In an era of fake news, alternative facts, and downright lies, it’s a daily struggle to promote a positive, inclusive vision for our country that’s rooted in truth and justice. And when the loudest and most virulent falsehoods come from the highest levels of government, the challenge can feel overwhelming. But research and experience point to clear ways that advocates, journalists, and everyday people can overcome the fiction and get the real story out. Here are ten of them.
When the loudest and most virulent falsehoods come from the highest levels of government... research and experience point to clear ways that advocates, journalists, and everyday people can overcome the fiction and get the real story out.
- Understand the strategy behind the lie. Political lies are not random. They each have a clear purpose. When pressure was growing for Attorney General Jeff Sessions to resign after falsely telling Congress he’d had no contact with Russia during the campaign, President Trump tweeted, falsely, that President Obama surveilled Trump Tower during the campaign. The news media took the bait, engaging in a feeding frenzy that has yet to subside, and that has obliterated the Sessions story—as Trump intended. Other lies are meant to energize the base, to undermine sources of accountability like the judiciary and Congressional Budget Office, or to tarnish reliable sources of information like the Bureau of Labor Statistics and respected news organizations. Still other lies are intended to demonize vulnerable groups or political opponents. Some do all those things. And the purveyors of lies are playing the long game, knowing for example that the CBO will be one of the few independent sources of information during the coming debate about tax breaks for the wealthy. Understanding the likely purpose of a lie helps to avoid assisting in that purpose.
- Tell Your Story – Don’t repeat the lie. A ton of research shows that repeating a myth, even to refute it, merely deepens the inaccuracy in the minds of your audience. Plus, many people won’t have heard the myth until you shared it with them. This is akin to linguist George Lakoff’s advice that if you tell your audience “Don’t think of an elephant,” there’s only one thing they’ll be thinking about—and it’s got big ears and a trunk. Instead of “Obamacare is not in a ‘death spiral’…,” try “Obamacare represents resounding progress for our country’s health and wealth … expanding healthcare coverage to 20 million more Americans, ensuring that pre-existing conditions and job changes don’t threaten families’ coverage, and more. Anything new has to meet and improve on that foundation, or it’s a threat to the health and financial security of the American people.” Instead of “President Trump is wrong when he says crime and violence are on the rise around our country,” try “Crime remains at record lows in the United States, and especially in communities that have begun to emphasize prevention and community policing instead of incarceration and overly aggressive tactics. Take New York City, which is now the safest big city in the world, due in part to smart criminal justice reform.”
- Lead with Shared Values. A major lesson from the last year is that most people are immune to facts that don’t fit within a narrative and a set of values to which they can relate. Instead of leading with dry counter-facts and data, or hot political rhetoric, consider leading with the values that you share with your audience. Instead of “Congressman Chaffetz is wrong when he says that poor people are choosing iPhones instead of health insurance,” try “Our country is strongest when everyone has the tools they need to provide for themselves and their families. Under Congressman Chaffetz’s plan, many of his constituents would have to make impossible choices between food for themselves and medicine for their kids, between needed surgery and paying the mortgage. We have to do better than that as a country.”
- Call it “false,” not “unprecedented.” Pundits and journalists often think that by calling the President’s false and outrageous accusations “unprecedented,” “stunning,” or “remarkable,” they are somehow discrediting them. But Trump aims to be stunning and unprecedented, a disrupter of the D.C. establishment. The next time a federal court halts one of the President’s actions as patently unconstitutional—to pick just one example—and Trump criticizes it as a political decision, don’t call his statement “unprecedented.” Say that it is a “false and reckless charge that threatens the independent judiciary on which we all rely to protect our freedom.”
- Don’t use Quotes—No, Not even Air Quotes. If you find yourself putting quotation marks around a phrase like “law and order,” “criminal alien,” or “repeal and replace,” find another phrase. The need to use ironic quotation marks, or to precede a phrase with words like “so-called,” is a strong indication that you’re advancing a false narrative or, at least, arguing within your opponent’s frame. Instead of “law and order,” try “punitive and harmful.” Instead of “repeal and replace,” try “deny coverage and care.” Instead of “criminal alien,” try “parents, workers, or caregivers who were convicted of a crime, often years or decades in the past.” More words, to be sure, but those words tell your story, which is the point after all.
- Consider Social Math. For non-experts, it can be hard to process the meaning and impact of accurate numbers and data. Consider using social math, which places numbers in a context that is more easily understood—and believed—by a variety of audiences. For example, instead of “Undocumented immigrants are actually less likely to commit crimes than native-born citizens. Census data from 1980 through 2010 show that among men ages 18 to 49, immigrants were one-half to one-fifth as likely to be incarcerated as those born in the United States,” try “Diversity is one of our country’s greatest strengths, and that’s true when it comes to public safety. Border cities like El Paso and San Diego with thriving immigrant populations are among the safest large cities in the country. And several studies have shown that, as an immigrant population increases, incidents of crime actually decrease.”
- Educate Gatekeepers—In Private. It is important to educate some actors on the inaccuracy of widespread falsehoods, so they’ll stop inadvertently spreading or enabling them. For example, it has been important to educate political reporters and other journalists on the fact that accusations of significant voter fraud in U.S. elections are simply false and politically motivated. Over time, that’s made reporters more likely to demand evidence from people making those claims, and when the claims are made on air, to immediately inform audiences that there’s no evidence to support them. Those conversations should be had on background with reporters, rather than during an interview that runs the risk of further spreading or deepening the myth with reporters’ audiences. A related point is to urge reporters to simply stop reporting demonstrable falsehoods, especially when they are about vulnerable people or communities.
- Highlight Solutions. Lies work best when they trigger fear and invoke a sense of crisis that drives people toward extremist responses. Highlighting concrete solutions to legitimate concerns like public safety or economic hardship can counter fear and channel anger toward constructive approaches. For example, “Texas has increased public safety and reduced costly incarceration through smart reforms that prevent crime and uphold our values of rehabilitation and accountability. Solutions like improving drug and alcohol treatment as alternatives to prison are the kind of innovations we need in our state.”
- Equip the Base. For many people, the most trustworthy source of information is friends and family. That means it’s important for people who’ve embraced facts and the truth to share that information with others—in ways that follow the other lessons outlined here. Almost all of us have people in our networks who are struggling with the barrage of claims, accusations, and data thrown about in the current political environment. And we now have the tools, particularly social media, to engage and inform them (and be informed by them) wherever they are. Just try not to be a nag.
- Tell the Truth! An important part of countering lies is to be rigorously accurate in your own communications. Accurate does not mean wonky or jargon-filled. It just means that we should check our facts and avoid the trap of repeating unverified conventional wisdom, whether it helps or hurts our cause in the short term.