The best way to debunk Trump’s lies, according to science

Progressives need to debunk Trump directly and repeatedly with good framing.

A rally to protest Donald Trump's Inauguration on January 20, 2017 in Washington, DC. CREDIT: Noam Galai/WireImage via Getty Images
A rally to protest Donald Trump's Inauguration on January 20, 2017 in Washington, DC. CREDIT: Noam Galai/WireImage via Getty Images

What is the best way to respond to Donald Trump’s steady stream of conversation-dominating lies and misrepresentations?

George Lakoff — an expert on message “framing” and author of the 2004 bestseller Don’t Think of An Elephant –– has some advice for progressives when Trump attacks the press (or any other vital institution): Don’t repeat the lies.

He desperately needs your help to succeed.
You can help him by repeating his words and lies. You can help him by focusing outraged attention on his antics.
Or we can work together to redirect the energy, counteract rather than react, and reframe the conversation.

He says, “rather than argue against him directly or waste time refuting his attacks, let’s ignore his antics and make a positive, proactive argument.”

I think Lakoff is half-right and half-wrong here. Yes, progressives’ ultimate goal is to reframe the conversation with a positive and proactive message, but that can’t be achieved without taking on Trump’s lies and antics directly and repeatedly.

How best to debunk pervasive lies and myths has been a key component of any effort to educate the public about climate change over the last several decades since the fossil fuel-funded climate disinformation campaign has been so effective. It is crucial for progressives, environmentalists, and scientists to have good strategies to debunk myths and lies, especially Trump’s, since he lies so constantly about climate change and the science behind it.

Lakoff explains that “repetition strengthens the synapses in the neural circuits that people use to think.” This is undeniably true. Research has demonstrated this “illusory truth effect” — the more something is repeated, the more people believe it is true.

“Negating a frame by saying it’s ‘not’ true activates and strengthens the frame. That’s just how our brains work,” Lakoff writes. “Unfortunately, many intelligent people  — including Democrats and journalists  —  ignore the findings of the cognitive and brain sciences.”

Here, I think, is where Lakoff misses the mark for several reasons. First, no matter what Democrats do, mainstream media has largely decided to keep repeating Trump’s tweets and other lies when they mock or debunk him. As just one example, think of all the times outlets have repeated the phrase “crooked Hillary” from his tweets.

That means we are stuck with Trump’s lies circulating constantly through the daily news cycle, so we have no choice but to debunk them. As ThinkProgress Editor-in-Chief Judd Legum said to me, “it’s impossible to ignore him.” The reality is “what he says will drive the conversation, so in order to steer things back to a positive progressive discussion you have to start where people are at. And right now we are at Trump.”

Second, it’s true that early research did suggest that repeating a myth in order to debunk it would backfire and actually reinforce the myth. But newer studies, some of which were recently detailed in Slate, don’t replicate this effect. Negating a frame or myth does not invariably strengthen it.

In fact, according to some of the experts I’ve been talking to, repeatedly debunking a myth appears to work  — especially if done the optimum way. For instance, the study “The Affective Tipping Point: Do Motivated Reasoners Ever ‘Get It’?” found that even when initial debunkings do backfire, repeatedly presenting voters with debunking information does break through. (For more of the latest science on effective debunking techniques, see the December study, “Beyond Misinformation: Understanding and Coping with the ‘Post-Truth’ Era.”)

Third, the fact is that Trump’s repeated lies have actually caught up with him because he has been so repeatedly debunked, to the point where his credibility is deeply tarnished with a majority of the public. Polls routinely show that more than half of voters believe he is dishonest and untrustworthy, while only a third believe the reverse.

Trump has entered a new frame — “the boy who cried wolf” or “the Pinocchio President.” Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) even compared Trump to Joseph Stalin for his use of the Soviet leader’s phrase “enemy of the people” to attack the press.

“Trump has the lowest approval of any modern president at the end of his first year,” as Vox reported last month, beating his nearest competitor (Reagan) by 14 points. They note that these numbers undermine his power to persuade. His Gallup weekly poll numbers have not gotten out of the 30s since May. Last week, a Quinnipiac poll found that a remarkable 57 percent of respondents say he is not fit to serve as president.”

So it’s hard to argue that Trump’s messaging strategy is working right now with the majority of voters. Indeed, I’d argue that what worked during the campaign — saying whatever it takes to dominate the news cycle — worked in part because it fit his overall strategy of being an outsider who would blow everything up and “drain the swamp.” But now this same strategy renders any possible strategic message he might have incoherent, while also making him appear unfit for office.

Similarly, Trump’s constant use of hyperbole to sell himself and his plans — “I’ll build a wall and Mexico will pay for it” — allowed him to emotionally engage a vast swath of angry voters in the country, since it is the figure of speech angry people use, as Aristotle explained. But voters expect all candidates to make exaggerated claims about what they will do.

As president, however, Trump’s constant use of hyperbole, such as his infamous tweet about North Korea (“I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one”) has simply made him an embarrassment, if not a laughingstock, at home and abroad.

Progressive communicators and politicians certainly need to be better at repeating messages and at positive, proactive framing, as Lakoff says. But we should not ignore what Trump says nor fail to debunk him directly and repeatedly.