The holidays are coming up. And although gatherings will probably be smaller this year, or taking place virtually rather than in person, you may find yourself in a difficult conversation with a friend or family member. Now normally, a good rule of thumb is to avoid politics at the dinner table altogether — but this year, in the aftermath of a bitterly divisive election, and with a global pandemic raging, there may be no way around it. Political arguments are a part of life, but increasingly in the U.S. they take place between people who disagree not just over policies, but objective reality, posing a dilemma over how to respond when confronted with misinformation, baseless internet rumors, or conspiracy theories. Yahoo News Senior Political Correspondent Jon Ward explains his strategy for how to talk about such theories without starting an argument.
JON WARD: The holidays are coming up. And even though gatherings may be a little smaller this year, or maybe through a screen rather than in person, you might still find yourself in a difficult conversation with a friend or family member. In fact, I can speak from personal experience on this. In just the last week, I've had some of these conversations with my own family, and I've made plenty of mistakes myself, mostly by trying to argue over text and email, rather than in person or over the phone.
Now, normally a good rule of thumb is to avoid politics at the dinner table altogether, but between a global pandemic and a deeply divisive election, there might be no other way around it. Political disagreements are part of life. But what should you do when someone confronts you with potential misinformation or conspiracy theories?
Well, first, maybe don't start by calling them conspiracy theories. The term is occasionally useful, but it's increasingly become almost a form of noise to those who do believe in them. It's a signal that whatever they're about to hear contradicts what they believe, so they can just tune you out. It might be helpful, however, to point out the difference between a proven conspiracy and an unproven conspiracy theory. And we'll talk about some of those differences in a moment.
But first, here are the telltale signs of a conspiracy theory. First, there's negative evidence. The absence of evidence is the first telltale sign to someone who believes in the theory. It's the first chess move of a conspiracy theory because it serves to prompt the obvious response from a skeptic, which would be, where's the evidence? That response is then used to paint the skeptic as closed-minded, and potentially even part of the plot to suppress the truth.
Second, there's errant data. Conspiracy theories will often rely on obscure and complex analysis, many times of the statistical or analytical variety that offer a veneer of sophistication, but which are usually hot air. Third there's always a highly effective master plan at the heart of any good conspiracy theory. A conspiracy theory asserts that there are no accidents. Everything is intended. Of course, that's not how reality works.
Fourth, there's always a shadowy, often nameless villain or group of bad guys pulling the strings. Fifth, circular reasoning or contradictory claims often show up in the arguments that people make. Six, there's knowability skepticism. If you hear someone saying that we can't actually know for sure what happened, that's another hallmark of a conspiracy theory.
And finally, conspiracy theories are self-reinforcing or self-insulating. Reality itself, the existence of a plausible explanation, even if there's evidence for it, is part of the plot, because that's what they want you to believe.
So how should you talk about conspiracy theories? First, assess your audience. Are you speaking with someone who is confused by conspiracy theories or with someone who is committed to them? If it's simply someone who is not sure what to think, then talk about media literacy and the standards for assessing good information from bad.
The Cornell Alliance for Science in its conspiracy theory handbook recommends four basic questions to help someone assess the credibility of information. The four questions are, do I recognize the news organization that posted the story? Does the information in the post seem believable? Is the post written in a style that I expect from a professional news organization? And is the post politically motivated?
Other good questions to discuss are whether the information is coming from an organization that has layers of editing and vetting of information. Are the names of the people who run the organization public so that they are accountable? And are there clearly stated names of the people who wrote the article or created the content? These are all good questions that can lead to a discussion of how legitimate news organizations work and how there is a lot of information on the internet with no accountability and no standards.
For the person who seems committed to believing their conspiracy theory, there might be other approaches that work better. One approach is to ask questions and use curiosity with healthy, but friendly, skepticism to untangle the assumptions underneath someone's beliefs. Those presuppositions are usually what's driving someone to believe in a grand conspiracy anyway, so it's worthwhile to spend time there.
Questions like, what makes you believe that or what do you think is driving all this are one way to move closer to a person's deeper motivations, and perhaps to take the conversation in a more personal direction that allows for building relational trust. Trust, after all, is the greatest conduit that enables truth telling.
Another approach is to discuss how it is that real conspiracies have been uncovered in the past, like the Watergate scandal, or the Catholic church sexual abuse scandal, or the use of extraordinary rendition and torture of military detainees by the US government after 9/11, or the tobacco industry's deceit of the public about the health effects of smoking. All of these came to light through investigative journalism, the courage of whistleblowers, working with the press, or state-sponsored inquiries.
It may help to create some common ground to talk about the idea of conspiracies and how it's wrong to say there is no such thing. This could be a bridge to discussing the distinguishing marks of the real conspiracies that have come to light and how this differs from the unproven ones that people often fixate on. Finally, empathy and humility can be, possibly, the greatest weapons for the truth. They might not make us feel dominant, but that's not the point.
Happy Thanksgiving, and good luck.