Backfire Effect with Riyadh Nazerally
Season: 4 Episode: 6
Riyadh Nazerally is the Director of Communications for the Hon. Marci Ien, Minister for Women and Gender Equality and Youth, and is the former Director of Communications for Capital Pride in Ottawa. This week he and Elizabeth discuss the backfire effect and its three types: familiarity, overkill and worldview. They talk about how to understand and handle the backfire effect when it happens. Riyadh explains how comms and policy teams figure out how much information to send, who to send it to, and when.
Elizabeth uses this article from Lewandowsky and this article from Peter & Koch for academic definition of backfire effect
Early in the episode Riyadh mentions the book Weapons of Math Disruption by Cathy O’Neil — here is a review that summarizes what it’s all about.
Elizabeth also mentions last week’s rebroadcast episode about Echo Chambers and Filter Bubbles with Adi Rao.
The term “information overload” is used in this episode. Here is an interesting article with simple tips on how to deal with information overload.
Riyadh discusses the benefits of use of infographics to make information more accessible. Linking to the theme of the season, however, this post shows how infographics can easily be used to spread misinformation.
Riyadh leaves us with this useful tip for communication strategies: “Would your mother understand this and are you pissing off a stakeholder?”
Episode Transcript: Backfire Effect with Riyadh Nazerally
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Elizabeth: [00:00:04] Welcome to Wonks and War Rooms, where political communication theory meets on-the-ground strategy. I'm your host Elizabeth Dubois. I'm an associate professor at the University of Ottawa, and my pronouns are she/her. Today, I'm recording from the traditional and unceded territory of the Algonquin people. In today's episode, we're talking about the backfire effect. And so I'll hand it over to my guest, Riyadh, to introduce himself.
Riyadh: [00:00:25] Hi, I'm Riyadh Nazerally, and I'm the director of communications for Minister Marci Ien, and I'm the former director of communications for Capital Pride in Ottawa.
Elizabeth: [00:00:34] Wonderful. I am so excited to have you here today. We're going to be talking about the backfire effect. And so before we jump into the conversation, I'm going to give a quick kind of academic description of what it is and we'll see whether or not that makes sense in your experience. Cool?
Riyadh: [00:00:50] Perfect.
Elizabeth: [00:00:50] All right. So the backfire effect is a specific kind of cognitive bias. And so you may have heard of the idea of confirmation bias before, where we tend to pay attention to information that confirms our existing beliefs and ignore stuff that disproves it, you know? And so the backfire effect is like a subset of that. And it's basically the idea of when somebody doesn't take on board new information that might have otherwise changed their opinion and instead, like digs their heels into their preexisting belief. It's that sense of like, "Oh no, you have just confronted with something that totally changes how I feel about the world and I am not ready to deal with it. And so I am just doubling down on what I thought before." And so the place where this kind of comes up most frequently and as problematic in the kind of misinformation, disinformation world is when we think about fact checking, because a lot of people talk about how useful it is to have good quality fact check. You need good information to combat disinformation.
[00:01:49] But the problem is sometimes when you fact check and provide that to people who were believing the disinfo, they just really become even more entrenched in the disinformation ideas. And this happens most frequently when whatever that belief is that's being challenged is one that's held deeply or it's related to our self concepts. We aren't great at dealing with those kinds of conflictual information because they feel threatening and they create these negative emotions. Now as we chat, I'm going to talk about three different main types of backfire effects. But before we get into that, I just wanted to check in like, is that making sense to you or are there questions you've got or are there other versions of the backfire effect you've maybe heard of?
Riyadh: [00:02:33] Yeah. I think that I'm definitely very excited to talk about this topic because I think interpersonally it plays a huge role in people's day to day lives, especially coming from Christmas dinners where we can have all the best facts and information. But if we're presenting it to the wrong uncle, it might not go over so well. And I also see a huge tie in into the work that I do as a director of comms at a political level. There's so much information that we have to present on behalf of the government to Canadians of all stripes and certain pockets of information, or some places in Canada are harder to reach than others for a variety of factors, whether it's socioeconomic, educational or the type of information that we're trying to get across. So I definitely see this theory applying, and the thing that I'm excited to unpack is ways that we can actually work around it or work with it if we know that's just a part of human psychology.
