Why Connection Is the Key to Fighting Misinformation

In the age of alternative facts, we need to connect to fight misinformation.

Posted Jun 17, 2020

Rawpixel/ID: 1059109
Source: Rawpixel/ID: 1059109

Brian G. Southwell is an expert on communication and human behavior. We met because we were both giving talks to a social science affinity group. I was speaking on loneliness and connection and he was speaking on fighting misinformation. Our talks ended up having more in common than I anticipated. His well-worn strategies for fighting misinformation were all about connecting. People listen to people who they trust, who respect them, and who they feel connected to, Brian relayed. If we want to fight misinformation, then we need to be willing to connect.

Brian’s answer to misinformation doesn’t seem like an intuitive one. Facts are facts are facts,  you would think. The context around the facts shouldn’t matter. But in the age of alternative facts, we’ve seen that facts aren’t facts for everybody. And that maybe we need to start considering the context around the facts—notably, the relationship between information givers and receivers— if we want people to listen.  

A study that Brian was a part of reveals this premise to be true. In the study, researchers interviewed travelers arriving back to the U.S. from countries that had Ebola outbreaks. The travelers were debriefed by “Care ambassadors” who advised them to continue to monitor themselves and report to the local or state public health authority if they had any strange symptoms. It turns out that people were more likely to plan to adhere to these reporting requirements if they trusted the care ambassador they spoke to. Trust, in the study, looked like seeing the care ambassador as credible and knowledgeable, but also as someone who cares about you as a person.

When I talked to Brian, I got the sense that trustworthiness wasn’t just an intellectual exercise for him, but a way of life. His resume is very impressive. He wrote the book on misinformation. He got his Ph.D. in Communication from Penn. He directs a program at a nonprofit research institute, RIT International, he’s an adjunct professor at Duke and a former professor at the University of Minnesota. And yet, he is humble, warm, patient, and curious, often answering my questions by asking my thoughts on those very same questions. I pegged him as the type of person that strangers spill their guts to. When he interviewed me for his radio show, The Measure of Everyday Life, I remarked that his cool hosting style made me feel so comfortable. He confessed that he was surprised, since he was wrangling his kids in the background. If that was Brian at wrangling his kids, I wondered how deep his air of Zen could go.

In other words, Brian embodied a perfect misinformation firefighter. And if we want to fight misinformation, we can learn from him. He listened more than he talked. He reflected back to me the meaning he derived from what I was saying. When I used the wrong name for his radio show, somewhere in his response, he repeated back the right name, without directly confronting my error. The research on misinformation seemed to settle into his bones. In a nutshell, it’s about connecting first, and arguing later.

Note: This article is cross-posted on my friendship blog.