A lot of people are frustrated about the lack of shared truth out there these days. The pandemic, social media algorithms, our political discourse, and AI have increasingly put an even greater strain on our social fabric. It seems everyone feels it and is concerned about it, so let’s learn how to navigate it. Two essential leadership skills are critical thinking and being proactive. You’ll need both in spades for this.
Tips to Counter Disinformation
1) Don’t spread the lie further
Martin Luther, seminal figure of the Protestant Reformation, once said:
A lie is like a snowball: the further you roll it the bigger it becomes.
This seems to hold up in the age of the internet. The more you get upset about fake news or comment on it, the bigger its reach becomes. It might be useful to stop and reflect: Do I really have to share and amplify the message? Do I want to increase its reach? Sometimes it is best to ignore. To be sure, this is not to say be ignorant or not attentive. Instead make a conscious choice as to what is worth amplifying and what is not. If you do decide to share something, vet it yourself first by going to trusted sources.
By the way, just because you see something with your own eyes doesn’t necessarily mean it’s real. Test your ability to spot fake images here. (I only got three out of 10 correct. Yikes!)
To take the air out of a rumor, repeat it as little as possible. Let me quote from Don Miguel Ruiz, author of The Four Agreements, in which he states the first agreement: Be impeccable with your word. He writes:
The word is so powerful that one word can change a life or destroy the lives of millions of people. Some years ago one man in Germany, by the use of the word, manipulated a whole country of the most intelligent people. He led them into a world war with just the power of his word. He convinced others to commit the most atrocious acts of violence. He activated people’s fear with the word, and like a big explosion, there was killing and war all around the world. All over the world humans destroyed other humans because they were afraid of each other. Hitler’s word, based on fear-generated beliefs and agreements, will be remembered for centuries.
2) Beware of new and disgusting
Be suspicious of stories/pictures/information you have never heard about and that seem to trigger a really negative, often disgusting emotion within you. Tweets – as they’re still often called on the platform X — containing falsehoods are 70 percent more likely to be shared than truthful posts.
Often falsehoods are taken out of context and don’t give you reasons or explanations. They are literally meant to trigger you. In his book Triggers, Marshall Goldsmith writes:
When a trigger is pulled we have an impulse to behave a certain way. That’s why some of us hear a loud crash behind us and immediately duck our heads to protect ourselves. The more screwd and alert among us aren’t as quick to run for cover. We hear the sound and look around to see what’s behind it — in case there’s even more to worry about. Same trigger, different responses, one of them automatic and hasty (in a word, impulsive, as in yielding to the first impulse), the other intermediated by pausing, reflecting, and sifting among better options.
3) Don’t feel pressured
When confronted with fake news by friends, family, colleagues and online, you don’t have to answer right away. Sometimes it is best to retreat like this – “I want to take a look at that more carefully.” It is often hard to come up with a meaningful rebuttal and it’s OK to consciously decide to not engage in the moment and check the facts yourself first. Do consult fact checker sites and varied resources to form an intelligent opinion. [Fact checker sites like PolitiFact, Snopes, and FactCheck.org]
4) Ask instead of just knowing better
Instead of getting into a tit-for-tat on who knows better, it is often best to ask a powerful question. Posing questions signals interest and curiosity. And powerful questions might unpack inconsistencies during an argument. Questions uncover incentives and can shed some light. Who would benefit from ____? What is the incentive to advocate for ____? Also, what, if anything, could convince you of ____? It might not persuade or influence the other person. The objective is to get the other to think it through. I know a thing or two about that. It is my job to help my clients think things through without judgment or favor. It works!
5) Don’t succumb to the free-speech trick, instead use critical thinking
Conspiracy theorists often lament or declare their right to free speech. That’s great and in my book everyone does have that right. But I also have a right to disagree. Freedom of speech allows for — and even needs — dissent. Time to use your critical thinking skills.
6) Build relationships
If you have a penchant for preaching and trying to cajole others into what you believe in, stop! In a lot of situations, throwing more facts into the mix is not useful. It simply doesn’t penetrate. Instead, build relationships through dialogue and inquiry. Come from a place of curiosity and trying to understand. “Tell me more” or “What leads you to this conclusion?” – these feel almost like an olive branch. We have to earn trust rather than treat people with contempt. Did you know that contempt is the No. 1 reason for teams to fail? The same holds true for societies. We need to root out and take the oxygen from contempt and disgust as much as we can. Observe where you are feeling contempt/disgust/anger? What can you do to build and earn trust instead?
7) Don’t despair about nonsense
Conspiracies thrive on simple messaging and assigning blame and are welcomed by many who seek more simplicity. Insecure people who struggle dealing with ambivalence are prone to fall for them more easily. That’s also why the biggest bully is the most insecure person of all. It’s easier for them to bear dark powers in the deep universe than to accept the complexity and idiosyncrasies of our complicated world.
8) Don’t let yourself get worn down
Discussions with diehard conspiracy theorists are usually useless. Save your energy for useful dialogue, for example, with people who might be insecure but still open to arguments. If you find yourself in a group where one person is dominating the discussion with conspiracies, express dissent, not to convince the theorist to change his mind, but for the others to hear an alternative view. Engage and support the ones that are questioning.
9) Sometimes emotions help
Often citing facts is fruitless and won’t get you anywhere. In that case, it can be better to tell an emotion-filled story to the contrary. For example, you might want to paint a heartfelt picture of how you struggled with the effects of Covid to counter a vaccine critic. Then facts might register.
As a leader it is upon you to practice critical thinking and proactive behavior shifts. You might want to discuss these with peers, friends, and family members as you see fit to become better at spotting and rooting out fake news.
Note: This article builds on discoveries in the book “Zusammen” by Ulrich Schnabel