Elizabeth: [00:03:21] Yeah, I think that's a really good point. If we identify that this exists, like what do we do then? So let's start off by maybe unpacking those three different types I mentioned to get some examples out there and then we'll jump into and how do we deal?
[00:03:38] So the first one is the familiarity backfire effect. And so this happens when there's certain kinds of misinformation that are repeated so often that people become familiar with them and then they believe it, right? The more you hear it, the more likely you are to think that it's probably true because you're like, "Well, I heard it a bunch. Why would everyone be saying it if it wasn't true?" Is that one that resonates with you? Any examples you can think of?
Riyadh: [00:04:04] For sure that one is huge. And coming from reading Weapons of Math Destruction, which is the hugely popular book that I know a lot of people have read. It speaks about the power that algorithms have in our day to day lives and the types of information that we're being constantly pushed. And I think, you know, as communicators, whether at the academic level or in the workforce, you see this all the time, right? You're trying to reach people that already have tons of specific kinds of information reaching them. So I think that familiarity that comes from the different platforms we use is already a huge hurdle that we need to get past. So I definitely see this as a big one.
Elizabeth: [00:04:39] Yeah. And I think what you bring up there, to me it connects with an idea called the filter bubble, which we talked about on a previous episode where personalization algorithms on social media and search are designed to help serve us information that we are likely to engage with, that's likely to be helpful in our lives. But the problem is they get to know that you really love cats and then they only show you cats, right? And that's fine if you're using that tool for cats specifically. But it's not so great if you're using that tool for news or information about your political system or information about the top practices for dealing with a pandemic.
Riyadh: [00:05:18] Yeah. And I see that all the time, even in dynamics with friends and family too. Right. Is that we all have our little spheres. But I think where it kind of works best and we're able to deconstruct that is when we find those two spheres overlapping. Right. And I call this like my little Venn diagram of personal experiences when we can find those two overlaps that happen and we can get as much information as we can in that overlap, that's where true communication happens. So at least that's the way that I kind of apply that in my personal life and then take it into work, of course, which which definitely helps with when we're trying to break down these big, complex ideas.
Elizabeth: [00:05:54] Yeah, totally. I really like that idea of kind of like finding that overlap. And I'm interested to hear more about how that sort of plays out in your professional life as well. But before we get to that, let's hop on to the second type of backfire effect. So we've got overkill.
[00:06:12] And so overkill is when people choose to believe the simpler explanation rather than the complex explanation. Right? So if there is a simple version, think about flu shots. Everybody is like, "Oh, no, like I feel sick after my flu shot, therefore it's giving me the flu. I don't want to do it." Versus no, well, when you think about how bodies react to different vaccinations, it's not you know, it's a much more complex explanation to unpack. And that's difficult. And therefore, people are more likely to stick to the one that's simple and intuitive and fits with what their experiences are. I imagine this idea of the overkill backfire effect might come up an awful lot in communicating about policy. Yeah?
Riyadh: [00:07:01] Times, tons, tons of times. And you can ask anybody that works in a minister's office right down to the department or even at the municipal level, that this is the constant tug of war between policy and comms people. Right. This is where the butting of heads happens, where the policy person wants to present all the facts and information that they can, whereas the comms person is picking out what of those policy pieces of information is relevant for that segment of the population. So I think both shops play a huge role with crafting, messaging and how we get it out there. But this idea of overkill is especially prevalent when we're talking about things like scientific information, right? Not everybody needs to know every single little detail of the experiment that came out with the vaccine. Right. Because at that point, you are going into that backfire kind of realm because you're presenting an overkill of information rather than what actually will serve that specific population. So I definitely see this one as well.
