Roasted turkey garnished with cranberries on a rustic style table decoraded with pumpkins, gourds, asparagus, brussel sprouts, baked vegetables, pie, flowers, and candles.

Avoid a Thanksgiving family feud: Make facts the main course


By John Silva

Mom’s cranberry sauce. Cousin Chris’s pumpkin pie. Uncle Frank’s insistence that COVID-19 vaccines are dangerous. Alas, the menu is set for another Thanksgiving dinner sure to cause indigestion. But wait! It doesn’t have to be that way. This year you can doctor the recipe for unrest by adding a crucial ingredient: facts.

If that sounds too good to be true, you are right. Pushing facts on relatives who have strong beliefs on an issue is unlikely to change their minds. The reality is that you can’t use facts and logic to change someone’s belief if it is based on misinformation and emotional reasoning. In fact, it might only deepen their conviction and turn a warm family sit-down into a frosty stalemate. The secret to success lies in knowing how and when to push back and with what information.

This year, try the PEP method if the conversation turns to wild and unproven conspiracy theories. PEP stands for patience, empathy and persistence – all of which are needed to help a conspiracy believer find their way back to the facts and reality.

We start with patience because your loved one probably didn’t become a conspiracist overnight. They likely got sucked into a rabbit hole while looking for legitimate information about the vaccines, but instead found themselves being served up misleading material. You can thank social media algorithms — a technical device that calculates what you are most likely to engage with and prioritizes it in your feed. For example, YouTube’s algorithms too often recommend, “harmful, debunked and inappropriate content,” according to a recent report by the Mozilla Foundation. As people go deeper into these conspiracies, it gets harder and harder to pull them out. So be prepared to listen to, and even be frustrated by, the answers they give when they share their sources. But don’t let those emotions stop you from trying to help.

Next, you should empathize with your friend or family member. Misinformation manipulates people’s emotions and when they fall into conspiratorial thinking, it’s often because they were trying to resolve an issue that was making them anxious. They are often drawn into online communities or social media groups that continually reinforce their belief and bring comfort in a shared identity. Once you step into Uncle Frank’s shoes, it might be easier to see why he dug into conspiratorial beliefs.

Persistence will take some time, but a steady dialogue is the best way to keep facts at the center of the conversation. Don’t reject the information your loved one shares out of hand. Instead, express your skepticism and provide a more reputable source. Make it conversational and anecdotal. Find out why they trust their source and focus on exchanging ideas, beliefs and information that match your common values. Don’t pester Uncle Frank into a fight. Instead, remember that you’re having this discussion out of love and respect for a family member, and not to deride or mock them. This step may not pay fast dividends, but it will set you up for future dialogue with your uncle because you’ve taken the time to build trust.

If he continues to push false information, don’t give up. You can still try to nudge him by talking about what you have read and learned. For example:

  • If he pulls up a meme on his phone stating that combined doses of COVID-19 vaccines have never been tested for safety, talk about how you looked up the claim on fact-checking sites such as Snopes or Politifact, which helped reassure you they are safe, and offer to show him how they’ve debunked this meme.
  • If Uncle Frank argues that the post must be credible because social media companies would never allow false health information to be shared, you can point to recent efforts by Facebook, Pinterest and other platforms to combat vaccine misinformation because they have allowed the sharing and amplification of so much false content for so long.
  • If he shows you an image of a child supposedly harmed by vaccines, express your own skepticism and show him how you use digital verification tools like Google’s reverse image search to reveal the actual source, context and validity of a photo.
  • Tell a story about how you verified something for yourself through “lateral reading” – looking at reporting on the issue across several different sources.

By the time everyone moves into the living room to watch football, you will have a better understanding of what caused Uncle Frank to go down a vaccine rabbit hole and you will have  empowered him to confidently examine the credibility of information he encounters. You may even bring him back to a fact-based reality.

Thanksgiving is not a holiday we should dread because of polarizing beliefs. Instead, we should enjoy our time together and learn how to avoid information indigestion by using the PEP method and giving thanks that facts can lead the way.

John Silva is the senior director of professional learning at the News Literacy Project and a National Board Certified teacher. 

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