Jonathan Swift in 1710 described the power of what we now call misinformation: “Falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it.”
In the age of the internet and social media, three centuries later, it is even more difficult to stop the spread of misinformation. “Alternative facts,” “fake news,” and accusations of both are now part of our daily lives—so how do we help truth do more than limp?
In “Alternative Facts and Fake News: Standing Up for Science Amid Misinformation Campaigns,” Mark Bayer draws on his 20 years of experience on Capitol Hill, where he served as a Chief of Staff in the U.S. Congress, to share his tips for combating the “two-headed monster” of alternative facts and fake news.
Bayer begins the webinar, hosted by the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, by introducing the “Fundamentals of Fake News.” Fake news is information that is designed to trigger a strong emotion, whether that be anger, mistrust, surprise, or confusion, he says. In 2016, Buzzfeed found 100 pro-Trump fake news sites originating from a small town in the Yugoslavia Republic of Macedonia. Teenagers looking to make money by simply creating click-bait to drive up advertisement rates had created the sites, Bayer explains. Although the terms “fake news” and “alternative facts” have very modern roots, misinformation is not a new phenomenon—it’s just a mutation of the well-known gossip and falsehood virus.
One strategy often used by those who generate alternative facts is to erode trust in third party validators, including the military, medical doctors, and scientists. In the past, Bayer adds, many people looked to the news media as an authoritative source of information, but concerted efforts at undermining public trust in the news media has compounded the misinformation problem. Applying the label “fake news” to a piece of information “weakens credible challengers of alternative facts,” says Bayer, including the mainstream media.
Bayer has come up with a number of tips for taking on the “monster” of misinformation:
#1 Before you engage, set your goal
Before you engage with someone who believes or is spreading fake news, you need to know what outcome you expect from the interaction. Ask yourself these questions:
- Are you trying to persuade someone to stop believing fake news?
- Do you just want to be a resource?
- Are you trying to make a counterpoint or introduce doubt?
- Do you want to slow the spread of misinformation?
- Is your goal realistic?
#2 Recognize the core structure
Before you can begin to persuade a group, you need to understand why they believe misinformation.
- What are the core beliefs and values of the community?
- What is the culture of the community?
- Why has the fake news or alternative facts triggered such a strong response?
You need to be genuinely curious about how to connect with and understand the beliefs and thought processes of your audience, Bayer says.
#3 The messenger matters
Bayer urges viewers to work to gain the trust of the audience they are trying to persuade. Don’t lead with data, he says. Misinformation is based in emotion, making it important to listen authentically and lead with empathy. Find a connection or similarity with the audience, whether that be a pre-existing relationship, fluency in their native language, or shared values.
“You need to connect before you communicate,” Bayer says. If you are having a hard time finding a similarity, don’t try to fake it—it will backfire quickly. Instead, try finding a messenger who does have a connection to the audience you hope to reach.
Bayer cites two examples of good messengers. Dr. Katherine Hayhoe is a climate scientist who is also an Evangelical Christian from a conservative area. She is very good at talking to Christians who are skeptical about climate change because she is able to cite relevant Bible verses—she genuinely shares a connection with other Evangelical Christians.
Blima Marcus, RN, is another example of a good messenger, according to Bayer. She is an oncology nurse who advocates vaccination of children for communicable diseases. She lives in a community where many Orthodox Jewish parents prefer not to vaccinate their children against measles, mumps, and rubella because of misinformation-based fears about vaccination. As an Orthodox Jew herself, she knows the values of the culture. In meetings with those who oppose vaccination, she sets up the chairs in a circle for discussion rather than lecturing from the front of the room. Rather than criticize, she takes an empathetic approach. She is often able to persuade people to vaccinate by citing a shared primary value: don’t do anything within your household that could affect people outside your household.
#4 “When you’re in a hole, stop digging”
Another point Bayer makes is to put your energy where it might count. Don’t focus on the “unpersuadables” or on the people who will always agree with you. Instead, focus on the persuadable. Bayer calls this a 20-60-20 phenomenon: 20 percent of people will be with you no matter what, 60 percent of people are persuadable, and 20 percent will never be persuaded. The unpersuadable have internalized the “alternative facts” and made them part of their identity.
You can watch the full webinar on the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science website using this link: https://www.aldacenter.org/aklc/webinars/alternative-facts-and-fake-news.
By Sarah Propst, Center for Communicating Science student intern