Several months into the coronavirus pandemic, I watched a video of an unmasked woman refusing to leave a fabric store in Calgary, Alberta. An employee tries to reason with her, explaining she didn’t really want to be wearing a mask either. “Yes, you do,” the woman retorts. “You’re a sheep, just like the rest of them. Why don’t you go online and educate yourself?” It sounded, nearly word-for-word, like conversations I’ve had with my mother about a virus she believes to be greatly exaggerated.
For months, she had been sending me videos from dubious sources about whistleblowers claiming to uncover the truth behind rushed coronavirus vaccine trials and lamenting about the adverse health effects — migraines, for one — the newly erected 5G towers were causing her. My mom isn’t a COVID denier or a hardcore conspiracy theorist. She’s one of many people who believe the dangers of virus are overstated and the government response, like mandatory masks in public spaces, is overblown.
Small businesses should still be open, she tells me, because more people die from the flu each year than coronavirus, an inaccurate claim that, like others reinforced and fanned on social media, totally misrepresent data and make faulty comparisons. Concerningly, there seems to be an endless stream of this dangerously incorrect crap online — and it has real world consequences: A recent poll found that only 55% of Ontarians would be willing to get the COVID vaccine if it were available to them tomorrow.
“The amount of misinformation right now is simply unbelievable,” says Timothy Caulfield, Canada’s pre-eminent bad science debunker. Caulfield has spent his career correcting misleading messages about health and science — he literally wrote the book that quashes Gwyneth Paltrow’s bogus health claims. “I've been studying this area for decades and I've never seen anything like this,” he says — and that should be seriously unsettling to us all.
Virtual and IRL family get-togethers around the holidays are prime time for awkward, challenging COVID conversations. Here’s what experts have to say about talking to virus deniers, anti-maskers, vaccine skeptics, and those simply struggling with deciphering misinformation about the coronavirus pandemic.
Is getting in an argument with your uncle about mask-wearing really worth the hassle?
In short, yes. “The good news is debunking works,” says Caulfield, who completed a literature review this summer that showed the backfire effect — the notion that correcting misinformation only further entrenches people in their beliefs — is overstated. He cautions, however, against trying to change the mind of a hardcore denier. “If [these beliefs] have become part of their personal brand or identity, it's very difficult to change their mind.”
OK, but does this mean I have to listen to a 15-minute diatribe about 5G towers?
Yeah, for a bit, sorry. They need to feel heard, says Umair Majid, a U of T PhD candidate, who has looked at how groups who reject or challenge public health advice, like anti-maskers and vaccine-hesitant parents, come to make those decisions. “[It] requires you to see the other person regardless of how wrong they may be about their beliefs,” he says. This means letting your aunt get her point, however misinformed, across before you respond — preferably while keeping with a neutral face, if you can manage it.
So how can you convince a COVID skeptic to change their mind?
Start with the basics, says Caulfield: Share good science (ie: facts from credible sources like the World Health Organization, Health Canada and the CDC) and highlight the rhetorical tricks used to push misinformation. For example, if a family member shares a video with you that purports the COVID vaccine is going to change your DNA, Caulfield says you can say, “I could see why you might believe it given the fact that RNA is involved. But if you look at the body of evidence, for example, what the CDC and the World Health Organization have posted, you'll be happy to hear that isn't true. And in fact, what [people] are doing when they talk about that is they're misrepresenting the science and they're using fear-mongering in order to push this misinformation.”
Sharing basic media literacy tips could be helpful too: Who wrote the article or put together the video? What makes them experts? Major red flags to the veracity of scientific information, like using hyperbolic terms designed to get clicks (“You’ll NEVER believe this breakthrough cure”) might be glaringly obvious to you, but it’s not always for those who joined Facebook later in life.
Now that I’ve calmly delivered a well-researched rebuttal, when should I expect to receive thanks for showing them the error of their ways?
Your COVID skeptical family member is unlikely to change their mind immediately, says Caulfield. “What you want to do is leave them with enough information that they can, hopefully, look at the good science and allow themselves to be convinced.” The benefit of having these discussions in a family setting, like a Zoom holiday dinner, is that although you may be unable to change the mind of the person who brought up the misinformation, you can help inform the rest of the group.
No matter what I do, the conversation always ends in raised voices or tears. Is it OK to call it quits?
Yes. When the discussion becomes repetitive, when it’s not leading to productive outcomes, and when it’s fueling feelings of stress and anger, it’s time to stop and regroup. “Revisit the subject with a different goal,” says Dr. Katy Kamkar, a clinical psychologist at The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto. “We know we disagree, how can we resolve this in a way where we can still enjoy one another’s company?”
She suggests coming up with a plan that makes maintaining the relationship doable. For me, it’s asking my mom for a moratorium on all COVID- and vaccine-related social media sharing. When I feel myself getting frustrated, it also helps to remember that she is coming from a place of concern. Most of the time, though, ignoring her — and continuing to follow public health advice myself — is the best course of action. It’s challenging to accept that her beliefs won’t entirely be changed, but these steps will, hopefully, halt the endless, cyclical arguments in which we share points neither of us are willing to budge on. “It’s not going to be ideal,” says Kamkar. “It’s going to be functional.”