Elizabeth: [00:07:56] So when you're thinking about how to distill down those complex ideas and get only the information out to the segment of the population that needs it at that moment, are you thinking about preventing a backfire effect? Are there other things that come into play when you're developing that strategy? Like how are you thinking about choosing the simple explanation to offer?
Riyadh: [00:08:19] Yeah, I have a couple of filters that I kind of apply when we're especially looking at communications planning for complex topics or campaigns. It's the first look at the immediacy of what we're talking about, right? If we're talking about people's lives at danger, then it comes into a totally different category of not necessarily saying, Oh, whatever we're going to put out there. Does it have a chance of kind of backfiring on us? But if we're thinking something in terms of more of like a campaign, like an anti racism campaign, right? It's not something that you're going to say walk up to somebody and say, "don't be racist." That's not the way it's going to work. Right. It's injecting information about how you can better address situations. It's a GBA plus training. It's a bunch of different little things. So I think in that sense, thinking about things in more of a campaign style and kind of a slow drip is sometimes better and leads you away from getting crossing that backfire threshold.
Elizabeth: [00:09:10] Yeah. That makes a lot of sense. And, it fits in with ideas about, like, information overload to where people, when they are just overwhelmed with too much information, they kind of shut down and need tools and resources to sift through the information. And so, you know, part of the role of a comms director is to be one of those filters, sifting through the information so that it can more easily be digested by folks.
Riyadh: [00:09:37] For sure. And it's funny, when I was starting as a baby bureaucrat, when I first moved to Ottawa from my little small town in Rockland - a shout out to anyone from Rockland on the program. But the first thing I started, you know, the first press release that I sent to my mentor there, she sent me back one comment - you know the infamous track changes when you get it back, it's the biggest deal when you're a young person starting off in comms -
Elizabeth: [00:09:59] Hmm.
Riyadh: [00:09:59] And I clicked on the comment and it said, "Would your mother understand this?" And that sentence really changed my perspective on how I draft products and how I approach things, because we're not talking to people that are knowledgeable about the topic, right? We're talking to people that are just having a glance at it or having a second with it. So the importance of using plain language, I think is a huge one. And I think that the further we get into talking about things that are financial or scientific or technological, we kind of lose sight of that.
Elizabeth: [00:10:27] Mm hmm.
Riyadh: [00:10:28] So even in my field, Minister Ien has a whole bunch of social justice issues that are tied to her current portfolio and my former life as the Director of Capital Pride, we're explaining gender pronouns to people for the first time, right? We're explaining a lot of things that are not part of people's day-to day lived realities. So when we have to think about plain language, it's not only to just get our point across, but it's also to bring them on this journey of learning and understanding that we're trying to promote.
Elizabeth: [00:10:56] Yeah. And, and you want to be able to do that in these manageable steps in order to not send people to the point of like, "Oh, I'm never going to get it, I'm never going to understand or this is too much," right? You don't want to overwhelm people or make people feel dumb or or any of these kind of negative emotions. Because what we know about backfire effect is really it's tied to that kind of negative feeling that you get when you're told you're wrong or you're dumb, right? And so -
Riyadh: [00:11:26] Mm hmm.
Elizabeth: [00:11:27] You always want to avoid potentially being interpreted as insinuating that. And it's hard to do.
Riyadh: [00:11:34] It is. And I think especially speaking to this second pillar of overkill is that in the age of everything being at our fingertips, it's hard for people to admit that they just haven't seeked out that specific set of information that you're talking about. Right. I saw this a lot when I was in academia, too. It's like, "why don't you know this?" We have to give people the space to say just because the information is accessible doesn't mean you're dumb for not accessing it. It just that we have a finite amount of time, right? Even on this planet. And sometimes presenting a whole bunch of information can make that person feel like "Oh, I should have known this."
Elizabeth: [00:12:08] Mm hmm.
Riyadh: [00:12:08] I think that also contributes to this kind of overkill aspect of the backfire effect.
