Fighting Misinformation: Debunk and Disengage


Disproving every lie that is embedded in misinformation is time consuming and exhausting, and prevents us from talking about the things that matter to us. Rather than disprove every element of misinformation, note the general inaccuracy of the misinformation, and move on.

The Details

When it comes to addressing misinformation, I point people to the Four Moves, also known as the SIFT method. SIFT is great because it’s concrete, fast, and efficient.

However, lies often come bundled and interwoven, like yarn balls mixed together by angry cats. While it’s possible to detangle the individual lies, it’s also time consuming and exhausting.

And this gets to one key question that often gets overlooked while fighting misinformation and delivering trainings to people about misinformation (and to be clear, this is not a shortcoming of SIFT, at all): correcting misinformation is an ongoing — and likely a neverending — process.

Refuting every detail means elevating every detail, which gives the details more airplay.

Fact-checking — even using SIFT — takes more time than lying.

If you fact check every lie, you probably won’t have time for much of anything else. This is especially true when the current lies build on past lies, and doing a thorough job of debunking the current lie requires a debunking of the context that supports the lie.

It’s laborious, it’s tiresome, and — from a practical perspective — it can derail you from having the conversations you want and need to have. The time pressure is true both in personal and professional contexts. Understanding misinformation in this way can help us see that misinformation is more than just lies and conspiracies. Misinformation is a distributed denial of service attack on rational thought.

This unfortunate reality plays out in the ongoing mess that is most commonly called “anti-Critical Race Theory” disruptions targeting school boards. The reality of this mess is that the conspiracies pushed by people are a mash of anti-vax meets anti-mask meets anti-LGBTQIA rights meets parental rights meets anti-“CRT” meets their perverted version of student privacy — and that many of these conspiracies are rooted in longstanding conspiracy theories about government takeovers (because remember — to many conspiracists, “public schools” are “government schools”), globalists (and the frequent companion lie of “UN Camps“), and other lies that have been festering for years, or decades. QAnon tapped into these theories, often with help from elected officials.

Tweet from Greg Abbot in 2015 legitimizing conspiracies about a preparedness exercise.

So, when confronting pernicious misinformation rooted and tangled in conspiracy narratives, how do we debunk the lies, maintain our sanity, and protect our energy, knowing that we will likely need to address more misinformation in the very near future?

Debunk and Disengage

Time and energy are valuable resources. Be intentional when you spend them. When we dedicate time to debunking misinformation, we are not dedicating time to other things. In particular, when misinformation impacts a topic we care about, addressing all the lies is tempting. Avoid the temptation.

When we look at fighting misinformation as something that we need to do on a regular basis over time, we can shift our focus in ways that preserve our time and energy. Eliminating misinformation will never happen — conspiracies existed before the internet, and the connectivity and amplification provided by the internet ensures that misinformation will be with us for the foreseeable future. YouTube alone hosts a reservoir of conspiracy theories going back years.

Given that misinformation is probably going to be here for a while, one goal of mitigating misinformation can be to blunt its impact, rather than disprove it outright. This means we don’t look at misinformation through a True/False binary — this lens helps people spreading misinformation more than it does those of us who prefer reality because the act of debunking misinformation can elevate the lie and prevent us from talking about other things (ie, misinformation as DDOS). In some cases, we can be effective with a quick debunking, followed by disengagement. This can minimize the impact on our time and energy, and the effectiveness of the lies embedded in the misinformation.

When addressing misinformation, debunk and disengage. Save your time. Save your energy.

On Dogwhistles, or Putting a Pin in This

Free speech is not consequence-free speech.

If you say hateful things and people respond to the hateful things you are saying, you are not being criticized for “speaking your mind.” You are being criticized for saying hateful things.

Image from

Racism, homophobia, transphobia, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, and other forms of bigotry are hateful.

If you say hateful things and people ostracize you socially, and/or you have professional consequences, it’s not censorship. People have a right to not like what you say.

If you feel that “wokeness” or “cancel culture” are actual problems on the same level as racism, you should probably learn more about racism.

It’s not unkind or unfair to point out that a person has said hateful things publicly. Hateful things cause strong reactions.

If you are called out for saying hateful things and your response is that you were “asking questions” or “starting a conversation”, please understand that your desire to ask questions can lead to participants in the conversation you are starting to call you out for giving voice to hateful things.

If you are called out for saying hateful things and your response is that you were “only joking”, please understand that your desire to “make jokes” can lead people to call you out for giving voice to hateful things.

If, when you are “speaking your mind”, you are saying things that members of your audience find hateful, it might be time to examine the contents of your mind.

If people call you out for saying hateful things and your response is that you were “following your conscience,” you should probably examine the contents of your conscience.

When people attempt to tone police how people respond, they are showing themselves to be bad faith actors. Respond accordingly, preferably by not wasting time with them. Counter lies directly; counter hate directly, and then move on.

Racists will attempt to portray themselves as the victim – when they float cliches like “cancel culture,” the “woke mob,” or the “real racist” this is what they are doing. Don’t waste time with these bad faith arguments. It gives them air, which is how they spread.