Coping in the Age of Disinformation: Part 10 – That’s a Wrap

Over the past couple of months I’ve posted ten stories about disinformation and how to confront it. About 120 people have seen them: not bad, but no stampede, and certainly nowhere near enough to move the needle even a tiny bit vs. the propaganda and disinformation facing us. I’m neither a renowned psychologist nor a syndicated columnist, so I never expected the world to rush to my blog and soak up my point of view.

So why say something you know people aren’t going to pay much attention to? Why do something you know isn’t going to be that effective?

The answer is simple: to be heard.

When someone joins a protest, they don’t expect to tip the balance themselves. They protest to do something: to register their anger, provide an outlet for their dissent and feel that — however small — they made themselves heard. Hopefully, in that process they contribute to something bigger than themselves, something which actually could make a difference.

That’s what I did.

Every day I see people falling victim to propaganda and B.S., making terrible decisions in the process. Whether it’s anti-vaccination, QAnon, Stop the Steal or something else, as a society we’re falling for lies more frequently than ever. When people start believing what they want to hear, ignoring evidence and tripping over their own biases, our ability to make good decisions starts evaporating.

So I decided to speak up.

The very first time I realized it wasn’t ok to be silent was when I saw a video of a baby with whooping cough, and it broke my heart. I don’t know the background: I have no idea whether the parents immunized their baby, whether the child wasn’t old enough for the vaccine,  whether the parents  bought into anti-vax conspiracies, or something else. But I do know that anti-vaccination disinformation is rampant, and contributing to a resurgence in preventable diseases. And that’s just one type of disinformation.

Watching that video made me realize that it’s not ok to normalize dangerous, hurtful things. Even if you feel like you’re just shouting into the void, doing so has meaning. That’s one more person who didn’t stay quiet, one more voice that contributes to a collective shout.

Disinformation is the biggest menace facing society, because it enables all the other lies that threaten us. I thought the best way I could have some effect was to do what I do best — write — and see if I could reach anyone, to get them to think about the messages they’re receiving. If I could change even one person’s point of view, get them to challenge their assumptions and think differently, I’d consider my writing a success. I thought of all the times people much braver than me spoke up in dangerous situations, and realized raising my voice was the least I could do.

I didn’t want to look back years from now, as things get worse, and have to say I did nothing.

If we can collectively shine a light on societal lies and force some to scurry back into the darkness, then we’ve achieved something. If I can play the tiniest part in making that happen by speaking out, then I’ve achieved my goal.

Keep questioning.

Coping in the Age of Disinformation: Part 9 – Evidence First

In The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan tells the story of the fire-breathing dragon living in his garage.

Spoiler alert: there’s no dragon. There is, however, an amusing anecdote that demonstrates some very weird things that can happen when you ignore evidence (or the lack thereof). As Sagan tells it, a friend comes by to see the dragon, and Sagan explains that it’s invisible. The friend asks him to spread some flour on the floor so they can at least see its footprints. Sagan says it’s a flying dragon. The friend suggests an infrared camera to detect its flames. Sagan explains that it breathes heatless fire, and so on, and so on, and so on.

In the end, Sagan asks the reader what the difference is between an invisible, flying, incorporeal dragon and no dragon at all. The answer is: none, unless you choose to ignore the complete lack of evidence for any dragon.

Another great example of what happens when you ignore evidence (and a good example of cognitive bias) is contained in When Prophecy Fails, a classic work of psychology from 1956. It examines the activities of a Chicago cult which believed an apocalyptic flood was about to hit the earth, and only by following a specific set of procedures could members be saved by a flying saucer that would whisk them to safety.

Spoiler alert: there was no flood and no saucer. But curiously, after the magical craft failed to appear, the most strident cult members didn’t reassess the new evidence (no flood, no saucer) and adjust their actions and beliefs. Instead, they ignored the evidence and doubled down on their emotional investment in the cult.

