Countering disinformation

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —October 16, 2023
Filed in Business storytelling

During The Voice referendum campaign, we sadly witnessed the power of disinformation. And in most cases, the YES response was to argue or disagree with mistruth. As I show below, this is the worst way to change someone’s mind. In fact, it serves to reinforce the falsehood.

Because of that success, we are likely to see more disinformation strategies. It’s therefore vital we equip ourselves with the right techniques to respond effectively.

Here’s an excerpt from my book, Putting Stories to Work, that shows research explaining why telling a better story is vital for upending fake news.

The short version is simply this:

The first story told is the most powerful;
To beat a false story, you have to tell one or more better stories; and
And it needs to be a story, not an opinion, an argument, or a point of view.

Countering Half-Truths And Lies

Imagine that you’re responsible for communicating your company’s new strategy, and just as you’re about to do so, you hear something worrying on the corporate grapevine. A lot of employees appear to believe the strategy was created by the new CEO going home one night, digging up an old strategy from his previous company, then making copies of it and plastering them across the executive suites of your company’s headquarters. Now, you know this is not how it happened. The executive team actually went through a well-thought-out process to develop the strategy. So your instinct is to refute these claims. You want to set people straight with the facts. This thinking, however, is just leading you into a trap.

To simply deny an untrue story often merely serves to reinforce the misinformation. A much more effective way of countering a misleading story is to tell another story—a better one. I explain how to do this when I discuss how to tackle anti-stories in Chapter 6. For now, though, let’s look at how researchers discovered this enduring feature of stories.

In 1994, Holly Johnson and Colleen Seifert conducted one of the first experiments to show how stories can have a big impact on correcting misinformation.23 Their experiment involved a report into a suspicious fire. Two groups were sent a series of messages simulating how a warehouse fire might be reported in real time. The first group learned that the firefighters had traced the fire to a short circuit next to a closet containing volatile materials such as oil-based paints and pressurised gas bottles. In a follow-up message, the group was told there had been a mistake: there had not been any volatile materials in the closet and they should just ignore that misinformation. The second group was also told about the short circuit and the closetful of volatile material, and then received a message saying this information was incorrect and should be ignored. But they were also given an alternative explanation for what might have happened. They were told that, in fact, rather than paints and gas bottles, the closet had actually held petrol-soaked rags and empty fuel drums, suggesting that arson might have taken place. This group now had a new story to explain the fire.

Both groups were subsequently questioned about their understanding of what had happened. When the first group was asked ‘Why did the fire spread so quickly?’, their response was that ‘the paints and gas bottles must have exploded and accelerated the fire’. Evidently, despite being told to do so, they hadn’t struck that misinformation from their minds. The second group, however, responded to the question by suggesting arson, having discarded the misinformation and instead embraced the new story about the fuel-soaked rags.

Clearly, the second group, which had heard the plausible story that implied arson, was much less influenced by the original misinformation than the first group, which had simply been told that a mistake had been made. This study demonstrated that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to beat a story with just facts. What you need is a better story.

It’s understandable that stories are so robust and resistant to change. When we hear a story, we take in a complete and internally coherent bundle of information. But if you cut out even one small bit, it’s no longer complete and coherent. Without a replacement story at hand, we revert to the original version—even when, as rational decision-makers, we know that part of the story we are relying on to make decisions is untrue.24
I’ve felt the effects of clinging onto a story despite knowing an important part of it was false. It happened on my first visit to Washington, DC. I was staying at the Willard Hotel, a grand and historic place at the top of Pennsylvania Avenue. My friend and fellow story practitioner Paul Costello swung by to guide me around the monuments of the National Mall, but we started our tour in the lobby of the Willard. ‘Back in the 1870s,’ Paul began, ‘the White House wasn’t the most comfortable place for President Ulysses S. Grant to relax, so he would often unwind with a whiskey and a cigar in the lobby of the Willard Hotel. Word soon got around that the President could often be found in the hotel’s lobby, and people began to come here to get Grant’s ear or seek favours. After a time, these people became known as lobbyists’.

‘Wow’, I said. ‘What a great way for that word to come about.’

Then Paul said, ‘It’s just a myth. The term originated from the gatherings of members and peers in the lobbies of the British Houses of Parliament.’

It’s such a good story, though. I can picture President Grant with his hand wrapped around a cut-glass tumbler, smoke billowing from his cigar as he sits in a corner of the Willard’s lobby surrounded by a gaggle of people. I have to fight hard to include in its retelling that this story is a myth.
Leaders will always be confronted with misinformation, half-truths, even barefaced lies. Sometimes we just need to ignore them. But when we do need to counter misinformation, stories are our most powerful ally.

Callahan, Shawn. Putting Stories to Work: Mastering Business Storytelling. Pepperberg Press, 2016.

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:

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