How to fight pro-Trump propaganda by talking to people on Facebook

An example of the approach I propose in this piece: going into pro-Trump Facebook groups and educating them about the fake, foreign-origin news/posts they’re reacting to.

Many people are looking for ways they can help fight the lies, propaganda, and fake news that enable people like Trump to gain power and find support. This piece will be about some ideas for ways that anyone, anywhere, can help combat these lies.

First, a little about me: I’m Zachary Elwood. I’ve written some books on poker tells and psychology, and I’ve also done some independent research into fake/deceptive social media accounts and propaganda. My work on these subjects has been featured in major news outlets, include the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Buzzfeed.

Summary of idea: Talking one-on-one with Trump supporters on Facebook

So here’s a summary of the idea:

  1. Go into Facebook pro-Trump Facebook groups, and look for instances of obviously fake or very biased news posts. Ideally, it should be unambiguously fake or obviously skewed content; the less subjective or arguable it is, the better.
  2. Go in the comments of the post and respond to the commenters, politely explaining some of the things about the fake news phenomenon (more details on that farther down). Give details like: explaining that these sites make their money by getting people angry and getting clicks; sharing an image of something that shows the foreign nature of the site or account that posted it (more on that later); a correction of the story; links to pieces that explain how prevalent deceptive sites and accounts are on Facebook.
  3. Once you have formed a good response for a specific post, copy this in response to other commenters.

This is a simple idea in a nutshell, but I think there’s a lot of skill and strategy that can be used to optimize persuasiveness. Most of the rest of this piece will be about how best to do this.

Why is this helpful?

Why do I think this is helpful? Why do I think this would be a good use of many people’s time? Some reasons:

  • I’ve seen this get results. I’ve done this a lot, and have had many people thank me. I’ve had many conversations I thought were productive. Sure, many people won’t respond and some will even insult you. But this is a numbers game. A single person who you tell about this may share that info with other people when they see it in their feed, and those people might tell others, and so on. I think these types of direct conversations can have more effect than a lot of people think. I also believe it can be the case that even if a person seems dismissive and rude, they will be less extreme or certain about their stance in the future.
  • People will start to question things. Some of the people you talk to will start to question the content they’ve been uncritically consuming. If we can get more people to question this type of online content, they may start to be critical about other sources. Financially and politically motivated fake news and lies are going to continue to be an issue even after Trump is gone (and we may see things get even worse) so this approach serves to address the deeper problem of fostering critical thinking.
  • Direct communication is persuasive. One-on-one communication is much more persuasive than more public or indirect methods (like just commenting on a post, or writing an article or blog post that this specific audience will never see or go out of their way to read). For one, it ensures they will actually get a notification about it, unlike other more general attempts. For another, the direct use of someone’s name is more apt to get attention and start a conversation.
  • Facebook has more normal social interactions than other places. Facebook is a good platform for reaching this audience, for a few reasons. People on Facebook are more primed to be polite and receptive than people on other platforms because people are (mostly) using their real names and thus feel more accountable. Whereas on places like Twitter, many people are anonymous and are in trolling/insulting mode and so take little responsibility for their words/behavior. Also, you can post a pretty long Facebook comment response, whereas going into that amount of detail on other platforms is difficult.

The rest of the article will include some explanation about why these Facebook groups are so horrible, and some strategies for reaching out to Trump supporters on Facebook in effective ways.

A synopsis of Facebook’s fake news problem

An example of the kind of fake/biased content that is rampant in conservative Facebook groups.

It’s important to understand how horrible pro-Trump Facebook groups are. They are full of lies, hate, foreign-origin fake news, and foreign American-impersonating accounts. This isn’t only your typical Fox News-type skewed reporting: a lot of this content is just easily-disprovable, nutty lies (examples: alleging Greta Thunberg is part of a plot by George Soros, or claims of evidence of various Deep State plots).

Other less-egregious content takes elements from real events but just focused on the most pro-Trump aspects or out-of-context events or quotes in order to rile people up. This content is located on fake news sites with untrustworthy URLs like RealAmericansNews.com.

This content is largely financially motivated clickbait; the foreign site creators use ad platforms, and they make money by getting people to click on their sites. And no exaggeration: in many of these pro-Trump groups, the number of obviously fake or foreign accounts posting clickbait-type content is greater than actual Americans posting content. Some of these groups even have administrators/moderators who are foreign-origin American-impersonating accounts, and the purpose of their group is to drive traffic to their sites and make money.

Example of the violent, unstable responses commonly seen in pro-Trump Facebook groups.

It’s hard to fully communicate how horrible and divisive these Facebook groups are; in my opinion, they are essentially radicalization chambers. I regularly see death wishes, death threats, and racist comments. In short, tons of people just uncritically absorbing the most absurd and hateful stuff.

