Heading Home for the Holidays?

Here’s How to Have Conversations about Misinformation in a World Where the ‘Truth’ feels Impossible to Prove. 

By Tessa Pang | Magazine | December 15, 2021

Cover Illustration: COVID-19 misinformation. Unsplash

Magazine Reporter Tessa Pang gives you some tips on how to make sure your light Christmas lunch chat about conspiracy theories doesn’t end in tears. 


It’s the moment everyone dreads. 

The family sits down to eat their Christmas lunch and as your aunt’s new boyfriend passes the potatoes, he mentions he’s been leaving his phone outside at night so the 5G doesn’t give him COVID-19. Your cousin then chimes in that he doesn’t have a phone because it’s the government’s way of infiltrating us with this ‘COVID and climate propaganda’, backed up by a chorus of “real men don’t wear masks!” and “climate change is natural!” You’re then left thinking and wondering “How am I going to make it to dessert without my head exploding?”. 

If you think you might find yourself grappling with this situation in the coming days, I’ve done some research for you. I’ve compiled the best tips from psychologists, mental health experts and researchers on how to productively have conversations about misinformation. 

So, if you’re not completely exhausted by the year that was 2020… and by the year that was 2021, let’s dive into it! 

Leave the palm cards, judge wig and gavel at home. 

As soon as someone yells something as hare-brained as “Satan caused the Astroworld tragedy”, your first instinct might be to call the person an idiot. However, consider holding back on the urge to myth-bust or fact-check because basically…it doesn’t work.

Through analysing the 2012 and 2016 US elections, researchers found that once an initial fact or thought was established in someone’s brain, attempts to destabilise that fact with contrasting information not only failed, but it actually made the person’s belief in the misinformation stronger and led them to attack the person delivering the new information. 

Therefore, no matter how many times you scream “vaccines are safe!”, all the other person will hear is “you’re right. Vaccines DO cause autism!”. 

What makes fact-checking worse is that for those who dive down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories, a major tenet of their belief is that mainstream media’s ‘facts’ are thinly veiled government propaganda or just absolute rubbish. So essentially, if you fact-check them, you’re doing exactly what the underlords said you would do – acting as a brainwashed mouthpiece for the government.

Instead of attempting to prove what’s right and what’s wrong, try to understand how the person arrived at their conclusion. Ask questions about where they got their information from, who shared it and why they trust their source. If you feel comfortable, share the sources you trust and the thought process that led you to your own conclusion. Your role in this conversation is not to prove the person wrong, but to encourage them to critically think about the sources they trust.

COVID-19 Vaccination. Daniel Schludi / Unsplash

Keep your friends close but your… conspiracy theorist cousin closer? 

To have proper conversations about misinformation, it’s important to understand why people hold the beliefs that are so dear to them in the first place. 

At the end of the day, we all just want to feel like we belong. That is exactly what sociologists found to be the reason people are so attracted to misinformation and conspiracy theories – they give people a sense of identity and belonging. This makes attacking conspiracy theories all the more complicated – they’re just the tip of a big, explosive iceberg. This effectively means that when someone counters the idea that, for example, Oprah Winfrey is part of the ‘deep state’, they are not just attacking the theory, but they are attacking the person, their community and the entire sense of self they have built around that. 

Mental health experts found the most effective way to bring someone out of a conspiracy theory rabbithole is to be a non-judgemental source of support. So, while it might feel like the last thing you want to do at Christmas lunch, let your family member know that while you might not agree with them, you are here to listen to them and you want to have a genuine, polite discussion. Then, when they do start questioning if Bill Gates really created COVID, you can be a person they turn to in order to know the real facts. That can only happen if there is mutual respect. 

Be funnier than Pepe. 

The truth is never as sexy as a conspiracy theory – but it can be as funny! 

Qanon and the far-right really know how to use a meme to their advantage. They’ve recruited thousands of people by degrading Pepe the frog to a neo-Nazi symbol and using Doge to spout their bigotry. It’s time for the truth to be wrapped up in an equally edgy and relatable package. 

So, don’t leave it to your flat-earther uncle to share memes in the group chat. Share them yourself!

And if all else fails sit at the kids table.

If your misinformed uncles just don’t want to hear the truth, don’t waste your breath – radicalise the next generation instead! 

Do you also have a useful tip or want to share a conversation you’ve had? Email me, I’d love to know!

Tessa Pang is a student at the University of Amsterdam. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of The Amsterdammer. 

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