Expert Commentary

Communicating complexity in an age of polarization: 3 tips from the UN’s Melissa Fleming

Tell stories about real people, reach for the 'conflicted middle' and give voice to trusted messengers: Three tips to help journalists and other public communicators relay complex information in an age of political polarization.

It can be difficult for fact-based evidence to gain traction across a social media landscape fraught with polarization, where it’s easy for people to retreat to information bubbles that confirm their biases: A landscape where some platforms prohibit misinformation — at least in their guidelines — while others don’t. Where algorithms carry gender and racial biases. Where users share news articles without reading them. And where news stories that go viral may lack nuance, or convey misinformation from credentialed experts.

There is a constant conflict, for journalists and public officials alike, between circulating information based on the best evidence and doing so in a way that is comprehensive yet easy for people to understand and share with colleagues, friends and family.

This is especially true in a communications environment where shareability, not accuracy, means profitability for social media companies. It’s important for people involved in disseminating truth to understand the challenges they’re up against.

Melissa Fleming, Under-Secretary-General for Global Communications at the United Nations, discussed the challenges of public communication in a polarized world during a Dec. 10, 2021 talk hosted by the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School.

The U.N. Department of Global Communications, which Fleming heads, disseminates written and visual stories on the organization’s peacekeeping, humanitarian, climate change and other efforts in 80 languages via communications operations in 60 countries.

Here are three tips from Fleming’s recent talk that journalists and other public communicators can use to relay complex information to mass audiences.

1. Remember that although data is vital for effective public communication, stories about real people still matter.

“Social psychology tells us that even if you really, really, really want to care — and you’re trying to care — if you’re faced with a whole bunch of numbers that are supposed to represent human lives it is almost impossible to feel something,” Fleming said. “A condition kind of sets in, called psychic numbing.” 

Psychic numbing refers to a state of indifference that a news consumer can slip into when confronted with reports on crises both close to and far from home, such as genocide or the effects of climate change. As the authors of one recent paper put it, “the more who die, the less we care.”

Stories that chronicle individual human experiences — real-world examples of people represented by numbers in datasets — give audiences a chance to relate, especially to complex, difficult topics, like refugee crises and climate change, Fleming noted.

Storytelling and story receiving are physiological experiences. Research shows listeners taking in an emotionally intense story have elevated heart rates and higher activity in parts of the brain that process emotions. Princeton University neuroscientist Uri Hasson and colleagues have done extensive research on how the brain responds to stories. They have shown through MRI imaging that people telling a story and people listening to a recording of that story exhibit similar brain activity. 

2. Consider the “conflicted middle” a key audience.

Fleming explained there are people who may be beyond convincing when it comes to a particular topic. But it’s worth trying to reach the “conflicted middle” — those who are hesitant but not totally resistant to facts about public health findings, or the extent of humanitarian crises.

University of Mannheim sociologist Marc Helbling and co-authors describe the conflicted middle in a 2017 report for the global nonprofit More in Common, which conducts research on polarization. The report is based on an online survey of 2,002 German adults that asked for their views on recent arrivals of migrants, refugees and other immigrants, among other questions. The researchers followed up with two focus groups with a smaller sample of survey respondents.

They identify as outliers the 22% of respondents who strongly support immigration and the 17% of respondents strongly opposed. Most respondents fall somewhere in the conflicted middle. Some support immigration but doubt whether immigrants can be successfully integrated into German society. Others have reservations about the level of Germany’s refugee intake, but don’t outright oppose immigration.

While U.S. polls today may capture less agreement than in decades past on what it means to be an American, “it’s not at all clear that Americans are further apart from each other than we’ve been in the past, or even that we are more ideologically or affectively divided — that is, exhibiting hostility to those of the other party — than citizens of other democracies,” Pew Research Center president Michael Dimock wrote in March 2021. “What’s unique about this moment — and particularly acute in America — is that these divisions have collapsed onto a singular axis where we find no toehold for common cause or collective national identity.”

The concept of a conflicted middle can apply to any topic. There will always be strong supporters and strong opponents. But there are still many people who fall somewhere in the middle and may be open to taking in new, fact-based information.

3. Compete with polarization and misinformation peddlers by giving voice to trusted messengers.

“When the pandemic hit it was very clear to me that we were not just going to be facing a global public health crisis, but a communications crisis as well,” Fleming said.

Conspiracies can quickly attract believers on social media. A 2018 study in Science analyzes 126,000 rumors spread on Twitter and suggests lies go viral faster than truth. A 2021 study in Nature finds people spread false claims on Twitter because they aren’t paying attention, not because they can’t tell fact from fiction. 

Fleming suggests institutions should be proactive and spread truth on social media platforms like Tik Tok, Twitter and Facebook. The U.N. does this through its Verified campaign, which claims to have reached 1 billion people worldwide in 60 languages by soliciting social media users and influencers to share COVID-19 facts and original content based on scientific evidence.

Verified launched May 2020. The campaign features videos from trusted messengers, including Dr. Elvis Eze, a prominent global voice in the fight against malaria, Peter Openshaw, a professor of experimental medicine at Imperial College London, and more than 70,000 volunteer social media users who share public health facts about the effectiveness of vaccines and mask wearing with their followers.

“We are trying to be about information for the public good,” Fleming said. “Information that embodies integrity, science and facts, and to be that source — or a source — for the world.”

Further reading

Research Note: Examining how Various Social Media Platforms have responded to COVID-19 Misinformation
Nandita Krishnan, Jiayan Gu, Rebekah Tromble and Lorien Abroms. December 2021, Harvard Kennedy School Misinformation Review.

Shifting Attention to Accuracy Can Reduce Misinformation Online
Gordon Pennycook, et. al. March 2021, Nature.

The More Who Die, the Less We Care: Evidence from Natural Language Analysis of Online News Articles and Social Media Posts
Sudeep Bhatia, Lukasz Walasek, Paul Slovic and Howard Kunreuther. August 2020, Risk Analysis.

The Spread of True and False News Online
Soroush Vosoughi, Deb Roy and Sinan Aral. March 2018, Science.

Amygdala and Heart Rate Variability Responses from Listening to Emotionally Intense Parts of a Story
Mikkel Wallentin, et. al. October 2011, NeuroImage.

About The Author