Elizabeth: [00:12:13] Yeah. That's a really, really good point. And it's something that if we zoom out briefly to the wider conversation around how do we deal with mis- and disinformation, how do we develop good digital and media literacy? One of the risks of spending a lot of energy on developing good media and digital literacy is it puts a lot of onus on the individual to figure all of this out all the time and to be informed on all of the different things they could possibly need to be informed on at any given moment. And like, that's just not possible. People have jobs and families and social lives, and there are people who are paid to be scientists to understand the specific science of particular issues. And then there are people who are paid to be lawyers and there are people who are paid to be financial experts. And if you're not one of those people, maybe it doesn't make sense for you to know the nitty gritty.
Riyadh: [00:13:06] I totally agree.
Elizabeth: [00:13:07] All right. Third and last of the types of backfire effect we'll talk about is worldview. And so this is when new information contradicts someone's existing worldview. And instead of changing what they kind of have at their core as their view of how the world works, it just strengthens their existing beliefs. Right. And so this is the one that I think might come closest to partisan politics, but I'd be curious to hear your thoughts on this idea of the worldview backfire effect.
Riyadh: [00:13:42] Yeah. This one definitely plays a huge part in partisan politics for sure. And, you know, my understanding of partisan politics is a little rosy than most people's because I'm a former bureaucrat. So my entire career before this point was neutrality, right?
Elizabeth: [00:13:58] Mmhmm.
Riyadh: [00:13:58] And making the leap over is that you're kind of playing for a team now, right? But the way that I think about it, too, is that I have friends from orange stripes and blue stripes and light blue stripes and all different types of folks that work in parties. So that's kind of my personal way of keeping my worldview open to other folks that when I'm presented with information that is not necessarily a part of the party strategy or whatever it may be, that I'm still considering it. I'm still considering that it's a lived reality for someone out there and it might not just be mine. So I think that especially given the minority parliament situation too right, it kind of changes the context of taking into account other people's realities or other realities and things like that. So even just from being on the Hill, I've only been on the Hill in a minority situation, which is my own kind of experience through that. But I think this one is a really important one when we think about the polarity that's happening in politics and how our online platforms are kind of pointing us further apart.
Elizabeth: [00:14:55] And I think the thing that really brings us together is just kind of those interpersonal connections that we have, right? Because that's hard to deny, right? And it's the easiest way of getting across how you grew up, where you grew up, how much money you had in your pocket, what type of education you had. Right? That's not something that's easily distilled online. So I really think that interpersonal connection goes a huge way in terms of the worldview aspect of the backfire effect.
Elizabeth: [00:15:18] Yeah. I think you bring up two really important points in your response there. One, is this taking some time as an individual to say, okay, well, can I put myself kind of in the headspace of these other people to understand the different possible worldviews and doing that kind of as an individual in the world, but also as a communications professional. Right. And then also maintaining these interpersonal connections with people and understanding what your friends and other associates think and why and where they came from and what those ideas came from.
Riyadh: [00:15:51] And I think that's even more important now, like our social spheres have shrunk to a point where we might not understand in a couple of years where people are at, which is kind of scary to think about. Right. But I think it does take a concerted effort on all of our parts, like communicators or not, to be reaching out to people to say, "What are you doing this weekend? How is your family status?" Like asking these probing questions because then we get answers that colour in our worldview, right?
Elizabeth: [00:16:15] Yeah, for sure. So one of the things about the backfire effect is and we've sort of alluded to this by talking about social media and search and the amount of our lives that are online. One of the things is that in the past five or so years, the research has really shifted on how prevalent we think backfire effects are, particularly in political communication scenarios. So it used to be that there was a pretty substantial fear that backfire effects were happening a lot like most people were sort of relying on this cognitive bias and like doubling down, digging their heels in.