People talk a lot about 4Chan and 8Chan; Facebook groups don’t reach that level of planned, coherent insanity, but they are still very bad, and there are many, many people in many, many groups who are being influenced by them. Many people get their news almost entirely from Facebook, and that should scare you.

Facebook’s role in major atrocities like the Myanmar genocide get attention, but most people aren’t aware of the radicalization that goes on in these groups every day.

Worth noting: Obviously not all Trump supporters are as ignorant, uncritical, or hateful as the people in these groups. That might be obvious but I think it’s worth emphasizing for the sake of any Trump supporter reading this who thinks I may be implying that.

Below I have more tips for getting into pro-Trump groups and talking to people. But if you’d like to learn more about Facebook fake news and fake accounts, here are some pieces:

Tips for getting into pro-Trump groups

There are tons of pro-Trump groups, and I think pretty much all of them will have obvious examples of very fake news and fake accounts. There might be some that are more exclusive to get into and therefore more normal, but I haven’t seen them.

A few tips for finding and getting into these groups:

  • To find these groups, just search Facebook for “Trump” and select the ‘Groups’ category. You should see a lot of groups.
  • Some groups require you to answer a few questions before joining. You just have to say stuff like “I’m a Trump supporter and want to hang out with like minded American patriots” or whatever.
  • Group moderators/admins may peruse your last few public posts before accepting you to the group. One thing you can do to increase your chances is to post a few Trump-related news items for your last few public posts, things that could go either way, and that could be interpreted as you being a Trump supporter. For example, posting a video of Trump without comment.
  • If you get kicked out of these groups for posting your questions, don’t sweat it, just join more. There are tons of these groups, and you will never run out of new ones to join.

Tips on what to say

Here’s an example of the kind of thing I will say to people in response to their comments on a fake news post. Note that this is for the obviously-fake/low-quality fake news sites, and you may take a different approach for more “respected” but still skewed sites (like Daily Caller or Fox News).

Hi [user first name]. The post you responded to is from a foreign fake news site. These sites make money by getting people angry with fake or very skewed news and headlines and then getting people to click on their site. The advertising service they use pays them for the clicks they get. Many of these sites are located in foreign countries, like Macedonia and the Philippines.

The account that posted this is also a fake account; it’s actually a foreign, American-impersonator. In the attached image, you can see they have foreign language posts on their old posts, which is one clue. [Or: “In the attached image, you can see how I found their image is a stock photo.” Or: “In the attached image, you can see how the name in their URL is very different than their public profile name.” Or whatever you think is best thing to mention to prove something to them.]

These Facebook groups are full of fake accounts and fake news. It’s a problem for everyone in our country; it’s not just a conservative problem. We all need to be more skeptical of online sites and posts because there are foreign people trying to make money off our anger and divide this country.

If you’re interested in learning more about these foreign American-impersonators and how they spread fake news, check out this article.

Some explanations of the strategies and language I use:

  • Using people’s first name is influential. It gets their attention more than it otherwise would, even when you are already responding to them and mentioning their Facebook name.
  • It’s polite and non-political. This is important; this audience is often looking for any reason to feel attacked or wronged. Stick to polite wording even if the person you’re talking to is saying horrible, offensive things (easier said than done, of course and I don’t pretend to always abide by this, but if our goal is persuasion, it is something we should strive for). Also, politeness is important for not getting kicked out of the group.
  • Using the word ‘foreign’ is persuasive for this audience. You are essentially using these people’s xenophobia for a good cause. Everyone should be concerned about foreign influence on our politics, but this may especially trigger this audience. You’ll notice I use the word several times.
  • Explain the nature of these fake news news sites so that it is quickly clear why people are posting this. No one likes to feel like they are being taken advantage of, and pointing this out in the first couple sentences should help.
  • Mention the account that posted it if they seem obviously fake/foreign/suspicious. The idea of someone “impersonating Americans” should bother this audience. (For more on how to spot these fake accounts, check out this piece I wrote.)
  • Point out that this kind of fake news is a problem for everyone: not just for conservatives. By stating it’s not just a conservative problem (even though it almost entirely is), you set them at ease and don’t think they’re being attacked.
  • Clearly state your goal: to make them more skeptical of the things they read online. You might say: “But we don’t want them to be skeptical of all news, just the fake/bad stuff.” But for this audience, they already disregard real news or just never read it. So the goal should be to make them skeptical across the board. The problem is not that these people don’t believe respected news sources (we should all be skeptical of all news sources); the problem is that they’re completely unskeptical of garbage sources of news.

You’ll notice that I didn’t address the news content itself in this example. Personally I think not talking about the news is best, because you will get drawn into an ambiguous area where you have to explain stuff like “Okay this part of the fake news did happen, but this part was a complete lie” or “This part of this story did happen but they are distorting things by framing it in the worst possible terms.” In my experience, this is not productive, because many Trump supporters will start to go on unreasonable tangents about “But Washington Post lies, too” or “But that part of this post is true so it’s not really fake news.” So I think it’s more productive to focus on what I see as the more important, broader goal: make them skeptical of the entire media (random news posts on Facebook and, by extension, random news posts on all social media).

