So Your Grandpa Is a QAnon Believer? How to Address Misinformation with Loved Ones
As if there was not already mounting evidence that conspiracy theories were a growing threat to democracy, after the January 6th Capitol occupation led by Trump-inspired, white supremacist, QAnon believing, and anti-establishment terrorists, it is now undeniable that misinformation is rampant and dangerous.
It is probably likely that there is at least one person in your life who has found a way to defend these actions, or perhaps even supported them. It is even more likely that you know someone who has subscribed to misinformation and holds a general distrust of mainstream media, even if they fall short of calling for a siege of the People’s House.
It is often reported that when a person falls victim to misinformation and conspiracy, their family members or close friends feel they are losing grip on them, that they cannot pull them out of the growing ties to their internet community.
This feeling is heightened because people often do not know the best way to rein their loved ones back in. Instinctively, it is common to present facts that dispute their conspiracy fueled viewpoint. But the issue here lies in that a person has probably found themselves down the misinformation rabbit hole because they are already predisposed to a general distrust of news sources from where those facts are coming.
The first, incredibly frustrating, thing to realize is that empirical, provable facts will have very little value on changing their mind no matter how undisputed they may be. They do not wish to be told they are wrong. For example, no matter how many election recounts occur, no matter how many local election officials certify the results, and even where Trump’s own government declares the election the safest and most secure in election history, none of these are likely to have any real sway for someone already consumed by misinformation. Nina Jankowicz, who studies disinformation at The Wilson Center, explains this concisely here.
To understand this, it is important to keep in mind the psychological tendencies of people who quickly become attached to conspiracy. Research has shown that these tend to be individuals who value control and stability in times of uncertainty. Even where beliefs, such as in the case of QAnon, that the government is working undercover with a secret pedophilia ring, are outlandish, because they are supported by so many facts conveniently lining up, it provides more certainty than say, an unseen, little understood virus from China.
Once exposed, beliefs easily become deeper as it becomes part of one’s social and political identity. Now, attacks on misinformation isn’t just a debate on truth, it is an assault on them.
So when “elites” like politicians and journalists seek to counter their belief system, it is often viewed as a personal attack. They feel that elites have disrespected them, characterizing them as racist, uneducated, and of a lower class. Since that information is now suspect, they instead resort to other sources which make them feel “in the know” and like they are holding the “real truth.”
However, this does not have to be a dead end. Emotional contact with loving and trusting connections, rather than empirical debate, is much more likely to show progress. Opening a private discussion, in a safe and secure place where they will not be made to feel belittled or uneducated is best. One way to create this space is encouraging open ended discussion, asking questions, remaining neutral, and often, playing dumb.
For example, for someone who believes that this election has been stolen, asking, neutral and openminded as ever, what the people asserting those claims have to gain? What do those disagreeing have to gain? Who benefits in this scenario?
Even if this doesn’t immediately change their mind, it opens them up to discussion and to think critically, which if done enough can be both enlightening and expose any underlying fears that can be more directly addressed.
Another common example used is where a person may be hesitant to receive the Covid vaccination. Instead of referencing fact-based studies that point to its safety and effectiveness, appeal to emotion and identity. For example, say “wouldn’t it be nice if the vaccine could work and things would go back to normal? I would love to see you going to book club again.” Or, perhaps appeal to already trusted sources, like their doctor. While distrustful of scientists generally, people often hold a heightened sense of trust with their own doctor with whom they have had past experiences . So one could say “I understand why you would be hesitant. Have you asked what Dr. X thinks?”
Sharing personal stories is also helpful. In the case of election fraud, referencing a story about a friend who worked as a poll worker and felt threatened, but felt it was their patriotic duty to continue their job. Or speak about personal friends who are healthcare workers and feel incredibly overwhelmed.
The key here is to lead with questions that open discussion, remain neutral, and importantly not to overwhelm someone with “I read this…” discourse. One conversation will not change one’s worldview, but multiple openhearted discussions can begin stimulating the critical thinking necessary to combat misinformation.