Why facts can feel so mean and condescending
We’ve all been frustrated by “Fake News” this year and, even worse, have likely been manipulated by it. Disinformation is a tack both sides employ to use our opinions, biases and expectations to promote their agenda without the pesky business of justifying it.
There’s no getting around it: as humans, much of what we know to be true we’ve learned from other humans. That’s how our brains work. There was no google when we evolved, the only way we could know anything was either from our personal experience or someone else’s. Back then, the only “others” in your social circle were members of your tribe.
So when Glug from the cave next door tells you those delicious-looking berries will make you sick, you will believe him but if Toknuk the wanderer says it, you might suspect he is lying so he can come back later and grab them for himself. Which, knowing Toknuk, could totally be the case.
But what do we really know about Glug? Sharing a cave wall with him doesn’t guarantee he has your best interests in mind. Or that he knows anything about berries. In a small tribe, though, you’d be wise to trust your instincts about him. Humans are remarkably good at reading each other and developing a feel for who is who, what everyone knows, what this all means, and so forth.
We’re also quite effective at shaming other humans for lying, stealing and selfish behavior – as a warning to others, and also as a tool to correct bad behaviors. But here’s the catch: this only works in groups of only about 150 (certainly no bigger than 250). After that, people have a hard time keeping tabs on each other. There’s just not the same social recourse for acting in bad faith.
So here we are in modern America, where politics has replaced tribalism. Staggering numbers of us align ourselves with leaders and movements that speak to us instinctively, with information that “feels” so right it seems foolish to require proof. Insulting, even. Careful! That’s a pitfall.
Although our poor overworked brains yearn for the simpler days when we could trust our clans to steer us straight, today massive misinformation campaigns seek to trip our emotions and subvert our critical thinking skills for their own benefit. Sophisticated platforms reassure shared prejudices and validate popular narratives through constant repetition. Our emotional attachment to feeling right makes us susceptible to lies and political exploitation. But we can fight back!
The Pro-Truth Pledge is a non-partisan project to protect facts and civility, and promote 12 “truth-oriented” behaviors scientifically designed to override our brain’s innate vulnerabilities to tribal thinking. As you’d expect, this process – known as “de-biasing” – at first seems counter-intuitive and, frankly, can be quite uncomfortable.
BUILD A BETTER B.S. DETECTOR
To know the truth is to tell it.
Peer-reviewed research has shown that the following Pro-Truth Pledge is effective for changing ingrained behaviors and encouraging more open-minded, respectful public discourse.
1. SHARE Truth:
– Verify Seek out at least 2 neutral sources before accepting/sharing
– Cite Provide sources so others can verify for themselves
– Balance Share the whole truth, even the parts you don’t like
– Clarify Distinguish between your opinion and the facts
2. HONOR Truth:
– Acknowledge Confirm when others share true info, even if we disagree
– Re-evaluate Consider new facts and retract your info if unverifiable
– Defend Support others who come under attack for sharing true but unpopular information
– Align Promote true information in your opinions and actions
3. ENCOURAGE Truth:
– Fix Ask people to retract unreliable information, even if they are allies
– Educate Compassionately inform those around you when they are citing unverifiable facts, even if they support your opinions
– Defer Recognize the opinions of experts are more likely to be accurate when the facts are disputed
– Praise Commend people when they retract incorrect statements and update their beliefs toward the truth.
(Adapted from Dr. Gleb Tsipursky and Tim Ward, Pro Truth: A Practical Plan for Putting Truth Back into Politics; Changemakers Books, 2020)
UPDATE 2021: See the Community Disinformation Action Hub for resources on fighting disinformation threatening free expression, social justice, health and safety from the neighborhood-level up. (Follow on Facebook @ProTruthPledge)