When people turn off their critical faculties and make evidence take a back seat to what they want to be true, dangerous things can happen:

  • There was no wave of communists infiltrating America during the 1950s, but that didn’t stop Joseph McCarthy from destroying lives in an effort to smoke them out.
  • Jews weren’t responsible for Germany’s post-WWI woes, but that didn’t stop Hitler from scapegoating them.
  • There was no child sex trafficking ring run by Hillary Clinton and others, operating out of the basement of a Washington pizza parlour, yet QAnon is a viable conspiracy theory to this day.

When we adopt an evidence-first approach to information, we put a powerful shield on our arm that protects us from a ton of disinformation.

  • Remember to ask, “What’s the evidence?” It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about flying saucers or who makes the best spaghetti in town: our decisions need to be guided by evidence, and not what we want to be true.
  • Look at the source of the evidence. Is it credible? Is it believable? How do you know? Nobody wants to critically examine every single piece of information they come across in life, but the more we look at the underlying evidence, the better decisions we make.
  • Who’s got the best track record with evidence? Since we can’t evaluate every piece of information in life in detail, we need to take the shortcut of identifying trusted sources. Even then, we don’t turn off our critical faculties, but we recognize that these are the sources more likely to be worthy of our trust.

Coping in the Age of Disinformation: Part 8 – Talking To People You Disagree With

This is part eight of a ten-part series on coping with disinformation. For part seven, visit What You Want To Hear.

We talk with people we disagree with almost daily, people who hold views diametrically opposed to us, people we’re certain are operating under the influence of disinformation.

You need to know how to talk to them. Sometimes that’s because they’re related to you: your cousin may be convinced that fluoride in drinking water is a government plot or your sister may believe aliens have landed. It could be a colleague, your boss, a friend… anyone.

The most important thing to remember when talking with someone labouring under the influence of disinformation, is that trying to prove them wrong is useless. Thanks to a number of cognitive biases that kick in to protect our ego, humans will perform elaborate mental contortions to avoid admitting they’re wrong. In fact, trying to prove someone wrong is more likely to make them double down on their beliefs and dig in.

Psychologists recognize that getting someone to change their mind means creating a safe space for them to consider alternate points of view. That means you need to abandon confrontation and find common ground. For example, with the vaccine hesitant, it’s important to find out why they’re hesitant.

  • Are they worried about their health? Who isn’t? We all want to stay healthy.
  • Are they mistrustful of the government? That’s not unreasonable: every government in history has been less than truthful at some point in their tenure.
  • Did they read something that made them concerned? Reading to inform yourself about important issues is good, even if you don’t agree with the source in this instance.

Recognize that there’s a reason why these people are acting the way they are, even if you think it’s not a good reason, and start from there. Treat any attempt to get people to change their mind as an exercise in negotiation. As with any negotiation, there are a number of tools you can use:

  • Active listening: let the person know you hear them, and try to feed back what you’re hearing.
  • Stay curious: as soon as you’ve convinced yourself you’re right and they’re wrong, or they’re stupid and you’re smart, the conversation is over. Staying curious doesn’t mean you agree with them, just that you’re trying to understand them.
  • Ask questions: why do they think the things they do? Where did they get their information from? Who did they hear it from?
  • Give them a golden bridge: make it easy for them to change their mind by giving them an “out,” a way for them to start a shift their opinion while saving face and without threatening their ego.

We all want to change someone’s mind at some point, or at least get them to consider alternatives. Treating it like a debate never works; treating it like a conversation can.

Coping in the Age of Disinformation: Part 7 – What You Want To Hear

This is part seven of a ten-part series on coping with disinformation. For part six, visit Cognitive Bias.

The best politicians and salespeople take advantage of a universal truth: tell ’em what they want to hear, and they’re yours.

“The art of propaganda is not telling lies, but rather selecting the truth you require and giving it mixed up with some truths the audience wants to hear.”

It’s insidious enough in a sales pitch, but when a politician does it, it’s infinitely more dangerous. History’s rife with examples.

The obligatory Donald Trump anecdote

A key plank in Donald Trump’s platform was reducing immigration, and he claimed “They’re taking our jobs. They’re taking our manufacturing jobs. They’re taking our money. They’re killing us.” That message got traction, especially in Rust Belt towns hard hit by the death of manufacturing: people are never more vulnerable than when their way of life is endangered. Trump knew that and told them what they wanted to hear: unemployment wasn’t their fault; it was the fault of the immigrants taking their work.