[00:16:54] And newer research in the last few years has actually suggested that we were more worried about that than seems to be the actual case, despite the fact that there is more online personalization and algorithmic filter bubbles created, despite the fact that there is political polarization in many places, there's actually decent evidence to suggest that people are pretty good at when confronted with new facts, actually fact checking and taking those facts on board. And so I find that really interesting because I think that with the spread of disinfo, we've talked a lot about, "Oh, my gosh, backfire effects, what are we going to do? How do we deal with this?" And actually, the data is showing like, you know, like facts are actually helpful sometimes. Do you have thoughts on that or does that come up in your work? Have you seen that kind of thing?
Riyadh: [00:17:45] Yeah. I think it's really interesting to hear that because I think being prudent about the existence of a backfire effect is one thing, but then actually doing something about it is a completely different thing. And what I've seen from my experience is it really matters on what topic we're talking about. And I'd be interested to see if that research points to specific topics, because I think the topic that we're kind of dissecting right now is scientific information that's being presented because the pandemic is so omnipresent in everything that we do and everything that we see right now. But if we're talking about finances, right, if we're talking about inflation, does that still hold up? Because that's something that somebody can see in their pocketbook on a day to day basis and has active discussions with either their partners or children or whoever may be. So I really think from what I've seen, especially bringing in the kind of social justice work that I've done before, is that now we're even further removing from folks understanding what we're talking about. Some people have zero comprehension of a lot of social justice issues because they live their day to day life. Fine, right? Like if you're a cisgendered white male, you probably don't think about trans issues on a day to day basis.
[00:19:02] So the information that they're being presented with is actually brand new. So the learning curve is a lot different than if we're talking about a vaccine that most people have already in their body. Right. So I think with my experience speaking about things, especially in the minister's portfolio, we speak about women's issues all the time. As soon as we're speaking to a male audience about women's issues, it changes our messaging right away. So I can see that being completely different than that. The second thing I'll say is if the research is pointing in that direction, this is a really good thing for everyone and I really do celebrate that. But I don't think it's enough for us to let our guard down, especially when it's a theory like this one that folks are probably listening on a program saying, Hey, I know exactly what that is, but I never had a theory to explain it.
Elizabeth: [00:19:47] Mm hmm.
Riyadh: [00:19:47] And I think this is one of those theories that overlap psychology, comms, even some kind of marketing in a certain sense, right?
Elizabeth: [00:19:57] Totally.
Riyadh: [00:19:58] So I think it's an interdisciplinary kind of aspect to it as well. Makes it enough of something to look at in the future, especially since we know these algorithms aren't changing their if anything, they're getting smarter -
Elizabeth: [00:20:11] Yeah.
Riyadh: [00:20:11] - And pushing us in for more information that we're more inclined to already see on our own. So those are my two kind of broad thoughts on that topic.
Elizabeth: [00:20:19] Thank you. Yeah. And they both they both really resonate with me. They make a lot of sense. The idea of "it's contextual, it depends on the specific issue, it depends on, like how new the ideas are to the group" and the fact that as a com strategist, what you end up doing is thinking about, "okay, who is the population I am talking to? What segment am I talking to?" You know, that requires, I guess, a bunch of assumptions about what generally a male audience will have encountered before or not. How good are you at predicting when a backfire effect might happen? Right? Like, if you're trying to avoid triggering it, you have to be able to kind of guess when it might happen. Do you feel like you're equipped to do that and how do you do that?
Riyadh: [00:21:02] Yeah. And I'll just get a pet peeve out right now. You know, any comms planner that's listening to this program right now, do not send up a comms plan that says "We're speaking to Canadians" because that is the opposite of segmenting and tells us nothing about where this potential backfire line might be. Right.
Elizabeth: [00:21:19] Hmm.
