Editor’s Note: Ruth Ben-Ghiat (@ruthbenghiat), a frequent contributor to CNN Opinion, is professor of history and Italian studies at New York University and the author of “Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present.” She publishes the newsletter Lucid on threats to democracy. The views expressed here are her own. Read more opinion on CNN.
As we gather this Thanksgiving, many families will have an empty chair at the table. Covid-19 took so many of our loved ones, and we will be grieving these losses. Others may be absent because they are quarantining, taking extra precautions or choosing not to travel.
For many families, there may be another reason for those empty places at the table: disagreements too strong to permit physical togetherness. Some people have entered so far into a world fueled by disinformation that they can no longer converse with those who don’t share their views on issues like public health or politics. A February 2021 CBS/YouGov poll revealed that 57% of Republicans consider Democrats not just political opponents but enemies. The poll showed that 41% of Democrats see Republicans the same way.
With the holidays approaching, the deepening polarization can play out in painful ways, and add another layer of tension to social and family gatherings. Almost everyone I know worries about ruptured or strained relationships with friends or family members who are caught up in a vortex of disinformation and immersed in alternate versions of reality, including the popular conspiracy theory QAnon.
I know what it’s like to see a loved one drift away until they are unreachable through logic, reason or evidence. During the pandemic, a family member previously known for her common sense became radicalized. She lives in England and strict lockdowns there meant that coffees and lunches with friends of all political persuasions turned into extra hours in front of the television watching her new favorite source of information, Russia Today (RT). The Kremlin-backed broadcaster, which has a broad reach with nearly two dozen bureaus around the world, is key to Russian information warfare that aims to get non-Russians to see the world in ways that benefit Russian President Vladimir Putin and his allies.
It worked like a charm on her. As her frustration with the pandemic’s disruptions of life increased, so did her need to find someone, or something, to blame. Our phone conversations turned one-sided as she scapegoated immigrants for the spread of Covid-19 and, starting in January 2021, ranted about how Joe Biden was ruining America, her country of residence for many years.
By summer 2021, she no longer asked for news of me and other family members. Months of RT had left her deep in a world of disinformation, and she grew increasingly angry. In June, after the Biden-Putin summit, she complained that Biden wasn’t helping Putin expand in Eastern Europe (it’s notable that she had never once mentioned Putin before becoming an avid consumer of RT).
When I asked her to watch a clip of my live commentary on NBC, in which I talked about Putin’s imperialist policies, she became incensed and yelled, “You’re a liar!” before she hung up the phone. Feeling frustrated, I stopped communicating with her. As it turns out, this was a counter-productive move.
Like radicalization, disengagement is a process. There is no quick and easy way to lead someone back into reality, or to defuse their trigger points on issues they care about, even if evidence becomes overwhelming that their positions have no foundation.
In fact, followers of cults and authoritarian dogma who begin to doubt the truth of their convictions may initially dig their heels in. The more an individual has invested in the alternate reality, the more they are reluctant to admit to others, and to themselves, that they have misjudged the situation. Many prefer to live in denial rather than experience the shame or humiliation that they were wrong. For some, this urge to save face can be a powerful force even in life and death situations, as sociologist Brooke Harrington writes of pandemic and vaccine deniers who have fallen sick with Covid-19 and continue to uphold their views while in the ICU.
This is why, as we get together this holiday season, we might heed the advice of experts like Steven Hassan, who encourages people not to cast judgment or reprimand their loved ones who are immersed in disinformation. We might also resist the temptation to present individuals with evidence of the falsity of their beliefs; I know from my own experience that such evidence often comes from sources that these loved ones consider to be “fake news,” and will be immediately dismissed - even if, in my case, that news is written by a family member.
What we can do is keep them close and find common ground on other issues, as hard as that might be. This does not mean we accept or validate their racist or anti-science beliefs, but rather aim to be strategic. After all, if we cut them off or yell at them, we simply magnify the chances that they will remain siloed among like-minded people.