Unfortunately, immigrants don’t steal jobs. They’re actually a net gain for the economy. But simple narratives often win out over subtler ones, especially when we’re vulnerable and they tell us something that makes us feel good.

Hitler knew this and used it to convince large parts of the German populace that they didn’t lose WW I, but were stabbed in the back by Marxists, Jews, Bolsheviks and even their own government. To a nation living with defeat, crippled by a decade of reparation payments, the idea that they didn’t actually lose the war was a siren song millions readily accepted, even if it was demonstrably false.

Of course, telling people what they want to hear doesn’t have to be as grandiose or earth-shattering as all that. Every day we’re subjected to sales pitches, and every marketer and salesperson worth their weight knows to compliment the person they’re selling to. The trick is to take a moment to recognize when you’re being targeted.

It’s about ego

We love hearing what we want to hear, because of our ego. Whether it’s a compliment or a balm to soothe an emotional hurt, it just feels good. That feeling is your warning call.

When someone inside your trusted circle tells you something that makes you feel good, that’s one thing. But when someone outside that circle tells you something that tickles a part of you deep inside, stop and ask yourself, “Why do I like that so much? I don’t even know them.”

Taking that moment to stop and think can make the difference between being complimented and being taken advantage of.

Coping in the Age of Disinformation: Part 6 – Cognitive Bias

This is part six of a ten-part series on coping with disinformation. For part five, visit Skepticism is a Virtue.

Cognitive biases are the shortcuts we take when thinking. And like many shortcuts, they can leave you lost in the woods instead of at your destination. An ounce of awareness is worth a pound of cure, so let’s look at a few of the big ones:

  • Confirmation bias
    The tendency to look for information that supports your view, ignoring information that contradicts it, and stopping when you find support for it.
    The Danger: if you’re looking for information that only supports your point of view, you’ll find it, whether that’s as mainstream as a given political stripe or as out there as world lizard people leadership .
  • Cognitive dissonance
    Our ability to embrace things we know are objectively inconsistent, contradictory or nonsensical, if it means avoiding admitting we’re wrong.
    The Danger: if you’re willing to go to any lengths to avoid admitting a mistake, you risk embracing increasingly dangerous, fringe ideas. Donald Trump lost the 2020 election, but he and his supporters continue to double down on the idea of “the big steal” rather than admit defeat.
  • Availability heuristic
    The idea that we overemphasize things that loom large in our mind or memory, even if they’re not that significant.
    The Danger: Threats loom larger than they really are, and opportunities seem golden when they’re actually “meh,” leading to bad decisions.

You can find an exhaustive list of cognitive biases on Wikipedia, more than you’d probably ever want to explore, but to confront disinformation, you need to become aware of your own cognitive biases. Then, you can begin to understand how to talk to people about theirs, the topic of our next installment.

Further reading: Nobel-prize-winner Daniel Kahneman’s best seller Thinking Fast and Slow.

Coping in the Age of Disinformation: Part 5 – Skepticism is a Virtue

This is part five of a ten-part series on coping with disinformation. For part four, visit Ask Why.

Skepticism gets a bad rap, thanks to frequently being confused with cynicism, but they’re not the same. Cynicism distrusts everything. Skepticism trusts evidence. You can find a more detailed definition but that’s what it boils down to: evidence. We’ll talk more about that in a future post, but for now understand that skepticism is simply about believing things based on evidence.

Skepticism is hard. It’s a lot easier to nod your head and go along with someone when they espouse the virtues of Reiki, manifestation or Ponzi schemes. Questioning the evidence takes work, so why do it?

You can’t be swindled if you don’t open the door

In the era of door-to-door salesmen, legend has it one technique to avoid losing a sale was to jam their foot in the door. A good way to avoid pushy salespeople is to not open the door in the first place, which is also how skepticism works: if you question things from the very beginning, the door never opens long enough for the foot to wedge its way in.

