Editor’s Note: I usually refrain from discussing politics. Last week’s U.S. Senate theatrics, however, were way too Animal Farmish to resist addressing.
The truth will not always set you free when Web 2.0 unleashes scary boogeymen.
That sounds harsh but sadly illustrating my point is last week’s U.S. Senate vote killing U.S. ratification of a United Nations treaty aimed at bringing the rest of the world in line with U.S. standards on how to treat the disabled. Most Senate Republicans voted against the treaty even while former Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.)—a disabled World War II veteran and American hero—visited the Senate floor to show his support. Many also did so despite receiving personal phone calls in support of the treaty from former President George H.W. Bush and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.)—who suffered disabling injuries in Vietnam and is also an American hero.
Instead, all but eight Republican senators caved to the party’s fringe, which had been raising baseless fears about the treaty compromising U.S. sovereignty, hurting U.S. parents’ rights to educate their children at home, forcing abortions, and leading to the euthanasia of disabled children. The treaty’s defeat appears to me to be a classic case of a priori solutions—when supporters of a governmental action (i.e., refusing to work within the United Nations system) create a solution a priori (before the fact) and then offer it when a convenient problem appears. Under a priori solutions theory, supporters of the particular course of governmental action will attach widely feared problems (willfully or accidentally as the case may be) to the desired action to maximize support.
You need to be particularly strategic in how you go about countering a priori solutions and myths, even when truth is on your side. A priori solutions and myths benefit from appearing before the issue, both chronologically and psychologically, making them particularly hard to counter.
Here are eight ways to counter intentional or accidental misinformation:
1. Don’t fight perception. When countering misinformation, avoid framing your message in a way that contradicts widespread perceptions, even if these perceptions are wrong. Perceptions lag reality, and fighting perceptions will only trick the brain into perceiving you as the liar, even when you are the one telling the truth.
2. Don’t repeat the myth. When countering misinformation, avoid repeating the myth. If you do, people will only remember the myth as false in the short term. Repeating misinformation makes it more accessible in memory, and one of the brain’s subconscious rules of thumb is that easily recalled things are true. So paradoxically, in the long term, denying or countering misinformation will make people remember the myth as true.
3. Inoculate against misinformation. If you must repeat the myth to get your message out, warn your audience before repeating the myth that misinformation is coming. Likewise, if you are aware early on a myth will be used to persuade people to mistrust reality, briefly explain and refute the myth ahead of time. This builds resistance in a way similar to a vaccine inoculating against viral attacks.
4. Remember less is more. When you present the “real” facts, make sure not to make them too complicated. Keep your main message short, sweet, and simple. Trying to persuade with more than three key points will trigger skepticism and/or cause people to tune you out. If people can process your statements quickly, however, they will automatically associate quick and easy with truthfulness.
5. Trigger mental pictures. If something is easy to picture, it’s easier to recall and likely to seem more honest and believable. Again, one of the brain’s subconscious rules of thumb is that easily recalled things are true.
6. Affirm identity. Another way to help people recognize misinformation for what it is is to reinforce their sense of identity. People want to see themselves as consistent, so emphasizing how their past actions conflict with the myth or a priori solution can work well.
7. Explain the myth spreaders’ motivations. To convince people to rethink their perceptions, you need to explain to them why the myth spread in the first place. Ideally, you need to be able to explain the motivations for any deliberate misinformation.
8. Remember the principle of consensus. The principle of consensus tells us, when people are unsure how to act in certain situations, they tend to look to authorities and/or their peers to see how they should respond.
The and/or above is a big one.
Strong peer pressure to vote down the treaty caused many Republican Senators last week to ignore the personal appeals of their party’s most respected senior statesmen. Instead, they gave them the same level of deference many teenagers would give police officers asking them not to drive drunk.
Never underestimate the power of peer pressure (and Web 2.0-fueled propaganda) to circumvent the most respected authority.