Do you think that what you do really changes minds?
As a fact-checker, I’ve often been asked this question. It may have come from a place of skepticism or cynicism, or both, but either way, it’s a fair point to raise. After all, even as we try our best to verify and debunk all kinds of misinformation about vaccines, COVID-19, space missions, and climate change, there will always be anti-vaxxers, anti-maskers, flat earthers, and climate skeptics. I mean, just take a look at some of my relatives.
But maybe, as a fact-checker, this is not the right or only question we should be answering.
Instead of only addressing if we changed minds, maybe we should also be asking if we were able to change how people feel.
Why is that?
People believe what they want to believe, regardless of whether they are true or not, not because they are “stupid.” This is a gross oversimplification.
There have been many studies that show how tribal thinking and cognitive biases lead people to fall for misinformation. Cognitive biases are “thinking habits which are likely to threaten objectivity or to lead to errors in reasoning.”
This helps explain why people would rather double down when presented with evidence that counters their beliefs. An example of such cognitive bias is cognitive dissonance. Social psychologist Leon Festinger, who developed this theory, explained that people experience discomfort when there’s tension or inconsistency in their beliefs. We don’t like that internal discord. We like to keep harmony. So we would rather do something that could validate or protect our beliefs even if they have been proven to be false.
We also take offense when something challenges our worldview because it is intrinsically linked to our identity. This identity is in turn, shaped by communities and groups we have been socialized and exposed to. Our tendency is to go with what our group or “our people” believes in or values the most. This tribal thinking has become more pronounced in a world that has become more polarized.
It is not a coincidence that misleading information contains clickbait content or manipulated videos and photos that raise either alarm, fear, or anger. They were designed to provoke strong emotions, a feature that also explains their tendency to go viral.
Aside from this, one thing worth considering is that people’s beliefs are also influenced by emotions. It is not a coincidence that misleading information contains clickbait content or manipulated videos and photos that raise either alarm, fear, or anger. They were designed to provoke strong emotions, a feature that also explains their tendency to go viral.
In their 2016 article “Reliance on emotion promotes belief in fake news,” authors Cameron Mortel, Gordon Pennycook, and David G. Rand wrote that according to their analysis, “emotion plays a causal role in people’s susceptibility to incorrectly perceiving fake news as accurate.”
Awareness of how emotions affect our capacity to discern made me think that there is more than one way to fact-check or debunk misinformation.
And one of those alternative ways is through telling stories. Fanfiction, in particular. Fan-what?
Fanfiction, or stories written by fans about characters in the books and films they like, go a long way back, with The Guardian tracing its origins to the 18th century. It was part of a subculture that saw the publication of fanzines such as Spockanalia, created by fans of Star Trek. Aside from Star Trek, characters from Harry Potter and even real people such as politicians and public figures like K-Pop stars have been featured in fanfiction.
My fanfiction focused on the latter. Instead of placing them in the environs and the superstructure of K-Pop celebrityhood, however, my characters are situated in an alternative universe. They are queer science teachers in public schools in the Philippines who created a Facebook page debunking misinformation about vaccines, natural disasters, and homosexuality. They are employees in the Ministry of Science and Technology, tracing the history of erroneous information about science in Philippine textbooks and finding ways to stop their perpetuation. They are journalists explaining how geolocation is done.
They are characters who also love, get hurt, and fight for second chances. They have their own friends and families. They are people. And because I was able to present them in a way where their fact-checking comes as but a part of their lives as ordinary human beings and that they are in the first place, human beings, too, I believe their stories become more palatable to an audience which comes from various political, religious and socioeconomic backgrounds.
Since fanfiction is dynamic, a salient feature best shown in the interactive conversations between the readers and the authors, I was able to get feedback from those who read and support my work. They thanked me for explaining how COVID-19 mutations happen and for directing their attention to the issue of error-ridden science textbooks in the Philippines.
I more than agree that this is an unconventional way of fact-checking misinformation about science. But it has its audience. The readers of K-Pop fanfiction are those who consume fanfiction primarily for queer content and not because it can debunk misleading information about science. But I get to have them read what I’ve written, which touches on both subjects. By achieving this, I am able to expand the consumers of my fact-checks.
It is also high time that we explore more creative ways of communicating our fact-checks. In their research article “Emotions and humor as misinformation antidotes,” professors Sara K. Yeo from the University of Utah and Meaghan McKasy from Utah Valley University wrote that it’s worth studying the potential of emotion and humor as strategic communication techniques against misinformation.
The readers of K-Pop fanfiction are those who consume fanfiction primarily for queer content and not because it can debunk misleading information about science. But I get to have them read what I’ve written, which touches on both subjects.
They explained the theoretical framework of the emotional flow hypothesis, where “the evolution of the emotional experience during exposure” to a message could motivate or encourage advocacy behavior more. They gave an example where climate change messages that were framed to first elicit fear and then hope achieved just the aforementioned, something that messages with no emotional approach failed to do so.
While admitting that further research has to be done, they postulated that the “emotional flow hypothesis might offer a means of correcting misinformation.”
As for humor, they cited the 2019 work of Emily K. Vraga, Sojung Claire Kim, and John Cook, then with George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication (Vraga has since accepted a position as the Don and Carole Larson Professorship in Health Communication at the University of Minnesota), who compared humor-based and logic-based corrections of misinformation on Twitter. They found that, of the three issues examined (climate change, gun control HPV, and vaccinations), both logic-based and humor-based corrections reduce misperceptions only for HPV vaccination.
“There is no simple remedy to the problem of science misinformation,” Yeo and McKasy reiterated. “Our best and most realistic approach is to use multiple approaches in concert with each other.”
My approach is through fanfiction. Read it and dare to learn more about queer love, the lives of people of color in science, and yes, the adventures of debunking scientific misinformation.