The courage to look under the surface

Theranos continues to serve as an object lesson in skepticism. Elizabeth Holmes famously demanded absolute, unquestioning loyalty from her employees, which meant no skepticism: you drank the Kool-Aid or you were out. The skeptics were on the outside looking in, not the rank and file, and the ones who eventually blew the whistle had to stare unblinkingly at the evidence and admit to what they were seeing. They had to acknowledge and embrace their skepticism.

What would have happened if more people on the inside had the courage to voice their skepticism, and do so earlier? What if the board of directors had done so? Maybe the legions of investors wouldn’t have seen that investment evaporate if either of those groups had the courage to be skeptical.

In the age of disinformation, we all have a responsibility to be skeptical.

Coping in the Age of Disinformation: Part 4 – What’s Your Source?

This is part four of a ten-part series on coping with disinformation. For part three, visit Ask Why.

In an ideal world, we’d all be extremely well-informed. We’d have the time and leisure to read up on issues and examine different sources, educating ourselves and coming to informed decisions about everything from local politics to global events.

In the real world, we all have jobs, kids to take care of, dogs to walk, bills to pay, dinner to make… none of us are Greek scholars, lounging around in togas all day, philosophizing over tumblers of retsina.

Painting of Plato's Academy by Raphael
Those Grecian lounge lizards….

So we have to put our faith in others to do the work of evaluating sources for us. That’s why mainstream media works: journalists are paid to do their homework and check their sources so you don’t have to. Unfortunately, mainstream journalism is dying. Newsrooms are shrinking, and investigative journalism is becoming an endangered species.

We’re also in an age when all the information in the world is at your fingertips. Unfortunately, that also means all the disinformation in the world is at your fingertips. That’s why asking where someone’s getting their information from is more important than ever.

A wedge-shaped conspiracy

A good example is Pizzagate, the conspiracy theory that senior Democrats such as Hillary Clinton were secretly operating a pedophilia ring out of the basement of a Washington pizza restaurant. Unfortunately, the restaurant in question doesn’t have a basement, which should have been the first clue for anyone examining the theory that maybe it wasn’t totally factual.

More broadly, the sources for the conspiracy tend to be marginal (such as anonymous Twitter accounts), while the ones debunking it tend to be established mainstream media. All other things being equal, you’d be well advised to pay more attention to established media such as the New York Times than an anonymous Twitter account. That doesn’t mean the New York Times is infallible, or that anonymous Twitter accounts are necessarily wrong. It just means that the balance of probabilities would indicate the world’s largest newspaper is less likely to be making crazy stuff up than an information channel anyone can create in 10 seconds of their spare time is.

Regrettably, criticizing mainstream media simply because they’re mainstream, has become a convenient shortcut to delegitimize them and elevate some very strange ones in their place.

What’s your source?

That’s why it’s important to ask where someone’s getting there information. Doing so has the added benefit of depersonalizing a confrontation with someone operating under the influence of disinformation. It’s less of a direct confrontation when you call into question someone’s sources than it is when you call into question their beliefs.


Coping in the Age of Disinformation: Part 3 – Ask Why

This is part three of a ten-part series on coping with disinformation. For part two, visit Stay Curious.

I wrote about the power of why previously, but it bears repeating, especially when countering disinformation.  “Why” is a tremendously powerful word, so powerful that asking it five times was entrenched as a problem-solving tool at Toyota.

It’s effective because it gets to the root of a problem. With each “why,” a layer is peeled away, and you get closer to the truth. Five is an arbitrary number; you may need more or fewer “whys,” but their power remains the same, as long as you follow two rules:

  1. Keep asking till you reach a reasonable root cause.
  2. Stop asking before you reach the absurd.

#1 above takes courage. People labouring under the influence of disinformation usually don’t take kindly to putting their beliefs under a microscope, which is what “why” does.

#2 takes wisdom, because asking “why” too many times takes you to a ridiculous place where you end up asking questions like “Why is the sky blue?” or “why does 2+2=4?”.

When used judiciously, “Why” makes people examine their beliefs in a way that puts the onus to justify them rationally on themselves. That reduces the potential for confrontation: when a conversation moves from “I disagree with you because I think your opinion is stupid” to “Tell me why you believe that,” you create the safety necessary for someone to begin to change their mind.