Riyadh: [00:21:20] So I think that there is some detective work when it comes down to it. And, you know, not to get too nitty gritty about how offices are set up. Right. But you have an operations team, you have a policy team and you have a comms team. And those two, three branches are not talking to each other about identifying where that backfire line is. It won't be an effective strategy. So this is from what I've seen, you know, working in my former office and my current office, is that the best way that we can identify where backfire happens is when we have stakeholder information about the information they've been previously presented with. Socioeconomic information about - "Is there rampant poverty in this neighbourhood? Is this an underserved neighbourhood when it comes to social programs," those kinds of things? And then finally, the types of language that will be decided by comms people to reach out to them. So I think the best way of identifying that is working with people that are actually beyond comms and beyond politics to understand what's going on on the ground. And then my second thought on this one, too, is that there's a lot of talk about finding that perfect line and where not to cross.
Elizabeth: [00:22:24] Yeah.
Riyadh: [00:22:24] But I think that I keep in mind that no matter what message we want to get out and the speed that we want to get it out, if we cross that line, it's very hard to come back from.
Elizabeth: [00:22:34] Mm hmm.
Riyadh: [00:22:34] Like you will lose a lot of your progress if you even get close to that line or if you step if you put a toe pass that line, you will lose a lot of what you've been working for.
Elizabeth: [00:22:42] Right.
Riyadh: [00:22:43] So I think the prudence that frustrates a lot of people with government communications is that carefulness of it. But at the end of the day, I think it ends up saving us a lot of time and we're not reversing a lot of progress that we've already made.
Elizabeth: [00:22:55] Yeah. Yeah. The way you've described like the three different shops and having to all be in communication to get this out there makes a lot of sense. And it was really helpful. It made me think, are there other words or phrases you use to describe what in our conversation we're talking about as the backfire effect line? Are there other things that in your various roles over the years come up to basically describe the same sort of balance you're trying to strike?
Riyadh: [00:23:25] Yeah. I would say a lot of my work as the director of columns for Capital Pride, this came up a lot because if you think about the women's movement, if you think about the LGBTQ movement, each letter in that acronym is a separate cause on its own, right?
Elizabeth: [00:23:39] Mm hmm.
Riyadh: [00:23:40] So when we think about these movements, especially the women's movement to write, we're now expanding to talk about racialized women, women in poverty, women fleeing violence. These are all separate, different causes under this kind of federated umbrella that kind of is presented to legislators to make real change happen. So each of those pillars within that movement has a different backfire moment, a different backfire trigger.
Elizabeth: [00:24:03] Hmm.
Riyadh: [00:24:04] So a lot of what social justice is, from what I'm seeing right now in the field, is a lot of people acknowledging that there are different thresholds for each of those smaller pieces of it. And I think that's where a mature strategy comes in, especially municipally and on the ground when it comes to social justice, is when you understand those specific people's lived realities rather than the big umbrella. So that's how I would say it relates to the director of work that I would do for Capital Pride.
[00:24:32] And, you know, zooming out to a larger kind of federal context, it's completely different because you're not as connected to the folks that you're talking to. And a lot of what we do after we come out of school is that we're so excited to get into the workforce because then you realize that you have six press releases to write in three days and there's not a lot of time in checking in to say, did we cross that threshold with this specific group? That's kind of the big difference from working on the ground in comms and then kind of going up to a federal level and working on that. So yeah, very different realities for those two. But you know what? The thing that comes up the most I would say is "Are we pissing a stakeholder off?"
Elizabeth: [00:25:08] Hmm.
Riyadh: [00:25:09] And it is the most basic crude thing to say when you're working on something, but it is an acknowledgment of that specific group's backfire or what will cause that specific group to backfire. So yeah, the two that I would have to say is "Does your mother understand this?" for the plain language, and "Are we pissing off the stakeholder" when you're writing something.
Elizabeth: [00:25:30] I love that. That's so simple and so clear and not easy to actually execute all the time.
Riyadh: [00:25:36] Nope.
Elizabeth: [00:25:38] All right. So we've talked a little bit throughout the episode so far about some of the kinds of strategies you can use as you're starting to deal with backfire effects. And I'd like to kind of sum it up when you're kind of faced with a backfire effect type situation. What do you do? Do you have a process you go through or are there things on a checklist? Does it depend situation to situation? What's your setup?