If you do decide this is a good idea and you want to help, just be sure to modify my wording and use your own personal style and words, while keeping the philosophy and approach that you agree with.

One other bit of advice: when faced with a long list of comments, choose to first respond to the comments with the most Likes/reactions to them. When you respond to those, the people who reacted to that comment will (I think, at least sometimes) get a notification. So this widens the scope of your reach.

Afterwards

When you do have successes, in the form of people thanking you for your responses, take a screenshot of the interaction so you can share it with others. Feel free to send it to me via my contact page.

If you think this is a good idea, I appreciate sharing this idea with others. I think there would be a big benefit to many people doing this in many pro-Trump Facebook groups.

Strategies for having more in-depth discussions

Sometimes people will respond to your response, and you may decide to keep talking. First, I’ll say you shouldn’t feel any need to keep talking; sometimes things will only go downhill and if you think you’ve made a good point that has a chance of making an impact, you have no obligation to keep talking. Sometimes social media primes us to feel a need to respond to a notification, and so I just want to emphasize there are positives to just letting the conversation end even if they respond.

If you do decide to have a more in-depth conversation, here are some tips for being persuasive:

  • Stay polite. You will sometimes be baited or insulted, but if you’ve started doing this to reach people and persuade people, stay the course and be the mature person. Remember that many of these people will mainly encounter liberal or anti-Trump people in angry online encounters. May of these people go out of their way to avoid online discourse with liberals or Trump-critical people. So having a polite encounter with you may go a long way in reminding them that not everyone is just trying to attack them.
  • Point out the non-partisan nature of your points. For one: being more critical about fake news is something we should all strive for, and there is fake news everywhere.
  • If you get on the subject of Trump, you can also point out that your objection is not (or not only) political: you would object to anyone who acted in such a way regardless of their political beliefs. And point out that they in turn could support someone who believed the same things as Trump but who didn’t act so abnormally and lie so much. I think this can be effective, because many conservatives will actually admit that Trump is abnormally abusive and belligerent and unstable, so hearing that this is your major objection can go a long way.
  • Many Trump supporters view liberals and anti-Trump people as hateful and rude, based largely on online interactions. If you get on the subject of liberal anger, point out that social media brings out the worst in people, and that the rude people they encounter online represent a tiny percentage of the population. Point out that just like they don’t want to be judged based on the worst, most racist Trump supporters, they shouldn’t judge all liberals based on the behaviors or beliefs of a few people.
  • On related topic: when they try to play the victim with the “liberals judge us and try to shame us” stance, ask them if they judge liberals for their viewpoints. Point out that it’s human nature to judge others, and is an everyday occurrence.
  • On related topic, sometimes Trump supporters will point out the bad actions of some random person, as a way to excuse something bad that Trump or a GOP elected official said or did. Basically saying: “Well look, they do it, too” or “They did it first.” This is a common intellectual mistake: excusing the bad actions of a leader with the bad actions of a random citizen. In these cases, point out that a leader has much more responsibility and obligation to behave respectfully and non-divisively than does any random citizen who has no responsibilities.
  • Acknowledge any points they make that you can find some agreement with, in an effort to make them realize that (contrary to a common apparent perception) not all people who criticize Trump have extreme viewpoints. For example, I believe in having firm borders that people can only enter through legal methods, and I find that bringing this up when talking about immigration issues (the thing Trump supporters are most angry about) makes my points more persuasive and easy to digest.
  • When you seek common ground with Trump supporters, I think an important goal is to emphasize that people who dislike Trump have a wide range of beliefs. Some are even conservative. It is not some monolithic, everyone-has-the-same-viewpoints group, which seems to be a common perception that agitates Trump supporters.
  • When seeking common ground with Trump supporters, I think another important point to emphasize is that there are candidates out there who believe the same things as many Trump supporters do, but who don’t divide our country, who don’t lie so frequently, who don’t act in such unprofessional ways. You can point out that for you it’s not even necessarily a political stance; that even if a leader aligned with you 100% on beliefs, if they behaved like Trump, you would not support them and would look for someone else who is more capable of leading and bringing people together.
  • When confronted with the idea that Democrats/liberals are hateful and dividing the country, make the point that Trump divides our country daily. If you need some ammunition to make this point, check out this Twitter thread that features a bunch of Trump/GOP emails/mailings, in which he calls Democrats/liberals all sorts of horrendous, spiteful names, implying that Democrats/liberals are trying to destroy the country. Emphasize that even many Trump supporters expected him to try to bring the country together after he was elected, but he did not, and has remained bombastic and insulting and divisive.

Have psych podcast “People Who Read People.” My research into online deception featured in NYT, WaPo, more. Wrote books on poker tells (translated 8 languages).