6 Tips For Talking To Friends And Family About Sharing Falsehoods Online

You’ve probably been there. You’re scrolling through your newsfeed hoping for a little diversion after a long day of work and parenting when you see a post that makes you groan in despair. A friend or relative is sharing an alarming meme about COVID-19 or venting about a supposed tweet from a politician that you know is false.

Misinformation and disinformation are shared millions of times a day on social media, where this type of virtual behavior can cause real harm. But your friend or loved one is likely unaware that the information is untrue and/or intended to deceive. In fact, lots of misinformation is amplified by people just like you and me who unwittingly like, comment on and share it.

When you see someone you know do so, you likely will want to set them straight. But such conversations can be tricky and often fail to have the desired result. But as a mom and a former educator, I feel a responsibility to help others recognize misinformation when they see it and help prevent its spread. I’m sure you feel the same way. So here are six tips for how to speak up without sparking a showdown.

1. Be Civil

Use an empathetic and respectful tone. Avoid being judgmental or simply telling someone they are wrong. If a person replies with aggressive or sarcastic language, don’t respond in kind. For example, I have worked with my son for many years (he is a high-school junior now) to never attack the person when you disagree with a comment. I also have him focus less on emotions and more on facts. People can tell when he gets upset and he must remain calm. Remember, when you get upset, your message can get lost.

2. Take Your Time

Firing off a knee-jerk response might be tempting. Instead, pause and take a step back. Do your homework. Research the claim and find reputable fact-checking organizations or credible expert sources to share, which research has shown is key to effectively correcting misinformation online. It is harder for someone to dismiss evidence from more than one source.

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3. Find Common Ground

Try putting yourself in your friend or loved one’s shoes. Why might they have posted this? Did they have good intentions? Consider pointing out shared concerns or feelings in your response. Keep in mind that misinformation exploits our beliefs and values to elicit an emotional reaction. But you can also focus on these underlying principles to establish your own good intentions in reaching out. And be sure the young people in your life know that their truth and beliefs are just as strong as another person’s.

4. Lay Out The Facts

Rather than simply posting a link to a fact-check, clearly summarize the main findings of the debunk first, then add the link. Don’t let the conversation get derailed by unwarranted attacks on fact-checking organizations. Leading with the evidence and sharing links to more than one fact-checking example can keep you from being drawn into a fight about the organization itself.

5. Public Or Private?

Decide how you want to post your response. Public comments can reach a bigger audience, but a private message could be more appropriate in some situations. Even if you opt for a private message, you can still leave a comment calling the original post into question (e.g., “Hmm. I’m not sure about this one.”)

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6. Be Patient (And Persistent)

Research shows you’re more likely to believe fact-checks from people you know. View fact-checking as an ongoing debate rather than a fight to “win” at all costs. Even when someone seems unconvinced, calling out problematic content over time can plant a seed of doubt and prompt loved ones to work through important questions. While one corrective reply may not stop friends and relatives from sharing misinformation, consistently speaking up can help them think twice before sharing.

Remember: Online trolls are not interested in honest debate. Don’t waste your time responding to their insults or chasing their moving goalposts. Be willing to walk away.

If you aren’t sure how to start a delicate conversation, here are some ideas:

  • “Oh, I saw this and initially thought it could be true, too. But …”
  • “Figuring out what’s true online can be so overwhelming. But I did some digging and thought you’d want to know that it looks like this is misleading …”
  • “Hmm, this image/meme/article is kind of shocking, but I’m skeptical that it’s real …”
  • “Do you know where this information came from? How did you find out about this?”
  • “This image looks like it may not actually be what it seems. Here is a link to another version of the image, which shows something different. What do you think?”
  • “I know we’re all trying to be extra cautious because of all the bad information circulating on [insert subject]. Here is what I found …”

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Shaelynn Farnsworth is the national director of educator outreach and success at the News Literacy Project (NLP), a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that strives to promote news literacy. She has more than 20 years of experience as an educator and lives with her family in Iowa. This article was published as part of an ongoing partnership between Simplemost’s parent company, The E.W. Scripps Company, and NLP.

NewsLit Nation, NLP’s News Literacy Educator Network, is live! At NewsLit Nation, educators can gain a sense of belonging, exchange best practices with colleagues in the field, and enjoy perks and incentives to support them in their classrooms.