If you’ve managed to escape the past few years without encountering a loved one who has become buried in misinformation or disinformation, count yourself among the lucky few. Most of us do have that relative who has gotten lost in the world of online conspiracy theories or swept away by a vortex of ridiculous “information” not even remotely based in science or fact. If it’s a second cousin you haven’t seen since that family wedding five years ago, oh well. But if it’s your parent, you’ve probably been traveling a rough road.
One such frustrated reader wrote in to Parental Advisory with this very dilemma:
I had a phone call with my mom that was a frustrating cliché of an older parent repeating misinformation they read on the internet. Whenever it happens, I have an inner battle as I try to decide which info is relatively harmless versus which topics I should actually go through the headache of trying to explain. (In this case, it was general COVID misinformation that I chose to combat, but it happens so often that it feels like a losing battle against whatever she might read on Facebook.) My mom was a nurse, so I expect her to know better on medical-related issues, but times have changed and neither of my parents have particularly high media literacy fit for 2021. I feel like I’m parenting my parents, and having a particularly hard time choosing my battles. Any guidance?
Recognizing that you need to choose your battles here is a good start, but it doesn’t solve your problem when you can’t win the battles you do choose. So I reached out to clinical psychologist Dr. Janine Domingues for some guidance.
Know your goals when addressing misinformation
We first have to acknowledge that just because we disagree with someone doesn’t necessarily mean they’re wrong. If you’re on one end of the political spectrum and they are on the other, you may hold deeply rooted, fundamentally different opinions about how you think a society should operate—and yet, they still amount to opinions rather than facts.
“Unfortunately, COVID and politics have been meshed, so I think it becomes tricky to pull out what the goal [in these conversations] is exactly,” Domingues says. “Am I just making sure they know what’s reputable on the internet versus, ‘This is my political stance and how I think about COVID, and what you just told me is ridiculous.’”
If it’s a major difference in political opinion, and you’ve already had these conversations ad nauseam—and they always end in an argument or hurt feelings—it’s probably time to drop it, assuming you want to continue to have a relationship with them. Folks are not exactly open to fresh viewpoints these days.
But if your goal is genuinely to help them better identify reputable media sources with fact- and science-based reporting, there is a path forward.
Stop trying to teach them media literacy
Every instinct in you is screaming to teach your parents how to improve their media literacy—especially with your mom as it relates to certain medical aspects of COVID, which, as you point out, is an area she has professional experience with. But you also say you feel like you’re “parenting your parents,” which sounds to me like you’re desperately trying to school them on these issues. I get it—it’s not only frustrating, it’s probably a little scary, that someone who worked as a nurse is rattling off obvious medical misinformation she picked up on Facebook. But you need to fight against this instinctual reaction.
My son is only 10 years old, so I’m far from having the experience of an adult son correcting me on what I’m reading in the “news” (especially about a profession to which I have dedicated my career). But I imagine it wouldn’t be particularly effective for him to try to do so in such a blatant manner. By the time he’s your age and I’m your mom’s age, I will have had many more years of life experience behind me than him, and I am aware of what I’m reading, thank you very much. (The exception will be with anything technology-related; I am counting on him to help me navigate my TV one of these days.)
Instead, Domingues suggests, you need to have a conversation. And that conversation needs to involve an exchange of information—not just you telling her where to go for facts. Ask her to send you the articles she’s read; you can thank her for sharing it with you and tell her you’ve read up on the same topic and came to a different conclusion, and you’d like to share that with her, too. Then you can discuss why the two viewpoints are so different and any extra work you put in to try to fact-check the information.
“When it comes to these sort of discussions around information and news, I think it’s met more openly if you’re willing to see another person’s perspective,” she says. “And that way, you open it up to them hopefully seeing your perspective, too.”
It might be helpful to approach your parents more with curiosity about what they’ve heard or read, rather than view this as a mission to re-educate them.
Will it work? Eh, it probably won’t swing them all the way back to your fully fact-based reality, but it may help them begin to better identify how “facts” can be presented in different ways, thus sharpening up their critical thinking skills. If nothing else, you’ll have given them the best information you can—it’s up to them whether they allow that information to sink in.
When you encounter a battle you decide you don’t want to pick (the fairly harmless lies and half-truths, as far as these things go), I’d again remain curious and then bounce out of the conversation: “Oh really? Huh, that’s different from what I’ve been reading, but I know we tend to read different publications. Oh, speaking of which, I read this great profile the other day on that author you love…”
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