How to talk to someone citing fake news

Diana Enríquez
Feb 6, 2017 · 6 min read
Image credit: David Hodgson

First, why would you do this? Aren’t we all told it’s safer to avoid discussing politics in the first place?

My response: if we can’t talk about politics, the silos we find ourselves in now will last forever. The gulf between political parties grows and our inability to find common ground and discuss the values and behavior we accept (or don’t) from our politicians becomes impossible. Democracy cannot stand on a foundation of who screams the loudest, but it can stand on vigorous debate where everyone, without exception, has to take responsibility for their words and arguments, have space to make mistakes and ask questions, and accept that their opinions may change over time.

So how do we talk about facts and fake news? Let’s start by accepting some discomfort.

This conversation should be uncomfortable. You have to state your “truths” and explain why your source or facts are more accurate than the ones someone you love currently trusts. You need to be comfortable with the fact that you might be proven wrong and I encourage you to be open to that. You might need to state very clear HOW and WHY you know something is true, which might change your perspective on an issue you think you know everything about. These are all very challenging moments, be open to them.

I also find it helpful to create some space in my mind where I can focus on the content of the conversation and reflect on the points where I, or the person I am speaking to, are speaking through emotion rather than facts and reason. This distinction is important throughout the conversation. You are here to find a bridge between you two and talk about facts.

Sometimes this is hard, especially when there aren’t facts that offer comfort or meet a pressing need in another person. Emotions do have a place here: be compassionate, patient. Meet them not as a frozen proof waiting to prove them wrong, but as someone learning with them. Most importantly, do not internalize what you hear when someone is speaking through emotion, it will not serve your cause nor theirs.

Now an action plan! This is how I carry out difficult conversations with an author after I fact check their work:

1) Remind them that you are on the same team. Start by understanding your loved one’s goal as they sought out this source/topic.

When I have to return to someone with a difficult fact check, I always remind them that I am on the same team as them. Our conversation is private and respectful; I am interested in helping them frame the argument as best as we can together as a team.

I start by asking questions: What made them decide to read about this topic? What are they most concerned/excited about related to this topic?

I ask these questions to build a common frame of reference between us, so it’s clear that we’re working towards a common goal.

2) Develop a common point of reference by finding something you agree on.

This might be harder in some conversations than others, but maybe there is a point where you can reach way way back beyond a political issue and reach a common value between you.

I received a lot of fake news articles from a family member who knew I care a lot about the immigration debate. While the news articles were filled with hate-based arguments and contained misused and/or outdates statistics to make arguments. Eventually, when I asked this person about immigration/immigrant workers, he told me he admired them because they work really hard and are optimistic about their futures. We shared a few common values here: hard work and trying our best to make the most of the situations we face. We’re both optimists. We found a common point in our conversation. I worked from this foundation to introduce the next part.

3) Bring up the problem point in the most specific terms you can manage.

Be as specific as you possibly can about what is wrong with the source. The more vague you are, the less this person will trust you as you critique their trusted news source.

I brought up one of these fake news sites that I had been sent just the week before: I went through the supporting “evidence” with my relative and showed him where the statistics on immigration were outdated. Then I compared them to constraints of the questions used in the original source of the data. I showed him where the article had misinterpreted the data source and made a case for why this misuse of data meant the argument in the source was weak.

Sometimes people are not willing to work with you through these points. When I have a difficult fact check and the speaker is either really upset or angry with me, I give them time to work through their emotions and check in to see when they are ready to work through the data with me. Sometimes I need to restate our common goals we developed a few minutes earlier to calm them down. Take this time to make sure they can hear you when you present the problem.

4) Offer some other information sources. Explain why you prefer them.

Return to your common goal and lay out some solutions: in the case of fake news, I think it’s about returning to publications with clear statements on how they review the research they publish and how they fact check.

I offered my relative some sources that were good at working with data and were clear about their research integrity guidelines. I told him to look at the funding behind different blogs, who the author was, and how reputable the source was overall. He was open to this when I also went through the different leanings of the publications I read and explained how I am making an effort to find more conservative voices in here too.

I anticipated being told I read too many “left leaning” publications, so I made sure to show up with the specific data sets I was talking about and demonstrate that I read the background before I read someone else’s analysis of the topic.

5) Offer to talk about the topic again later.

A major part of what makes these conversations complicated is when one side is really worried about being shamed for their mistake. If you are willing to admit when you’ve made a mistake and look at your own work critically, you’re 50% better off already. Make it about growing together and improving your working relationship as learners, not about proving them “wrong.”

You can make the conversation even easier if you don’t try to frame it as a debate with a short timeline. This is likely an ongoing conversation about fake news and finding appropriate sources — if we learned anything this year, many people struggle to navigate the truth in the “news” they see on the internet. We train fact checkers all the time who need to up their scrutiny on news sources when we find inconsistencies between stories on reputable news sites. This process is currently rather complicated. Offer to talk about this topic again or send along other sources related to it that you find interesting. It can be a conversation where maybe you eventually have a better-informed conversation.

Finally, don’t get discouraged. This is a long road and process. We’re all learning together, and, ideally, constantly.

The ending to these conversations is often murky and doesn’t have a clear conclusion. You should not expect a moment where you “won” the conversation. Occasionally, someone will say, “you are right.” But this is rare and usually the moments of reflection that lead to someone accepting a new source of information and rejected a trusted but deeply flawed source is private and will happen without you present. It’s embarrassing to admit you haven’t been doing your research right for a while… accept when you’ve made your case and give this person time to think about it. Change comes from those quiet, humbling moments and compassionate teachers.

And y’all, sometimes this all works. This story gives me hope to keep trying.

Diana Enríquez

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Ph.D. student at Princeton (Labor, Informal Economies) | previously research + content at TED