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Myth-busting is not enough: Tell a new story instead of arguing against a false one

Stack of newspapers
Instead of just myth-busting, tell a new story Photo: / AFSC

Media illiteracy and the widespread proliferation of untrue, false, and unsubstantiated claims can have dire effects on the core institutions of the country as well as on our civic efforts to promote social justice and inclusion.

The circulation of false information – even when it is easily debunked – is highly destabilizing. How can we find common ground on which to debate, disagree, and build trust when the ground beneath our feet is suddenly itself suspect and the subject of lies? As the writer Ned Resnikoff writes, “when fake news is omnipresent, all news becomes suspect. Everything starts to look like a lie.” Without some consensus about what is true – that climate change is real, for example – social change becomes much more difficult.

It is essential that people debunk the lies that are circulating. But paradoxically, fact-checking is not enough. Research shows that myth-busting is not as persuasive as we might hope. Even if experts have tons of facts on their side, arguing against a false or misleading story can cause readers to get defensive and believe more deeply in the myth. People who believe something strongly simply discard the facts that don’t agree with their belief. But if facts cannot effectively fight blatant lies, what can we do? Here are some tactics that you can use in your own life to disrupt the spread of false, unsubstantiate information.

1. Instead of pointing out that something is untrue, tell a new story.

Repeating a lie in order to debunk it can give it more weight and power – and it’s unlikely to convince anyone who believes it anyway.  For example, instead of debunking a negative, untrue myth about immigrants, talk affirmatively about who immigrants are and how humane immigration policies help all of us. Instead of demonstrating that myths about immigrants threatening the country’s safety are unfounded, for example, tell an affirmative story about how immigrants are long-standing members of our communities that our policies must respect.

2. Try to understand the purpose of the myth, and address it.

When a lie is being widely believed and repeated, ask why it is gaining power. Recently the president-elect repeated a lie that millions of people had voted illegally, a claim that is not only unsubstantiated, but easy to debunk. That kind of voter fraud happens so rarely, it is nearly non-existent. But what is the purpose of that lie? The New York Times editorial board writes that “these lies threaten the foundations of American democracy” and may provide “justification for voter suppression laws around the country.”

3. Share evidence for your claim, making sure you frame the facts using shared values.

Instead of getting dragged down into an argument about non-existent voter fraud, start a new conversation steeped in shared values about how important it is to uphold voter rights. Get at the purpose of the myth about voter fraud without repeating it. Instead, talk about resisting new voter suppression laws, and advocate to restore voting rights to people barred from voting due to a felony conviction. Logic doesn’t answer fear – but by starting a new conversation about the fundamental importance of voting, we may be able to build support for policies that protect voting rights and thwart false messages about fraud.

The best way to be persuasive is to tell a new, affirmative story, backed up by good evidence, instead of arguing against a false one. By telling new, truthful stories, we can begin to build consensus that promotes more peaceful and inclusive communities.

About the Author

Carly Goodman is a historian and served as the Communications Analyst and Mellon/ACLS Public Fellow at AFSC.

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