Our work at Ad Fontes Media is all about reducing the polarization that is caused in large part to the proliferation of junk news.

Many of you may have the opportunity to engage in discussions about politics with your relatives this Thanksgiving. I’m optimistically calling it an “opportunity” because actually talking to people in your life is one of the ways you can actually make a difference in our democracy. It can be hard work, but that’s what a successful democracy requires — the good faith, ongoing work of an informed and engaged citizenry.

Some people say “you can’t convince anybody of anything,” and I don’t think that’s true at all. People get convinced and influenced all the time through individual and mass communication — that’s the way (really, the primary way) public opinion changes, new representatives and parties come into power, and societies progress.

It is my hope that you keep dual goals in mind when engaging in political discussions:

  1. Creating more peace, rather than more polarization
  2. Making a difference

Here are some tips, many of which use concepts from our Media Bias Chart project, for your Thanksgiving discussions:

  1. Avoid starting out with “you’re wrong.” The result of starting out that way is rarely that the other person ends up saying “oh, yes, you are totally right and I AM wrong!” Even if it’s true, it’s usually not effective.
  2. Don’t be discouraged that you don’t get an end result in which someone capitulates to your position. Even if you convince someone, they usually won’t admit it in the moment. Success may look like them softening their position a bit. It might not occur right away, either — you might find out that you influenced them weeks or months later.
  3. If you really plan to get deep into political discussions, I recommend reading up on news sources from the side opposite your views. Really read them closely and deeply. This will familiarize you with the arguments that convince your opposite-side relative and reduce your shock when you hear them repeat those arguments. It will allow you to react with more peace and less anger, and will allow you to prepare your arguments better. Remember, the arguments that convince you (that you read in your news sources) are not the same ones that convince them. Address the arguments that convince them.
  4. Find out exactly what news sources your relatives read and watch and how they access those sources. Do they click on Facebook links, read just the headlines, use apps, visit sites, or watch TV? Inquire with the intent to really understand their habits.
  5. If you find yourself discussing the credibility or bias of news sources, get as specific as possible. Rather than talk about about a whole source, talk about a particular show or a particular article. The more specific you get, the more likely you are to be able to find agreement about them.
  6. You might not be able to agree on particular political topics, but you should try to come to agreement about one concept: that different news sources present the same stories differently. As you may know, I think one of the best activities for understanding the nature of polarization is to read articles across the spectrum about the same political topic. Invite your opposite-side relative to read and watch the news sources you do for a period of time, and agree to do the same, not for the purposes of changing your position but for the purposes of understanding what arguments are compelling to each other. Challenge your opposite-side relative to read articles across the spectrum for a few weeks. We have a new set you can use every week at https://www.adfontesmedia.com/ad-fontes-media-weekly-rated-articles/.
  7. If your opposite-side relative flat-out refuses to read any sources outside their own low-reliability, highly biased ones and dismisses sources you find credible out-of-hand, that might be a sign that discussing politics with that relative is not an effective use of your time or energy. In such an instance, I’d just encourage compassion toward them. If someone is highly influenced by a news source they consume for several hours every day throughout the year, a few hours talking to you on Thanksgiving will likely not change their entrenched views. Rather than try to convince them of your positions, just plant the idea that there are other, more credible sources they should seek out. You may have success on that small point.
  8. Share authentically about something that affects you personally. When discussing politics, sharing authentically about something you have experienced is usually much more effective than sharing something abstract about a policy or politician.

I hope in any event, whether you talk politics or not, you enjoy your Thanksgiving. I’m extremely thankful for your support of the work we are doing at Ad Fontes Media.