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Part 2 in the Democracy in Distress series about the five key threats to American democracy and what you can do about them today.

Threat 2: Misinformation

The truth is rarely pure and never simple.

– Oscar Wilde

A healthy democracy requires collaboration, listening, and creative problem solving. In our complex digital era, misinformation has stealthily changed not just political discourse, but our social landscape, creating rifts among family and friends. Our inability to bridge these widening gaps is a danger to our communities as well as our democracy.

Unraveling the web of falsehoods isn’t just about setting the record straight—it’s about re-establishing trust and fostering open dialogue within our circles in service to our democracy. The challenge of correcting our loved ones without sparking a defensive assault is a delicate art that demands nuanced skill. Two major challenges must be faced in order to succeed.

Challenge 1: Navigating the Siloed News Landscape

Amidst this modern chaos, the media’s fragmented nature has become the norm. We’re often confined within the echo chambers of our preferred news sources, resulting in a skewed reality that only serves to deepen existing societal rifts. This isolation from diverse perspectives hinders our ability to engage in meaningful discussions, impeding the growth of a shared understanding among us. (More on this in a coming article in this series.)

Challenge 2: Recognizing manipulative content

Have you ever watched the news and felt powerless? Or scrolled through social media and read comments with a wave of anger? At its best, media should empower and inform. However, its viral nature and corporate funding keeps us hooked and stressed out instead. Worse, bad actors flood social media sites with misleading information or news sources rife with upsetting images. If you read something that makes you feel outraged, your best response is skepticism. It’s not just the “other side” that is misinformed, so be sure to fact check your own sources.

Challenge 3: Misinformation’s Threat to Democracy

The pervasive nature of misinformation and the echo chamber effect don’t just muddy the waters of truth; they corrode the very essence of our democracy. They foster a culture of mistrust that impedes progress and diminishes our ability to find common ground. Rebuilding this trust demands a shift in our communication strategies—rooted in empathy and constructive dialogue.

The following ideas can unravel the knots of misperception and disconnection to foster an environment of growing trust and collaboration.

Solutions: Practical Steps for Navigating Truth-Telling:

If we want to move our nation forward, it means having challenging conversations in ways that diminish polarization rather than add to it. Let these six suggestions (and additional resources) guide you:

  1. Choose conversation partners mindfully
    Forcing discussions with people who resort to personal attacks or derogatory language does more harm than good. Focus your efforts on conversing with people who are willing to understand and be understood.
  2. Build trust and rapport
    Although it might seem counterintuitive, listening without arguing can be a basic first step to fostering understanding within your circle. For example, actively listening to the other person’s viewpoint on a controversial topic without interrupting or dismissing their concerns is a way to demonstrate respect. Over time, this practice fosters a sense of openness, leading to more constructive dialogue. A great opening question can be, “Can you tell me what led you to become a member of the (name of) Party?” Listen well to learn more about the person’s story and values. For more on building trust and rapport, this Vox article about mediators’ practices offers good ideas.
  3. Focus on shared values (not policies)
    Despite seemingly intractable polarization, many Americans hold very similar values. Respect, for example, is something many of us want for ourselves and others—whether we’re conservative, independent, or liberal. Paying attention to and being curious about another person’s values can help create meaningful connection. When discussing an issue, point out your shared goals and aspirations, especially highlighting how both perspectives align with overarching values such as justice or equality. Do you know what you value? Use our Sustainable Civic Engagement worksheet to discern your own values.
  4. Change hearts
    It’s nearly impossible to change another person’s mind. In fact, think about the last time someone tried to change yours! Reciting facts and statistics comes across as preachy and is generally ineffective. However, the human brain loves stories. If you find an opening to share a personal experience (for example, what it was like growing up poor) this can create emotional connection. The empathy generated by describing a relatable experience results in understanding and openness. Stories are also more memorable than facts, increasing the likelihood of supporting affirming policies long-term. In the era of LGBTQ+ visibility, for example, folks coming out and sharing their love helped change the hearts of even staunchly religious people who wanted their kids to be able to marry. That’s the power of sharing personal stories.
  5. Focus on solutions
    While it can be easy to get bogged down in whose facts are right, this misses the point of democratic dialog. Our nation has a system of government that empowers the people to determine their own direction. Ask open-ended questions like, “How can we…?” to keep the discussion on solutions, rather than on repeating tired talking points. Creating opportunities to use critical thinking is the single best way to derail misinformation. When people start thinking for themselves, the rhetoric starts to sound hollow.
  6. Stay committed to constructive dialogue
    There’s a risk if we only pay attention to our nation’s worst news and controversial individuals: we lose sight of the power that our 340,000,000+ citizens possess. Social change requires only 10% of the population participating. Together, we can change our country’s direction toward stronger democracy and true equality. Every brave conversation you choose to have can deescalate the rhetoric and foster understanding and cooperation between our diverse neighbors.

Cultivating sustainable civic engagement

With concerning political trends eroding democracy and civil rights, we need as many Americans engaged as possible at this time in our nation’s story.

We’re a community of Americans of conscience saving democracy, one action at a time. We’re Americans of every political party who believe we can create a kind and thriving nation by working together. If you’d like to join our effort, sign up for our twice-monthly Checklist of pro-democracy, pro-equality, pro-planet actions.