Siouxsie Wiles & Toby Morris: Bridging the gap with someone who’s been pulled in by disinformation

Don’t approach the task as a battle to be won, but as a conversation to get to the underlying reasons why someone might have been susceptible to the false information in the first place. 

Last week marked six months since the WHO declared Covid-19 a pandemic. How the world has changed in that time. Here in Aotearoa we are doing a really good job of working together to save lives and protect as much of our economy as we can. With that, though, we’re seeing some influential people make real and concerted efforts to disrupt our success for their own gain. Hence the recent protests

Recently, Toby Morris and I explained how false information is being weaponised against us all by people pushing their own agendas. And because of the way social media algorithms are designed, some of our family and friends are being pulled into believing that disinformation, all while thinking they’ve “done their research” on the pandemic.

I’ve started getting messages from people asking me what they can do to help their loved ones who’ve fallen down the disinformation rabbit hole. Before I explain how to try, it’s worth remembering that you can also help to slow the spread of disinformation by making sure you practise your own “information hygiene”. Tempting though it is to share something in outrage or to mock, don’t. The fewer clicks and shares that stuff gets, the better.

Alongside that, learn more about the crucial role the media and social media platforms play in all this. Media sometimes put a negative or fearful spin on things – rather than framing things in a positive way, it all becomes very doom and gloom. Despite New Zealand having one of the most successful responses to Covid-19 in the world, the way some pundits describe it, you’d think we were failing. That can leave people feeling like it’s not worth trying to stick with our elimination strategy. 

As for social media, if you can, check out the new Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma.

Bridging the gap

Despite what you might think, people don’t believe false information because they’re stupid. We humans are complicated, and we often hold a whole bunch of (sometimes contradictory) beliefs at the same time. Those beliefs are determined by our values and our lived experiences. No matter how rational and objective we think we are, we don’t process new information by weighing up its pros and cons. Instead we filter it through our values and beliefs first. That means that if a piece of information fits with what we already know or understand, then it feels good and we accept it. If it doesn’t fit with our beliefs or values, then it can feel wrong and so we often reject it. Just being aware of this can help you better understand information that challenges your beliefs.

The reality is, there are many communities that have had bad experiences with government departments and the healthcare system in the past. We shouldn’t be surprised if they’re taken in by people preying on that. Another complication is that we tend to accept most information we’re presented with as being true unless we have a clear reason not to, like it not fitting with our beliefs or values. That’s why it’s so frustrating to see so many people in positions of influence, including medical doctors and scientists, creating or spreading information I know is clearly false. Some of them may themselves be misinformed, but others are clearly lying to further their own agenda. 

What all this means is that if someone you know has fallen down a disinformation rabbit hole, you won’t pull them out just by debunking all the disinformation. Doing that is like building a massive wall between you both, and that will only reinforce their beliefs. Instead you need to approach the task not as a battle to be won, but as a conversation to get to the underlying reasons why someone might have been susceptible to the false information in the first place. That means asking questions and really listening to their answers. What you also need to find are the values you share. This will give you a place to build from. 

There are plenty of studies that show we’re most influenced by the people we care about. That means you’re an influential source of information for the people closest to you. Approaching the person you’re concerned about with humility and kindness, and reminding them of the values you share, gives you the best chance 0f helping them understand that they may have fallen for someone else’s agenda. There are no guarantees it’ll work, but you have a better chance of helping them than I do.

If you want to do a bit of a deeper dive into this topic, check out Dr Jess Berentson-Shaw’s short and excellent book A Matter of Fact: Talking Truth in a Post-Truth World. It’s available as a very reasonably priced e-book here.




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