Don’t Repeat Bad Claims to Refute Them

Just say what’s true.

Deepti Kannapan

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In an information ecosystem awash with bad faith claims, from political misinformation to corporate greenwashing and climate denial, it’s important to set the terms of the conversation.

Messaging experts (see three examples below) advise coming up with your own, positive framing, rather than repeating a harmful framing and refuting it.

  1. A messaging guide from ASO Research:

With a non-stop stream of vile rhetoric and rules coming our way, it’s tempting to rebut, refute and rail against what our opponents are peddling. But repeating what our opposition says, even in order to counter it, simply lends them more airtime. It’s also another form of leading with problems, not shared values.

2. Craig Silverman in Columbia Journalism Review:

The study was led by Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler, two leading researchers examining political misinformation and the ways in which it can and can’t be refuted, among other topics. Their 2009 paper, “The Effects of Semantics and Social Desirability in Correcting the Obama Muslim Myth,” found that affirming statements appeared to be more effective at convincing people to abandon or question their incorrect views regarding President Obama’s religion.

3. Steve Rathje in Psychology Today:

Efforts to fact-check news can often backfire, calling more attention to false claims or causing people to get defensive and become more entrenched in their beliefs. […]

Another problem with correcting lies is that we have a hard time processing statements with negations. For instance, one study found that a statement like “John is not a criminal” can evoke the mistaken impression that John is a criminal. Another study found that headlines phrased as questions (“Is John a Criminal?”) can form impressions that are just as negative as headlines phrased as declarative statements (“John is a criminal”).

(Emphases mine.)

It’s the difference between saying “I was volunteering at the pet shelter on Tuesday,” and “I was certainly not stealing cars on Tuesday.”

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Deepti Kannapan

Painter, occasional cartoonist, aerospace engineer. Writes about sustainable technology, creativity, and journaling.