The following is a question with which I’m wrestling and have not yet found a completely satisfying answer. So, I’m probing more than proclaiming here.
How best should one respond to social media posts – or in-person comments as those rise from the ashes – that pass along clearly inaccurate and potentially harmful information?
That question is especially challenging when the misinformation comes from those with whom we have long, and sometimes deep, relationships. Or, in some cases, those with whom we use to have such ties before our earlier responses severed them.
Count me among those who have not always responded in the most constructive manner. But I want to be more careful and more considerate in my responses, and more willing not to respond at all if that is the better choice.
One reality has been made clear: Minds aren’t easily changed by facts, which means that even good explanations often result in exasperation.
Those who value truth – and the justice that often flows from truth – are compelled to make wrongs right. But we have to choose our battles.
Before correcting a technical inaccuracy (that is rather harmless if left unaddressed), it seems wise to ask if it will do any good.
More compelling, however, is the responsible defense of vulnerable people who are misrepresented, even maligned, by provable falsehoods, ugly stereotyping and downright bigotry.
Yet even when nobly seeking to right societal wrongs, it is easy to appear arrogant and disrespectful toward those who’ve erred. And, again, I have responded to such wrongs in wrong ways.
The frustration comes from seeing or hearing perspectives that are not merely opposing opinions. Rather, they are easily refutable inaccuracies.
Strangers to fact-checking – and logical progression – often repeat complete nonsense via copy-and-paste or “share” clicks. It can be maddening.
Choosing a response, however, is more complex than a binary choice between correcting the errant claim or just letting it go. More likely, it involves weighing the benefits and costs of responding or not. And, if responding, considering precisely how to do so.
Showing better discipline than resorting to the sometimes quick, snarky retorts that are typed too easily is what I and perhaps others need. Being right isn’t always the right response.
Correction is not necessarily constructive – if we provide more arrogance, shame and disrespect than information that enlightens. And, of course, we must always keep in mind our own capability to be wrong.
It is helpful to realize that a person posting misinformation may have little interest in whether it is factual or not. Sadly, truth has vacated the arena of facts and found a new home among whatever makes one less fearful and more secure.
One discipline I’m trying now is “no immediate response.” Just pause and ask myself some questions.
Does this deserve a response? If so, how might it be framed in order to be helpful rather than snarky?
A second approach acknowledges the reality that some regurgitated nonsense – by those who’ve never met an unappealing conspiracy theory – is more than I can tolerate. The “Snooze for 30 Days” button on Facebook can be a good friend in order to keep a friend.
But avoidance is not necessarily a virtue. By conviction and calling, those who value truth and justice cannot settle for a false sense of peace that is really cowardice.
Complicity in advancing injustice built on untruths often occurs under the pretense of being nice. Society’s most evil attitudes and acts have flourished because “nice people” didn’t want to upset the applecart, risk relationships or be considered troublemakers.
Rejection is not always a bad thing. It happened to Jesus who warned his followers to expect the same if they are faithful to his calling and example.
So, there are worse things than being “unfriended” or “unfollowed” on social media. A greater failure is to stand quietly on the sidelines while truth is sacrificed on the altar of self-preservation.
The question – of how best to respond to misinformation or disinformation – is often one of nuances.
Nicholas Kristof wrote a column last month in the New York Times titled, “How to reach people who are wrong.” He suggested a recalibration, warning that “one of the perils in life is being proven right.”
What I have long heard called “rubbing it in,” Kristof calls “preening at one’s own righteousness,” which tends to come with scorn for those with an opposing perspective.
Quoting organizational psychologist Adam Grant, author of Think Again, Kristof proposes, “Humility is often a more effective persuasive tool.”
Some research points to the value of listening, raising good questions and appealing to the values of others as a better route to potential change. It does seem more likely to have a positive impact than ridicule or taking a victory lap around each point we’ve eagerly disproved.
There is no easy route to rectifying a strained relationship with those who embrace “alternate facts” as truth, scapegoat life’s struggles onto vulnerable people unlike them, and reduce complex social issues to bumper-sticker certitude.
But it is worthy asking what might put water rather than gas on these fires.
For starters, cutting out some of the never-convincing, increasingly hostile, back-and-forth exchanges on social media seems wise. Or perhaps better: Ignore the comment streams.
There is also wisdom in knowing that what I say, and how I say it, can contribute to either better understanding or further division.
Again, these cautions are not a call for silence or a pretense that all perspectives are equally true. Unaddressed injustice, inequality and instability signal our complicity in them.
At the least, we can benefit from the recognition that quick-reacting, free-flowing fingers on a keyboard aren’t necessarily the most helpful approach to addressing societal woes or engaging in respectful conversations.
Those are lessons I’m still trying to learn.
Executive editor / publisher at Good Faith Media.