Rebutting False Information

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A recent online post from the Association for Psychological Science delivered, I think, a critical message for organizational leaders. You can read that post here. The gist of the post is that you can’t overcome false or fake information simply by denying it. You need to counter-argue it credibly and in detail.

I think that almost everyone has seen cases of people holding on to beliefs based on erroneous, false or outright fake information. The people holding those beliefs are, in the main, not stupid people, but they are people who have all the human tendencies and biases. Overcoming those tendencies and biases is hard and requires some hard work and intelligent planning. It cannot be done ad hoc.

In their book, Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath provide recommendations, based on their research and studies, to improve the likelihood that people will remember what you tell them. Much of what they discuss in that book applies directly to countering false information (albeit the book was not written with that in mind). The Heath brothers recommend that, to the maximum extent practicable, messages should be:

  • Simple
  • Include some Unexpected info (an Aha moment)
  • Concrete by providing specific examples
  • Credible in providing information from respected sources
  • Include some Emotional component or appeal
  • Stories

The bolded letters create the mnemonic SUCCES

The post that got me started on this added a couple more points (since you would be responding rather than initiating as the brothers Heath discussed):

  • Don’t simply deny the information – that will merely increase your audience’s commitment to the false information.
  • Help your audience discover evidence supporting your counter argument – this builds ownership within your audience.
  • Don’t repeat detailed arguments provided by the publishers of the false information – again, this builds credibility in the false information since you would be repeating the falsehood-supporting arguments and enabling your audience to cherry pick what they want to believe (in other words, allows them to succumb to Confirmation Bias).

If your organization is faced with rebutting false information, it will be incredibly difficult for you to quickly build effective counter arguments if you actually try to incorporate all that advice to the maximum extent practicable (and the Heath brothers are explicit in saying that you don’t need to cram all those elephants into the front and back seats of a Volkswagen Beatle – only as many as you can fit). In fact, I suspect that it will be impossible to craft truly effective messages quickly enough to have a high impact and ultimately lead to successful rebuttal of the false information.

So, what’s a leader to do? The answer is to Predict.Plan.Perform:

  • Consider threats to your company that could arise from the publication of false/incorrect/erroneous information (e.g. attacks on organizational integrity, attacks on quality of service or product, allegations of financial impropriety). This information could be published in traditional media or via social media. It’s unlikely that you will hit the bulls-eye with every item on the list, but the point is to give you a big head start, not to be perfect.
  • With that list in place, develop:
    • Your home bases if your organization doesn’t already have them. These are the absolutely core messages that you can always go to in order to bolster your organization. For example:
      • We believe in the integrity of everything we do.
      • We will not be defined by any single action or event.
      • We will always take care of our people first.
    • Then, starting with your core messages and your list of potential problem areas, define your various stakeholder audiences. For example:
      • Your owners
      • Your customers
      • Your suppliers
      • Your business partners
    • With your home bases, your potential problems and your various audiences in hand, develop message maps. Message maps are short, focused messages aligned to your audiences. The text in the message map is not likely to be the exact wording of your actual messages in real time, but will provide you with the well considered grist with which to draft your actual messages quickly and effectively.
  • Once your message maps are in place, exercise them with the people who will actually be involved in responding to and counter-arguing false information. Such exercises will enable your team to gain experience in tailoring your message maps and give you opportunities to build “muscle memory” in exercising your response, “test” the effectiveness of your planning, and build confidence in quickly and effectively responding to false information.

Company leadership may not be directly involved in performing this work, but will need to commit to it and to place organizational emphasis on creating effective plans. That means paying attention, asking questions and challenging the response team. It also means ensuring that the lessons gained from test exercises are actually learned and not merely observed or “admired.”


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