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  • Pauline Hoffmann

Communication, Cultivation, Conciliation

I want to start this week's newsletter by sharing a story. About ten years ago or so I would take regular walks with a colleague of mine. There is a wonderful trail along the river behind our university and it affords quiet time to reflect and gossip.

She is Black; I am a Witch (I practice Wicca, specifically). That's important.

Our conversation turned to current events as often happens. It also drew on our experiences and beliefs. At one point I confessed to her that I was nervous to ask certain questions of her because I didn't want to word the question wrong or ask the wrong question outright and offend her. My intention certainly would not have been to offend. She confessed that sometimes she felt the same way with me regarding certain topics.

The topics in question? I wanted to try to understand how our political/cultural climate was impacting her - a Black woman living in a rural county that is 97% white. She wanted to ask about Wicca because she had no experience with it and was curious.

She then said to me that I should ask any question I like any way that I feel I need to because she knows I am coming from a place of curiosity, compassion and understanding. I'm not asking questions to be an asshole. If I ask the question incorrectly, she said she would correct me. She would then also explain why the way I may have worded the question or the question itself could be seen as offensive. I told her the same would be true with any questions she might have of me.

Why do I share this story?

I've been watching, listening and hearing.

I am disturbed because I feel as though we are silencing voices. If people have questions, we should listen to and hear those questions. We should not judge but rather we should show compassion and understanding. On the other side of that, if we don’t know we should ask. We should welcome an environment of inquiry and learning.

I gave a talk recently about disinformation and the infodemic. In doing so, I used examples that I thought would appeal to the audience - in this case it was an audience of health care folks - but I also used examples from current events because I thought it was important, timely, relevant, and understandable.

What examples did I use? Covid and Gaza.

As part of my discussion, I noted the tactics used by disinformationists in crafting messages. One of the tactics is altering photos and videos or recycling photos and videos. For example, the image below was debunked by the News Literacy Project ( - if you are a regular reader of this newsletter, you know this is one of my favorite websites):

This image was shared widely during Covid and was said to represent a hospital in New York City. As you can see, it was originally shot at a hospital in Ecuador and was shot pre-Covid. It doesn't represent Covid at all.

I also used the following picture that is being used to represent what is happening in Gaza. (In both cases, the editorial comments in red are from NewsLit and are not my own.)

This photo is not from Gaza but is from Syria from 2018. It was used again to represent Libya in 2019 and is now used to represent Gaza. I am a fan of reuse and recycle but not like this.

Next, I discussed trying not to rush to judgment. I wrote a newsletter edition about not rushing to judgment and used it as my example during the discussion. (The issue is here if you missed it:

In no way was I sharing information that I thought would be offensive. Would it make people uncomfortable? My intention was not necessarily to do so but a pandemic and a war should make you uncomfortable. If not, you have bigger issues - and, I guess, so do we.

I was surprised when someone said that I should never have mentioned Gaza. It was suggested that I was culturally insensitive and the examples should have been removed.

I stand by my use of current events. Disinformation is being shared regarding this conflict (and others). It is important to recognize it. Using these examples is timely and relevant. In no way did I take sides. In no way did I express my views one way or the other. I shared information to illustrate two points - the use of altered photos/videos and the rush to judgment.

In effect, the push-back has proved my point.

The answer is not to stifle debate and conversation. The answer is not to shut down questions or censor thought. Absent conversation, we are left with information voids. Those voids then get filled with disinformation. Sure, the truth may slip in but often it doesn't.

Could I have used other current examples? I suppose, but these examples are out there and need to be addressed. To inoculate against the infodemic requires trust, truth and conversation. It requires that we have sometimes difficult conversations. To say that a topic is off limits or taboo (censorship) is not the answer.

I will continue to voice my opinion, share facts, and educate. Some are not nearly as open to doing so. Too many people have been told: 

Shut up. 

Don't talk about this. 

Don't ask questions.

If you have questions, what do you do? You try to find answers. If the answers aren't easily found, you turn to whatever source may have an answer whether that answer is truthful or not. Don't you want to be the source of accurate information?

Ask questions. This is how we learn. If someone says something that offends you, you are well within your rights to call them out. If someone phrases a question in an offensive way, help them restate it but tell them why. If you have facts to correct a statement being made, by all means share those facts! Don’t end the conversation by saying "don't even talk about that," or "shut up." As I shared in the story to open this newsletter, if you approach the situation from an attitude of trust, compassion and inquiry, you should be treated with trust, compassion and inquiry in return.

What do I think is going on? I think there is much we don’t know about the war in the Middle East. There are so many factors at play including much history with which we are unfamiliar. Yes, we do have people who are reacting in ways that I hope they will come to regret (those who are pro-Hamas, for example) and we should help to educate them. I also believe that many people sincerely want to understand this history. Don’t shut them down! I find it fascinating that there are many conflicts happening around the globe yet this conflict seems to be the one that is taboo to discuss. I can understand some reasons why but I don’t believe those reasons should stymie conversation and reasoned thought and action.

I end this issue of my newsletter with a quote from a slogan for a campaign of the Parents Circle Families Forum (a joint Israeli-Palestinian organization): It won’t stop until we talk.

For more information on how to recognize disinformation and have the difficult conversations, I recommend my upcoming book: Fake News, Witch Hunts and Conspiracy Theories: An Infodemiologist's Guide to the Truth. It is available for pre-order:

I wish each of you peace.


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