Disinformation: Our Personal Responsibility to Have Difficult Conversations

12 mins read
Graphic via NeedPix

We know that disinformation influenced the 2016 election.

We battled this disinformation with massive voter turnout in 2018 in North Carolina and broke the supermajority in our State Congress. But the attacks are still underway, as confirmed by Robert Mueller himself, and although voter turnout is important, so is maintaining relationships with conservative friends and family so that the damage done by disinformation can be minimized.  

We tend to believe that disinformation and the psychological warfare of our time is Trump-specific, but it’s not. Representatives and candidates are resorting to disinformation campaigns because they appear to work.

How do we approach this trend? We need to realize that some of us are more susceptible to disinformation than others. Some of this can be addressed through systems/platform reforms, but I believe that most of it is our personal responsibility.

Disinformation presented by Trump and other elected representatives, conservative media, or by foreign actors is often presented in forms that insinuate validity. Web links, memes, repeated phrases that seem to take on lives of their own show up on your social media timelines and in conversations with your family and friends. You can’t believe that anyone believes this stuff, but they do. Why?

Peter Beinart, a Professor of Journalism at the City University of New York, writes in The Atlantic that Trump’s brazenness makes him appear more competent, and thus believable to Americans and others who are particularly vulnerable to this tactic. He cites multiple studies that confirm this is a natural human tendency.

Another theory is that conservative rhetoric, true or false, makes people acutely aware of their own mortality, which leads to behaviors motivated by our most conservative and self-protective views of “the other” due to death anxiety. Disinformation that awakens death anxiety is quite powerful in eliciting a response that is based on ego-preservation or the more forceful enforcement of a core moral belief.

And he said, look. I am the only one who can keep you safe. I’m going to make America great again. So we did studies in 2015 and ’16. American respondents reminded of death were more supportive of President Trump – now-president Trump – and said they were more likely to vote for him when they were reminded of their mortality. 

Sheldon Solomon, “We’re All Gonna Die! How Fear Of Death Drives Our Behavior,” Hidden Brain

We first must understand our own vulnerabilities, some of which are explained masterfully by Vox contributor, Brian Resnick. It’s worth remembering that these concepts apply to all of us, not just conservatives.

To summarize:

  • We tend to believe, remember, and be motivated by information that confirms what we already believe, even if it is factually incorrect. This is called motivated reasoning
  • The more you know about politics, the more polarized you likely are. An attack on strongly held beliefs is considered to be quite personal and elicits a response that is sometimes irrational. You’re less likely to fact check when you’re emotionally charged about an issue/statement/post.
  • When we are defensive, the more likely we are to hold fiercely to our core beliefs.
  • Conservative rhetoric appeals to a conservative moral foundation: “in-group loyalty, moral purity, and respect for authority.” Liberals’ moral foundation is based on: “equality, fairness, and protection of the vulnerable.” Thus, a liberal social media giant may be more prone to post and believe a photo/article depicting starving children or victims of violence that confirms their moral foundation, even if the information is not entirely accurate or the photos are from an unrelated event. We tend to be less skeptical if we agree with the reported information.
  • Dehumanizing language establishes the sense of dominance, a very human and survival-based evolutionary trait of humans. When humans see or hear someone they are supposed to respect attacking “the other,” they subconsciously become more tolerant of these attacks. We should be careful about trying to shut down disinformation with dehumanizing, creating “the other” ourselves. It creates defensiveness (see above) and causes the recipient of this language to hold more tightly to their idea, however false it may be.

As the holiday season approaches, one poignant question for our #DemCast readers is this:

I had little success in this area in my own life for a while. But, as a professional communicator, when talking about a particular topic seems hard, I dive into learning about it and try new ideas that make sense. I care too much about some of the people I know who spread disinformation to let it go. I also do not want to alienate family or friends. Some may question making the effort, assuming that those prone to buying into disinformation are “lost causes.”

Many articles miss the mark, in my opinion, focusing on agreeing to disagree or avoiding discussions of politics all together, but there are some good ideas out there for those of us interested in having constructive conversations about things we disagree about.

  1. Self-awareness is not a gift we have all received. Learning your own vulnerabilities takes work and humility, but we have to take personal responsibility to be aware of our own blind spots when it comes to disinformation. Check your emotions and vet your own sources!
  2. Statements like, “I think we can agree that keeping our children safe at school is important, but we have different ideas about how to accomplish that,” can turn a challenging disagreement into a validating one for both parties. In a local school district, a compromise on school security measures started with this statement and ended with agreeable solutions, mostly based on solid information and some based on tightly held beliefs that only served to assuage 2nd amendment defenders’ fears, but none that would potentially lead to additional harm to our children.
  3. Asking questions is a fantastic way to keep a healthy conversation going and let a person find the flaws in their own argument without aggressively telling them what you believe those flaws might be. It is the tone of these questions that is key. A genuinely curious and interested tone is differentiated from a challenging tone in posture, eye contact, and voice pitch.
  4. Have these conversations in person. Twitter, Facebook, etc. are the wrong place to argue/debate. It takes a lot of skill to communicate tone in a tweet. But showing a person their tweet or post and asking if they’d be willing to talk about it can be a powerful moment. These are impersonal platforms that do not generally change anyone’s mind when they’re sitting in front of a screen and not a person, no matter how many “facts” you put in the comments. Social media serves to confirm our own beliefs and strengthen our tribal mentality. This can be unifying for those in agreement, but the distance between disagreeing factions just grows deeper with online retorts.
  5. Conversations based on caring for another person’s well-being are generally well received. Stating that you think a person you care about is being deceived and you want them to get more information before casting their vote is going to go over much better than screaming, “FAKE NEWS!” or typing a quick and judgy statement in their social media replies. It still may not change their vote, but a more informed voter is never a bad thing.
  6. When another feels safe to share their beliefs, positions, and thoughts with you, you’ll have a more productive discussion. Sitting beside them rather than across from them, validating the basis of their belief in a certain piece of information (wanting to feel safe, wanting to ensure financial independence for themselves, wanting to know their home is safe from invasion, wanting to protect their children from what they perceive to be immoral beliefs/behaviors), and thanking them for the conversation either in word or in action (like a hug or an invitation to talk again soon) will help confirm that you mean well and offer the possibility for future opportunities.
  7. Not all conversations about disinformation and politics are healthy. When you find yourself emotionally charged or sense mounting anger in your conversation, step back. Either party being angry will shut both of your minds and could escalate quickly. Keep yourself safe. Walk away.

We have a huge mountain to climb to help our society battle disinformation. Remember, it is our human tendency to believe more of what we already believe.

It is my opinion that the battle against disinformation is fought on park benches and at kitchen tables when we take the opportunity to face the false narratives rather than avoid them. The First Amendment is a double-edged sword, but it is the foundation by which we keep and expand other freedoms.

Use your voice, but listen to and value others’ voices without stepping away from truth. Know your own vulnerabilities and know that our basic human tendencies are driving the disinformation war. Lastly, care. Don’t avoid the hard discussions. When they present themselves, be ready. Our future as a country depends on each of us making every opportunity count.

Additional Resources:


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Mother of 2, Resistance Activist, Family Practice physician practicing Palliative Medicine.

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