Kate Wilkinson The fact-checker’s guide to family gatherings

Holidays mean rest, good food… and heated debates with family members. How do you set the facts straight and still keep your cool? Here are three tips.

Fact-checking is a bit like eating Pringles: once you pop you can’t stop. You’re fact-checking when you listen to the radio on your way home from work. You question statistics on billboards. Numbers in news articles automatically catch your eye.

You may take a holiday this December, but your fact-checking skills won’t.

You’ll struggle to sit around a family dinner table where “facts” are being shared fast and loose. You’ll itch to jump in and correct a loved one with, “Well, actually…”

If you find yourself dreading the impending family debates, here are some tips on both busting false information and keeping the peace this holiday season.

1. Fact-check yourself first

Make sure you have your facts straight before swooping in to correct other people. Everyone has their own blind spots. We all recycle facts and figures we think are solid.

If you feel strongly about a topic then do your homework. Has new data been released? What are the limitations you need to take into consideration?

Africa Check has an archive bursting with guides and factsheets. Arm yourself with accurate numbers for potentially heated discussions about China’s influence in Kenya, Nigeria’s power cuts or demand for land in South Africa.

And, of course, be ready and willing to concede when your facts are found wanting.

2. Play the fact not the family member

You don’t need to demolish someone to show they have their facts wrong. Your goal should be to set the record straight and still be able to speak to them next year.

Say you’re at a dinner party and an aunt announces between mouthfuls of trifle that 400,000 white people in South Africa live in poverty. You could respond with “FAKE NEWS!”, “Ridiculous!” or “Are you flipping kidding me?”

It may feel good in the moment but aunt Brenda is unlikely to change her mind.

Instead, respond with: “That’s an interesting number. Where’s it from?”

If they can’t say where they got the information, it’s a red flag to you and everyone else that it may not be 100% reliable. If they know the source then you can start debating the quality of the information and whether it can be trusted. (But if they say the number comes from the Mail Online you have my permission to roll your eyes.)

You can then whip out the latest official poverty estimates over coffee to show that the claim is way off.

3. Do you want to be happy or right?

You might find, though, that the discussion goes around in circles. In this scenario, rather cut your losses.

A South African journalist told me recently she often has to decide whether to be “happy or right” when it comes to disagreements with her in-laws. Some people won’t abandon their beliefs, despite mountains of evidence and hours of explanation.

You can choose to disengage from these conversations, or avoid them completely.

Perhaps ask not to be seated next to your cousin with the crazy conspiracy theories. Offering to clear dirty plates can be a great way to exit a futile debate about the number of immigrants in the country.

It’s not giving up. It’s just biding your time until everyone goes home. You’re then safe to send the relevant fact-check report to the family WhatsApp group… muting the notifications.

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