For many families, there may be another reason for these empty seats at the table: disagreements too strong to allow physical unity. Some people have entered a world fueled by disinformation so far that they can no longer converse with those who do not share their point of view on issues like public health or politics. A February 2021 CBS / YouGov poll found that 57% of Republicans see Democrats not only as political opponents but also as enemies. The poll showed that 41% of Democrats see Republicans the same way.
As the holidays approach, the growing polarization can play out painfully and add another layer of tension to social and family gatherings. Almost everyone I know worries about broken or strained relationships with friends or family who are caught in a vortex of disinformation and immersed in alternate versions of reality, including the popular QAnon conspiracy theory. .
I know what it’s like to see a loved one walk away until they are unreachable by logic, reason, or evidence. During the pandemic, a family member previously known for their common sense radicalized. She lives in England and strict closures there have turned cafes and lunches with friends of all political stripes into overtime watching television watching her new favorite news source, Russia Today (RT ). The Kremlin-backed broadcaster, which has a wide reach with nearly two dozen offices around the world, is the key to Russia’s information warfare that aims to get non-Russians to see the world in a way. which benefits Russian President Vladimir Putin and his allies.
It worked like a charm on her. As her frustration with the disruption to life caused by the pandemic grew, she also needed to find someone or something to blame. Our phone conversations turned one-sided as she scapegoated immigrants for the spread of Covid-19 and, from January 2021, fumed over how Joe Biden was ruining America, his country of residence for many. years.
In the summer of 2021, she no longer asks to hear from me or other family members. Months of RT had plunged her into a world of disinformation, and she grew increasingly angry. In June, after the Biden-Putin summit, she complained that Biden was not helping Putin develop in Eastern Europe (it should be noted that she had never mentioned Putin once before. become a large consumer of RT).
When I asked her to watch a clip of my live commentary on NBC, in which I spoke about Putin’s imperialist policies, she got furious and shouted, “You are a liar! before she hangs up. Feeling frustrated, I stopped communicating with her. It turned out to be a counterproductive move.
Like radicalization, disengagement is a process. There is no quick and easy way to bring someone back to reality, or defuse their trigger points on issues that matter to them, even if the evidence becomes overwhelming that their positions have no basis.
In fact, followers of authoritarian sects and dogmas who begin to doubt the veracity of their convictions may first linger. The more an individual has invested in the alternative reality, the more he is reluctant to admit to others, and to himself, that they have misjudged the situation. Many would rather live in denial than feel the shame or humiliation of being wrong. For some, this urge to save face can be a powerful force even in life and death situations, as sociologist Brooke Harrington writes of pandemic and vaccine deniers who have fallen ill with Covid-19. and continue to defend their point of view during their stay in intensive care.
That is why, as we come together this holiday season, we might listen to the advice of experts like Steven Hassan, who encourages people not to be judgmental or to berate loved ones who are steeped in misinformation. We could also resist the temptation to present individuals with evidence of the fallacy of their beliefs; I know from my own experience that such evidence often comes from sources that those relatives regard as “fake news”, and will be immediately dismissed – even if, in my case, this news is written by a family member.
What we can do is keep them close and find common ground on other issues, as difficult as that may be. This does not mean that we accept or validate their racist or anti-science beliefs, but rather aim to be strategic. After all, if we cut them off or yell at them, we are simply amplifying the chances that they will remain isolated among like-minded people.