Riyadh: [00:26:05] Yeah. I think the first thing is it's hard to identify when backfire has happened because so much of top down comms, especially when it's coming from a government level, is when we've done the comms check. Move on to the next thing. We need to keep going. I think in situations where we have, you know, recurring meetings with somebody or a recurring topic or a specific pot of money that we want to get somewhere we really want to show the impact that that money is making or that that organization is making.
Elizabeth: [00:26:35] Hmm.
Riyadh: [00:26:35] So yeah, I think it's really tough, but I think once we identify that backfire has happened, I think that's when you start looking at is the information that we went out with simple is it something that they understood in the first place or is the reason for the backfire because they didn't understand the message at all?
Elizabeth: [00:26:52] Yeah.
Riyadh: [00:26:53] The second thing I would say is, is it relatable and accessible? A lot of news release-only projects that we've done have turned into infographics, which are very night and day when it comes to the presentation of information. But you'll see that the infographic campaign completely worked and the news release did not work at all in the exact same neighborhood, in the exact same town, at the exact same location. So I would say the second thing is that relatability and accessibility of the information that you're presented.
[00:27:23] And the last one, I would say once we've identified that backfire has happened and that we're in a worse place than when we started because someone has dug their heels in or a particular group has dug their heels in on this particular topic is being critical of ourselves and the process that we've gone through. Did we also backfire in a certain sense where we made assumptions about their group based on what we knew previously, instead of seeking out new information to refine our strategy to reach them better. So I think that last piece is really just holding up a mirror and saying maybe what we put together didn't work necessarily. And again, this is a huge thing when you enter the workforce as a comms person as soon as you're the comms person that says "Slow down, let's do an assessment." "Oh no, we have a bunch of other things to work on. We need to keep going." But I think that being critical of yourself and being open to amending a lot of the strategies that you've already had would be really, really helpful and going forward.
Elizabeth: [00:28:18] Absolutely. Absolutely. And a lot of the kind of general guidelines that you can find online. When you look at OC, how do I avoid the backfire effect if it's happening to me is, you know, when you come across information that you want to be like, no, absolutely not. Like try and not immediately ignore it. Try and take a minute, let it sit with you that it is contradicting something that you had assumed was fact or you believed. And then try and look at it with fresh eyes and assess the statement based on its own merit, really. And that's sort of what you're saying when you're saying hold a mirror up, like,"Did we make some assumptions here? Did we get running when really we needed to walk for a little bit first?" And, that idea of trying to use rationality and logic rather than just intuition, which is difficult to do when you've got a bunch of press releases and a whole bunch of other kinds of material that all need to get developed yesterday. Right. But that's the basic advice out there. There's one more thing I wanted to touch on just before we end for the day, and that is this idea of getting practice making arguments that support your ideas and not getting practice making arguments that don't support your ideas.
[00:29:35] Right. And this sort of plays into the backfire effect and to media and digital literacy more broadly, because what we're saying most of the time when we're saying here's some ways to deal with it, is do more work. Thinking through why this information makes you uncomfortable, do more work, thinking through why this information has shown up on your screen. Where did it come from? Look for more evidence that supports it or just confirms it. But the problem is that strategy very often leads you to find more and more things that support your ideas. And you get practice working through your arguments because you're really wanting to make sure that you're certain of them. And we then have a tendency to think, "Well, the reason we've got all of this information is because it must be true." When really the reason you have all of this information is because you happen to look at one small slice. That all was the same, even though the whole rest of the information environment has different ideas. And I was wondering if the kind of particular slices of information that folks might get, if that impacts, then how you communicate to them.
