An image unsupported by facts
While it is one thing for an individual to think that ‘the world was much better before’, it is another when a large majority of the population believes falsehoods. And, in the era of fake news and social media, it is difficult to discern the truth.
Let’s look at how the issue of girls’ education is treated under two different lights. The UNICEF website states that 129 million girls don’t go to school. At face value, and without any other context, this figure is alarming. If this is the only thing you have read about the topic, you might be left feeling horrified and depressed. But, if you dig a little deeper into the subject, you learn that since 1995, the global enrolment rate for girls in schools has increased from 73 per cent to 89 per cent with more than 180 million girls being enrolled in primary and secondary school in 2018 compared to 1995. So, still a long way to go, but, where girls’ education is concerned, the evidence says things are getting better.
This is just one example, and we could apply this analysis to many more topics that feature in our daily news feeds: health, poverty or conflicts.
Misconceptions are easy to form and spread, and are deeply embedded in cultures and spirits, tying us to an image of the word that is not supported by the facts.
Tackling one misconception at a time
And that’s what some organisations or individuals have decided to prove, tackling one big misconception at a time. For example, Gapminder is an independent Swedish foundation whose goal is to fight global misbeliefs backed by facts and statistics. In one study, they compare global poverty levels over time to show that in 2023, 10 per cent of the world’s population is living in extreme poverty, compared with over 40 per cent in 1980. But most interestingly, the foundation shows that 50 per cent of those surveyed thought the score had risen to 50 per cent of the global population living in extreme poverty.
Another example, linked to girls’ education, is that 84 per cent of people could not give a correct answer to the question: ‘In low-income countries across the world, what share of girls went to school until at least age 11?’. The answer is 60 per cent, but a large majority still think the score is lower than 40 per cent.
The truth/reality gap
What implications does this have on society?
Ultimately, it widens the truth/reality gap, giving people a greater opportunity to make the wrong political, social and environmental choices, and fatalism, cynicism, or even violence, may rise.
It also makes us wonder how businesses, politicians and other decision-makers can operate effectively when their worldview is biased or wrong.
So, as professional communicators, how can we help reverse the tendency toward negativity, and debunk misconceptions or false beliefs?
If media outlets need to deliver factually accurate, balanced, responsible, and nuanced information to their audience, communicators equally have a big role to play in understanding where these traits come from and implementing strategies to counter them. It is not as simple as just reacting to a fake news story with corrected information, or running a campaign without deeper thought about the timing, sensitivities of the audience, or roots of the issue you want to tackle.
The British Government Communications Service team has developed a very helpful and smart toolkit, the Wall of Beliefs, that communicators can access to help understand false beliefs and develop effective counter-disinformation strategies.
In their 3-step approach, they state that to effectively fight misconceptions or falsehoods, communicators need to understand the audience they are addressing and where the misconceptions are coming from, using insights from research. From there, they offer at least four different strategies to begin to counter the disinformation and false beliefs. And finally, there is a simple process to develop a coherent plan to communicate the truth effectively.
While it is in the human nature to be attracted to drama, it is up to governments and public-facing services in general to act for the greater good. And that requires communicators to make sure that the message is delivered effectively, efficiently and with a long-term impact.