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Here’s how to fact-check your family at the Thanksgiving dinner table

(Shutterstock) (Shutterstock)


Daniel Funke
By Daniel Funke November 25, 2019

Thanksgiving is a time for turkey, football, pie — and political arguments with your relatives.

Nearly half of Americans say they avoid having political discussions during the holidays, according to a 2017 poll. And if politics do come up at the Thanksgiving dinner table, about the same proportion said they would change the subject. 

Meanwhile, a June survey found that most Americans say political discourse has worsened under the Trump administration and that discussing politics with people they disagree with is "stressful and frustrating." That’s not likely to change anytime soon, as impeachment proceedings against the president — which Americans are starkly divided over — continue in Congress.

Talking politics over gravy and stuffing can be uncomfortable, but it doesn’t have to be. 

PolitiFact read the research and spoke to experts about how to best fact-check someone in person. Below are six tips (presented in order of deployment) to help you navigate politics during Thanksgiving.

1. Pick your battles

The No. 1 rule of fact-checking someone’s false statement is knowing when to drop it.

"You’re not obligated to talk about politics on Thanksgiving, and you’re not obligated to correct misstatements on Thanksgiving," said Ethan Porter, an assistant professor at the George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs. "There’s nothing wrong with staying away from politics and setting aside the conversation for another day."

Before you call someone out, think about your goal for the conversation. Are you trying to set the record straight on a discrete fact? Do you want to get the person to change their mind about a certain topic, such as immigration or climate change? Or are you just trying to argue your point of view?

Correcting a specific fact is easier than getting people to change their opinions, according to experts — but only if you actually have knowledge about the subject. Focus on correcting misstatements that you know you have evidence to disprove, even if they’re not the ones you care about the most.

2. Consider the setting

If you decide you’re going to correct someone, think about where and in what company you’re going to do it.

"There’s value in making corrections at some point," said Art Markman, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin. "One of the questions you have to ask yourself is: Do I want to make these at the Thanksgiving dinner table?"

Oftentimes the answer is no.

While there may be other people at the table who would benefit from hearing a correction (and perhaps even back you up), Markman said that most Thanksgiving dinners are pretty large, so any verbal fact check runs the risk of grandstanding. It’s usually more effective to correct people in smaller settings, either one-on-one or in small groups of people.

RELATED: 7 steps to better fact-checking

"A conversation is a much better way to engage in this," he said. "If we’re actually going to talk to each other, in order for me to be understood by you, for one brief moment you have to represent the world the same way that I did. Even if you disagree with me, you have constructed a belief in your head that’s similar to mine."

Another option is to stay quiet during dinner but send an email or text message afterward with the corrective information. That way, it has less of a chance of becoming combative and you can link to your sources (more on this later).

3. Rehearse your correction

It can be tempting to jump into the conversation about topics you’re passionate about. But before doing so, test how much you actually know about the topic.

One of the easiest ways to do this is to practice fact-checking someone in a mirror. Walk through what exactly you would say and, if you’re struggling to come up with concrete evidence, there’s a good chance you might not know as much about the topic as you thought you did.

"It’s hard to be effective in debunking someone else’s false beliefs if it turns out you can’t articulate what you believe in enough detail to demonstrate mastery of that concept," said Markman, an expert in knowledge representation.

This problem is an academic concept called the "illusion of explanatory depth." In essence, it says that people tend to overestimate how much they know about any given topic.

Rehearsing your fact-check is one way to overcome that illusion. A 2004 study found that, by trying to verbalize and explain a concept, people became more aware of their own knowledge limitations.

4. Approach with understanding

When fact-checking someone else’s misstatement, it’s easy to focus on the falsehood. But experts say that’s a mistake.

Instead of immediately telling someone they’re wrong, try to broach the subject by first establishing some common ground. If you’re talking about immigration, for example, say that you also value border security and understand where your relative is coming from. Then, pivot to the corrective information.

"Focus on understanding rather than correcting," Markman said. "The most important thing in all of that is really to try not to come off as a know-it-all."

RELATED: Why people lie and what you can do about it

Corrections are an implicit form of criticism. And research shows that such criticism can lead to negative mental health outcomes if it’s not framed correctly.

"Even if you are in the right in this instance — even if you are dead certain and correct that what you're saying is true — to approach it from this ‘there you go again’ way of doing things, I think, deepens the divide," Markman said. "It creates antagonism rather than finding an opportunity for common ground."

5. Use sources wisely

The backbone of a PolitiFact fact-check is its source list. And the same thing goes for in-person corrections.

Research shows that sources can make or break a fact check. One 2017 study found that corrections of misinformation about the Zika virus were more effective when a source was provided.

However, experts say the kind of source you use could make all the difference. Try to find someone who the person respects who has used the correct information. 

"You can present them with incontrovertible neutral evidence that undercuts their false claim," Porter said. "Give them evidence from the FBI, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Department of Justice, etc. ... You might also give them evidence from a co-partisan. So if they’re saying something egregiously wrong — and you can find evidence or you can find a statement made from a member of their same political party that’s actually saying the correct claim — show that to them."

Another option is to ask the person which sources they trust the most. Then, try to find information from that source that refutes their false statement. That way, they’re more likely to accept your correction.

6. Accept that you can check their facts, but you probably won’t change their views

If you’ve read this far and are thinking that fact-checking your relatives sounds like a lot of work — possibly to no end — we have some good news. 

A 2017 study found that, when people were presented with a fact-check correcting a falsehood, they changed their belief in the claim. That finding held across party lines.  However, the study noted that corrections did not change people’s voting patterns. 

In short: fact-checking changes minds, not votes — a finding that is echoed by other studies on the effect of corrections.

"It’s not the case that people’s political views are automatically going to come around to yours," Porter said. "Providing a correction, even though it improves accuracy, is not going to turn someone from one political party to another. It may not change their underlying views on the policy issue at hand."

Which takes us back to tip No. 1: What’s your goal behind fact-checking your relatives at Thanksgiving? If it goes beyond trying to correct the record, you might want to think twice before spoiling dessert.

RELATED: Hands-on Fact-checking: A Short Course

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Our Sources

Behavior Therapy, "Construct Validity of the Perceived Criticism Measure," June 2009

Information, Communication & Society, "I do not believe you: how providing a source corrects health misperceptions across social media platforms," April 19, 2017

Interview with Ethan Porter, assistant professor at the George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs, Nov. 7, 2019

Interview with Art Markman, psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, Nov. 6, 2019

Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, "Knowing the limits of one's understanding: the development of an awareness of an illusion of explanatory depth," January 2004

Oct. 27-30, 2019 Washington Post-ABC News poll

Pew Research Center, "Public Highly Critical of State of Political Discourse in the U.S.," June 19, 2019

Psychology Today, "The Best Way to Correct Someone Else’s Worst Mistake," June 30, 2018

Political Behavior, "The Elusive Backfire Effect: Mass Attitudes' Steadfast Factual Adherence," March 2019

Poynter, "Fact-checking changes minds but not votes, according to new research," March 1, 2017

Poynter, "Study: On Twitter, you’re better off fact-checking your crazy uncle than a complete stranger," Sept. 11, 2017

WNYC, "Poll: Nearly Half of All Americans Avoid Politics at The Thanksgiving Table," Nov. 22, 2017

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Here’s how to fact-check your family at the Thanksgiving dinner table