How to talk to your grandparents about fake news

Don’t shy away from fake news.
Don’t shy away from fake news.
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The turkey is palatable, your annoying cousin is distracted playing video games, but then your grandpa destroys the peace by claiming House speaker Nancy Pelosi seems to have a drinking problem. (A widely shared claim, supported by doctored videos.) Though it would be nice to have a respite from fake news, the incessant deluge of disinformation shows no signs of stopping. And family gatherings can be a worthwhile time to talk about misinformation with older generations. 

“This is about members of society working with one another,” says Claire Wardle, executive director of First Draft, a nonprofit focused on investigating misinformation. Education programs can’t bear the full weight of teaching people how to detect false information: “We have to get through it together and share responsibility,” she adds.

Older generations, who didn’t grow up reading the news online, can be vulnerable to misinformation; one recent study found that people over 65 are the most likely to click on fake news. But it’s not as though younger people are immune. Two-thirds of high school students can’t distinguish between sponsored content and news stories, and 52% believed a video shot in Russia was evidence of ballot stuffing in the US, according to a survey of 3,446 high school students from the Stanford History Education Group (SHEG).

Rather than younger generations lecturing grandparents, it’s worth respecting each others’ experience. “We tend to frame it as, ‘Hey Uncle Bob, you’re wrong’,” says Wardle. This shuts down conversation. “There’s real value in teaching one another in a safe space,” she adds.

Wardle suggests using “we” and “us” pronouns and emphasizing how everyone is subject to disinformation. For example: “Lots of people are trying to manipulate us. I got fooled by this last weekend, when I really wanted to believe a story was true. Why do you think people are trying to manipulate us in this way?”

Joel Breakstone, director of SHEG, also discourages shaming tactics. “Rather than just telling someone they’re wrong, talk about strategies to verify information,” he says. Key questions include: Who’s behind that information, what’s their motivation, what’s the evidence, and what do other sources say? SHEG has a series of videos showing how to make such assessments.

Ultimately, though it may be tempting to tell someone they’re wrong, this isn’t the best way to challenge disinformation. “We’re human and driven by emotion,” says Wardle. When you reject someone’s views on contentious political issues such as gun violence or abortion, you’re challenging their identity.

Fake news isn’t simply an online issue, says Wardle. After all, we’re all living in siloed information environments. “We’re increasingly in a world where people only see one side of an issue, and that’s a problem,” she says. Thanksgiving can be a time to talk to family members with a different perspective, and check information we unquestioningly accept—across the generations.