Coping in the Age of Disinformation: Part 2 – Stay Curious

This is part two of a ten-part series on coping with disinformation. For part one, visit Read Things you Disagree With.

One of the first things you learn about negotiation (such as in these courses I took at the University of Toronto) is to stay open and curious. Without doing so, you can’t understand what’s driving the other side and what their real interests are, as opposed to the positions they’ve taken. If you can’t understand what someone’s really interested in, you can’t address those interests, which means you can’t get to the win-win situation necessary for a successful negotiation. When neither side feels they’re getting what they need, there’s no negotiation and no compromise, only resentment and (ultimately) a failed negotiation.

Curiosity’s value extends far beyond the negotiating table: it allows us to understand others and what makes them tick, even when we disagree with or can’t understand why they think a certain way. Being able to understand and engage with others has never been more important, with the proliferation of anti-vaccination sentiment, QAnon, “Stop the Steal” and other disinformation. If ever there was a time  to reach people struggling with disinformation, that time is now, and curiosity is an essential part of that process.

Creating safety

Nobody ever changed their mind by being told they’re stupid. People change their mind when they feel safe to do so, which means you have to create the conditions for that safety, to allow them to think critically about their opinions and the information they’ve used to construct them.

Curiosity allows that. It doesn’t mean you agree with someone; it means you recognize there are reasons behind their opinions, whether or not you think they’re rational. By asking open, honest questions, we validate the person without validating the misinformation, and can start to understand why they ended up at a certain place, intellectually.

Affirm what’s reasonable

For example, when someone says they don’t want to get vaccinated because they’re heard that vaccines are dangerous or can cause harmful side effects, it’s ok to acknowledge that your health is important, and nobody wants do something dangerous or risky. Then you can ask why they think vaccines are unsafe. That’s curiosity. That’s the beginning of a conversation and not a debate. Asking open-ended questions keeps both parties open and curious:

  • Why do you believe that?
  • Where did you hear that?
  • What information are you using?
  • Is that reasonable?

By staying open and curious, you allow the possibility for people to reach an alternate conclusion and change their mind, or at least consider that other possibilities exist.

Staying curious in this situation means going beyond staying open. Staying open to possibilities simply means not shutting them off. Curiosity means actually seeking out those possibilities. People change their opinions by leading themselves to a conclusion and not being led. Curiosity sets the stage for that.

For more ideas on how to engage people openly and honestly, visit

Stay curious to understand others and to create the safety for them to entertain alternate points of view.

Coping in the Age of Disinformation: Part 1 – Read Things you Disagree With

Welcome to part one of a ten-part series on coping with disinformation. In this third decade of the 21st century, we badly need dialogue on how to cope with all the misinformation and disinformation that threatens to overwhelm us. I hope you find something useful in it.

Idea #1: Read things you disagree with.

I don’t agree with the editorial slant of Fox News or Breitbart, but I’ll read them because I believe you should read things you disagree with, even ones that make you angry. Doing so keeps you intellectually honest, when you entertain points of view different from — or even add odds with — your own. Restricting yourself to things you agree with diminishes your ability to consider alternatives, and reinforces the idea that your worldview is better than that of others.

That’s dangerous, no matter what end of the political spectrum you’re on. Rest assured that someone with a set of beliefs completely opposite to yours is just as confident as you are that they’re right. If that doesn’t give you pause for thought about the unassailability of your core beliefs, nothing will.

Another reason to read things you disagree with is to walk the walk. If you find yourself judging someone for reading loony left / fascist right-wing material, why should you expect them to read something you think is right, if you won’t return the favour? In the end, trying to argue who’s right and who’s wrong in that situation is a fool’s errand. People don’t make decisions based on logic; they make them based on emotion. If you want to change someone’s opinion, your behaviour will make a much bigger difference than anything you say. The simple act of demonstrating that you’ll read things they value makes it hard for them not to do the same.

That’s how opinions change and that’s how people evolve: when they change their behaviour.

Read things you disagree with, to challenge yourself and model the behaviour you’d like to see in others.