Riyadh: [00:30:41] Absolutely. And I think that it's one thing about the information that you receive that you need to get out there. But it's another thing to consider what that other person wants to hear. I think once you identify what that person is looking for, then you could find ways of peppering in information or building bridges between what you want to say and what they want to hear. And then that is really when the message gets across. And that's the thing that I found even throughout my, you know, being in university and doing these little public speaking gigs or debate club or model parliament and all these things are so important, right? Because it really pushes you to be in groups of people that don't necessarily share your worldview or your understanding about how things work. And when we talk about slices of information, that's why I find it so interesting for debate clubs across the country to when you're when you're given a topic that you're like, you look at, you know, you don't support,yet you have to get the gears turning to figure out how you're going to defend this particular thing.
[00:31:36] And I think that's where they should have adult debate clubs everywhere, you know, because people get so obsessed with this idea that I'm known as believing this. Therefore, every time I am asked about this, I need to defend it in this certain way. And I think that is just so detrimental to what we're trying to build as a political discourse in this country and also academically as well. Right. Like we come out of university as these critical thinkers and as long as we exist in these structures outside of academia, the more that kind of deteriorates within us. So I think that any opportunity that we have to look at the slice of information that we're being presented with and asking ourselves like do we still truly believe this or should we be speaking about it in a certain way based on the new information I have would make for a much better discourse among folks, especially at the political level.
Elizabeth: [00:32:25] Yeah. The more we can think beyond whatever our particular in-group is saying and thinking and feeling, the better. We are equipped to exist in a society that necessarily has a variety of different groups in it.
Riyadh: [00:32:40] Yeah. It's so interesting to be talking about this utopian idea of what it would be while we're living through, like, a dystopian reality of what's outside. But but at the same time, right -
Elizabeth: [00:32:50] Yeah.
Riyadh: [00:32:50] - I think that a lot of the studies that have come out before that are talking about the polarity of things that are happening online. It is very concerning, especially when we think about how that translates into our politics. Right, how that translates into our interpersonal interactions with folks. And a lot of the comparisons I know come from the US, right? Blue states, red states.
Elizabeth: [00:33:11] Mm hmm.
Riyadh: [00:33:11] But I think that we need to consider regional differences in Canada as well as a part of that too. Right.
Elizabeth: [00:33:16] Yeah.
Riyadh: [00:33:17] I can tell you, like a lot of the messaging that goes out at the federal level and at other levels, that the difference between English and French is even just striking to even say we need to speak about this completely differently in those two contexts. And the backfire lines on both of those cultural realities are completely different. So I think even in the Canadian context, we need to take it seriously. I'm glad that the research is showing otherwise. I hope that we keep going in this direction. But definitely I would double down on my Venn diagram theory of the world and just trying to keep finding that middle ground to relate to other folks.
Elizabeth: [00:33:52] Yeah, I agree. And even if there isn't as much of a backfire effect prominence on average, that doesn't mean it never happens. And in fact, it does definitely happen sometimes, but it's just in particular circumstances. And so being equipped with the knowledge that it might happen helps us deal with it. Right. And respond. All right. We are out of time. So I've got my final question for you. It's the little pop quiz.
Riyadh: [00:34:20] Okay. Here we go.
Elizabeth: [00:34:23] So can you in just like a sentence or two, define for me what the backfire effect is?
Riyadh: [00:34:30] The backfire effect is when someone is presented with information and they dig their heels in to push back on that information, regardless of the empirical or otherwise facts that they're presented with.
Elizabeth: [00:34:43] Brilliant. That is perfect. Yeah. It's this form of a cognitive bias, a form of confirmation bias, more specifically. And you're exactly right. It's that kind of dig your heels into the existing belief rather than taking on the new info. Thank you so much. This is wonderful.
Riyadh: [00:34:59] Thank you. Thank you for this opportunity. This is great.
Elizabeth: [00:35:06] Thanks so much for listening to this episode of Wonks and War Rooms. We talked about the backfire effect and if you'd like to learn more about this or any other of the concepts or theories we learned about in today's episode, you can check the show notes or head over to Polcommtech.ca. This special season on mis- and disinformation is brought to you, in part by a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and the Digital Citizen Initiative.