It’s hard for fact-checkers to admit it, but sometimes all the evidence, sources and citations in the world won’t change people’s minds. Our work is beloved by those who are truly open-minded. But to people who already have a firm set of beliefs glued in place? Not so much.
Still, we stay hopeful that misinformation can be corrected and people can move off of previously held positions when they get new information. Over the years, we’ve talked to psychologists, researchers and other experts many times about how to reach people held in misinformation’s grip.
Contrary to what you might think, it’s not about simply giving them more info. It’s about reaching them on an emotional level.
And with those lessons in mind, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s recent video to the people of Russia in the war in Ukraine was a master class in how to get people to reconsider their views. We can all learn from it.
I love the Russian people. That is why I have to tell you the truth. Please watch and share. pic.twitter.com/6gyVRhgpFV
— Arnold (@Schwarzenegger) March 17, 2022
Here’s a list of all the things Schwarzenegger, former governor of California and famous movie actor, does right in his video. These are strategies anyone can take into conversations with friends and family when the facts are up for debate.
Start in a friendly way. Schwarzenegger doesn’t address the hardest thing first. On the contrary, he begins the video by thanking “my dear Russian friends” for “sharing” their time with him. He briefly mentions Ukraine but immediately pivots to a personal story about his fondness for the Russian people and the Russian bodybuilder Yuri Petrovich Vlasov, who Schwarzenegger met as a young man backstage at a bodybuilding contest.
Humanize yourself and your audience. Rather than portray himself as a big movie star or ex-governor, Schwarzenegger casts himself as a vulnerable figure in his story of meeting Vlasov. He recalls himself as “a 14-year-old boy standing in front of the strongest man in the world,” and when Vlasov shook his hand, it was a “powerful man’s hand that swallowed mine.” But Vlasov wasn’t just strong; Schwarzenegger says he was “kind” and “smiling.” Years later, he meets Vlasov again and describes him as “so thoughtful, so kind, and so smart.” Vlasov is clearly a stand-in for the Russian people, and it’s a warm portrait indeed.
Recognize the other side’s good intentions. Schwarzenegger makes it clear that he sees Vlasov as an emblem of Russian character. He reminds his audience of his positive relationship with them: “Now, the reason why I’m telling you all of those things is that ever since I was 14 years old, I’ve had nothing but affections and respect for the people of Russia,” he says. “The strength and the heart of the Russian people have always inspired me.”
Acknowledge your own side gets it wrong, too. As Schwarzenegger moves into his discussion of the war in Ukraine, he acknowledges that it’s not easy to hear criticism of your own government or country. So he gives an example from his own country to show that he’s not singling out anyone unfairly for criticism. He mentions the video message he made after Jan. 6, “when a wild crowd was storming the U.S. Capitol, trying to overthrow our government,” and he says he speaks now with “the same heartfelt concern as (when) I spoke to the American people.”
Use simple, direct language. Avoid sounding pretentious or superior. Schwarzenegger wants his audience to easily understand what he’s talking about. He calls Russia’s actions in Ukraine “terrible things that you should know about.” He casts the government propaganda in simple terms: “The Russian government has lied.” When he mentions the government’s allegation that it wants to denazify Ukraine, he says: “Denazify Ukraine? This is not true! Ukraine is a country with a Jewish president.”
Don’t get bogged down in overly complicated evidence. He specifically contradicts a number of claims that the Russian government has made as justifications for the war, but he keeps it simple. He uses big-picture evidence, such as the overwhelming United Nations vote against Russia’s actions. But he moves quickly to cast that information in simple moral terms: “Because of its brutality, Russia is now isolated from the society of nations.”
Don’t make the listener’s side into the villain. He takes pains to separate the Russian government from the Russian people, but he also doesn’t spend much time trying to demonize Russian leader Vladimir Putin. In fact, the only time he mentions Putin by name is in a specific call out that doesn’t particularly cast blame: “And to President Putin, I say: You started this war. You are leading this war. You can stop this war.”
Let people know that you care about them on a personal level. One of the most moving parts of Schwarzenegger’s video is when he recounts the trauma his own father suffered in fighting in World War II on the side of the Nazis. He says the war broke his father, physically and mentally, and he never recovered from the guilt. He says those memories are a reason he’s speaking out now, and he addresses Russian soldiers directly, saying, “I don’t want you to be broken like my father.”
Give people a comfortable framework for thinking differently. In his final words, Schwarzenegger recasts dissenters as people to be admired. He mentions “all of the Russians who have been protesting in the streets against the invasion of Ukraine,” calling them brave and courageous in the face of threats of arrests, beatings and jail. He connects them to his opening story of meeting the Russian bodybuilder: “You have the strength of Yuri Petrovich Vlasov. You have the true heart of Russia.” He’s giving people permission to think differently from their government without giving up their personal or national identities.
People can’t hear a message when they feel like the messenger is hostile. Sometimes when we see people argue on the internet, both sides come off as arrogant, hostile or superior, even when one side has the better part of the argument. Schwarzenegger’s video is none of that. It remains to be seen whether his video reaches everyday Russians through the internet or other channels, even in the face of censorship by the Russian government. But if it does, he has spoken in a way that people will be able to hear what he has to say.