Spitfire Strategies

Why You Shouldn’t Say “Alternative Facts” And Other Pro Tips from Professor and Misinformation Researcher Dr. Emily Thorson

 

In this era of alternat—I mean, misleading statements and misdirection, progressive political advisers, communication professionals and advocates are working overtime to combat misinformation and get out the truth.

Every pundit seems to have their own theory about how the #MAGA faithful’s untruths and conspiracies spread—whether through social media bots, Fox News or the types of chain emails many of us receive from our less tech literate senior relatives. But it turns out there are actual experts who research this professionally.

Meet Dr. Emily Thorson, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Syracuse University, whose research focuses on how people learn about the political world, their perceptions of policies and the role of misperceptions and misinformation.  

Spitfire was lucky enough to have Professor Thorson come speak with us about her research, and we, in turn, wanted to share some of the top quotes and insights from her presentation with you.

 

Don’t Say “Alternative Facts”

“Repeating misinformation is really problematic for a lot of reasons, even if your intentions are pure.”

Repeating misinformation is really problematic, even if you’re doing it to try and show that it’s false. Have you seen people share a crazy Trump tweet to try and debunk it? Professor Thorson calls these “belief echoes” because even though you may disagree with the misinformation, you’re aiding its spread.

This reminded us at Spitfire of one of our cardinal rules: don’t repeat the barrier! When we say phrases like “post-fact,” “post-truth” or “alternative facts,” it repeats the current administration’s spin that there is no more truth and we might as well give up trying to find it.

But, as scientists—or really anyone who lives their life on planet earth and experiences the law of gravity—can tell you, facts are real and truth still exists. So, let’s stop repeating the barrier! Don’t give false statements equal air time to the truth when you’re refuting them. The New York Times did this well in August after Trump tried to discredit them in a tweet storm responding to a story he didn’t like.  

 

Focus on Salience

“Facts sometimes do change people’s minds, but emotions can be equally if not more powerful in getting people to assign importance to an issue.”

Salience refers to how important or prominent an issue is to people. If advocates or political candidates are trying to persuade audiences on an issue, an important step is increasing the issue’s salience. Do people say “I’m voting for [X candidate] because of their stance on [your issue]?” If not, then you need to work to elevate your issue’s profile and priority ranking. However, as Professor Thorson explained, keep in mind that “emotion is often much more powerful than facts in changing salience.”

We saw salience in action when candidate Donald Trump used fearmongering, xenophobia and race-baiting to raise the salience of the immigration issue by vilifying immigrants. Professor Thorson highlighted that in 2012, 42 percent of Republicans said immigration was “very important” to their vote. By 2018, fully 80 percent of Republicans reported immigration as “very important” to their vote.   

 

Be Strategic About Attitude Change

“People in the United States today rely very heavily on their partisan identities. It informs everything they do, from the news that they read, to the people they associate with, to their position on issues. So the further away an issue is from partisanship, the more likely you are to change people’s attitudes.”

Attitude change, such as moving from opposing gay marriage to supporting it, is a difficult feat to accomplish. Professor Thorson has found it to be more likely around issues rather than electoral politics—confirming, yet again, that we live in extremely partisan times.

According to Professor Thorson, attitude change tends to be more likely on issues where partisanship is weak and when social identities are conflicted.

Exhibit A: we are seeing shifting attitudes now on many LGBTQ issues. After President Trump tweeted opposition in July to transgender individuals serving in the U.S. military, a Quinnipiac poll found that 68 percent of American voters now believe Trans individuals should be able to openly serve. With several prominent Republicans publically opposing the President’s view and many transgender individuals becoming more visible and vocal about their military service, this is an issue ripe for attitude change.    

 

Remember That People Process Things Differently

“Just because you care about the issue, don’t assume others will, too.”

For the most part, people ingest information via either Peripheral Processing (fast, automatic and emotional) or Central Processing (effortful, logical and thoughtful). It’s dangerously easy to fall into the trap of believing everyone processes things the same way: you take the time to think through messaging logically, so everyone else must, too. But, actually, for most people the default setting is peripheral processing. According to Professor Thorson, audiences only engage in central processing if:

  • Their ability is high: The information is presented in language they can understand and they aren’t distracted.   
  • Their motivation is high: They care about the issue.

Knowing how your campaign or message is being perceived is important because you’ll get different results depending on how people are processing it. There have been many hot takes on why Hillary Clinton lost in 2016, but here’s one more: The Democrats’ messaging and tactics (speeches on economic opportunity, white papers about paid family leave, etc.) spoke to people who were centrally processing, but most of America were peripherally processing. As a result, many voters didn’t feel like the Clinton campaign spoke to them.

As we all move forward after the election and seek to gain traction and support for progressive issues and candidates, paying attention to salience, being strategic about attitude change, stopping the spread of misinformation and accounting for different types of processing are key. We’re grateful to Professor Thorson for sharing her insights with us and we look forward to keeping them top of mind as we collaborate with our clients to move the needle on today’s most pressing issues. 

“This has been a tremendous eye opener. It shows us how to pull the aspects of communications skills, from the message, to the audience. It forced us to identify our strengths and our weaknesses in an effort to become more strategic in how we prepare our messages and communicate them.”

- Training Participant

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