False Narratives – And How to Cut Through Them

Image of painted Pinocchio figures illustrates the issues of fake news and false narratives.

The previous post in this series dealt with false facts and provided suggestions about coping with these distortions. This post focuses on the harm that arises when false facts become false narratives.

Unless you’ve been completely unplugged for the past few years, you’re probably already aware of these problems. Nevertheless, a little background will help frame how these challenges affect perceptions.


The number of accredited newspapers has been declining steadily, especially in smaller towns and in the middle of the country. At the same time, people are getting more of their news from less accredited sources. Additionally, people are reading full articles less. Instead, they’re reacting to – and sharing – headlines or tweets – whose purpose is to grab attention more than to educate.

The challenge for nonprofits to get their publics to hear – and trust – them isn’t getting simpler. It helps to know more about the specific kind of narrative you need counteract.

False News

The Problem: False news often reports an event that never happened. An example is the “story” that millions of illegal aliens voted in the last election.

Solutions: One of the best ways to address false news like this is to publish and promote your nonprofit’s content regularly. Seeing your updates, stories, photos, infographics, newsletters, videos, and position papers more often will reinforce your perspective. Moreover, if fabricated news stories about your cause start to circulate, there will be more people who can speak up on behalf of your NPO and the work it does. Plus, you’ll have a bank of content that is ready to re-post, quote, and redistribute at the push of a few keys.

When false narratives frame public debate, they arouse such intense feelings that common ground, possible solutions, and even the facts get ignored.

False Narratives

A false narrative is a subtler and more dangerous form of misinformation. The example of immigrants also illustrates this problem. Several fake news stories share the underlying narrative that thousands of criminals and terrorists are supposedly pouring across our borders. Here are two ways these distorted narratives can affect public perceptions of your clients / issues.

Mocking the Messenger

Some dishonest narrative lines deliberately cast doubt on someone’s motives for taking a particular position. An example would be denigrating a reporter or maligning an immigrant aid organization. This tactic doesn’t so much shoot the messengers of unwelcome truths as assassinate their characters. The goal is to discredit them so entirely that no one believes anything they say.

Tribalizing the Hero and the Villain

It is a fundamental part of many storylines to pit an appealing hero against a repulsive villain. Some narratives don’t just take this too far; they take it in a sinister direction. In stories structured this way, the hero isn’t likable because of his or her good qualities or actions. The hero is likable because he / she is part of a group that the narrative defines as all having noble and appealing qualities. Hero and tribe are superior and entitled to prevail.

Conversely, the villain isn’t despicable because of his or her bad qualities or actions. The villain is hateful because he / she is part of a group that the narrative defines as all having base and revolting qualities. Villain and tribe are subhuman and deserve to be stamped out. An example would be to attack the entire mainstream media – or an entire group of nonprofits.

Filter Bubbles and False Realities

Sometimes false facts, news, and narrative combine to create a deceptive version of reality. Think Chicken Little. False realities often get started within filter bubbles. For the sake of clarity, I am defining filter bubbles are here to describe the way search and social media algorithms select your search results based on the kind of info you’ve searched / selected before. These searches reinforce the tendency most of us have to gravitate toward information that confirms what we think. Taken to an extreme, some people only listen to news sources that confirm what they already believe, even if it’s provably wrong.

What common issues do these false narratives raise?

  • They denigrate someone because of who they inherently are, not because of something they’ve chosen to do.
  • Worse, narratives like this denigrate the entire group to which the antagonist belongs.
  • Most dangerous of all, these storylines feed on arousing anger, contempt, and disgust toward the antagonist.

Triggering these emotions is a crucial ingredient in hate propaganda. Some recent brain research has documented the distinct roles of each of these emotions in fueling hostility.

What approaches can nonprofits use to counter them?

One of the negotiating strategies described in Getting to Yes emphasizes empathy with the feelings, concerns, and interests of the people involved. It avoids getting locked into fixed positions and focuses instead on finding common ground for solutions. Nonprofits can promote these principles without having to give up any of their values or commitment to their mission.

Follow the principle of being hard on the issues, but soft on the people.

Post 3 in this series will describe another way to address untruthful narratives. It outlines how marketing research techniques can be adapted to understand better audiences that are opposed to your nonprofit’s cause or the clients you serve.

Whatever approach your nonprofit ultimately uses, it is vital to confront these falsehoods – visibly and loudly – and prevent them from becoming mainstream.

There is a big marketing payoff for cutting through false narratives:

Many, many Americans are deeply angry with one another right now. However justified we feel, we can’t find a shared path forward unless we resist demonizing each other. Nonprofits can play a critical role. Besides being prepared to counter stories that affect them directly, organizations can show the kind of leadership that adds to their credibility.

This post was updated on January 25, 2020.


Here are some helpful resources related to our series on Upholding Truth in an Age of Lies: