had a chance to try it. And it worked! Maybe it was beginner’s luck. Or maybe I’m onto something.
Here are the main points that factor into this new plan:
- It is nearly impossible to change someone else’s strongly-held beliefs.
- The goal of a social media interaction should be to find common ground in which to plant seeds, not to forcibly drag someone over to your side of the fence.
- If we’re faced with facts that contradict our beliefs, our tendency is to dismiss the facts and dig into our beliefs even stronger. Therefore, facts should not be the starting point of most political/ideological arguments, even if the facts are clearly on our side.
- At the heart of almost every issue, there are things people can agree upon. Usually it’s shared values (not beliefs). Those are the starting points.
- As the conversation progresses, hopefully, both parties find other things they can agree on. Those are the signs of success – not whether you “win the argument.”
Here, I’ll give you a benign example of what I mean:
Someone might claim “All blue flowers are invasive species that kill other plants, and they should all be eradicated!” Now, our first instinct might be to post “that’s so stupid – there is no proof that all blue flowers are invasive! And what about these other invasive plants that you don’t even mention! You don’t seem to mind them! Your an idiot!”
But, wait just a second. First of all – it’s you’re, not your. And second, the statement wasn’t about other invasive plants, so let’s focus on what was said and not do a whole “well, what about” thing. That’s a deflection, or a logical fallacy as we call it in the comm biz (tu quoque, to be precise), and it weakens our argument. Instead of a knee-jerk response, just pause and think: What if all blue flowers ARE invasive and they DO kill other plants – wouldn’t that be awful? This person truly believes that- and IF it’s true, it would be a real issue that should be dealt with. We can all agree that if blue flowers are serial plant murderers, we should probably eradicate them from our properties in order to protect the innocent plants that are just trying to make positive contributions to our yards.
We might choose to say something like “Wow – we had no idea! We certainly don’t want blue flowers in our yards if they’re going to kill everything else! But, is it really ALL blue flowers – do you know of any studies into which species are dangerous?” Agreeing with a person and asking them to share their sources of information is a great way to start stepping onto common ground, especially if they’re used to being attacked for their beliefs. And, who knows, they may come back with information that partially (or fully) supports what they’re saying. We might learn something!
They may say, “well, I mean, it’s not ALL of them, but these three plants are really bad!” Ok, you see what happened? We went from ALL to three. That’s progress. “Yikes! We’re going to google these and make sure we don’t have any!” we say. And in doing so, our research reveals that two of the blue flowers are pretty dangerous, but this one blue flower actually only kills noxious weeds, and it’s a favorite of bees, hummingbirds, and butterflies.
We present this information and, this is important, thank the person for bringing the “blue flower issue” to our attention and for having an open discussion because (a) we did learn that there are two species of blue flowers to look out for, and (b) we all learned about a beneficial blue flower that’s gotten a bad rap because it was labeled “invasive.” At the same time, the other person has realized that their original statement was inaccurate, but they are able to save face because they were a little bit right.
Does this seem too simplistic and pollyanna-ish? Yes. But I’m telling you, replace “blue flowers” with “undocumented immigrants” and “kill other plants” with “burden our economy , take our jobs, and vote illegally” – and that’s argument I had that inspired me to try my new approach. The result? We both ended up agreeing that there is a low low low risk of undocumented immigrants voting illegally but measures should be taken to make sure they can’t, that employers are responsible for who gets what jobs and we can’t blame hardworking people from taking jobs that are offered to them, and that undocumented workers are eligible for some social benefits that I was unaware of but not nearly as many as the other person thought. We agreed to disagree over whether that should be allowed to continue or not.
Since that conversation, I’ve had a few mini-opportunities to practice this method of communication, and I have to say that it’s so much better than having a frustrating argument that is likely to devolve into rudeness or worse.
When I encounter an opinion that I think is based on misinformation, I try to pause and ask myself: If it turns out that this person is actually correct, would I feel the same way they do? If the answer is “yes”, then the issue touches on a value that we share. That’s the starting point for addressing suspected (or known) misinformation – that’s the common ground.