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Our Era’s Defining Battle: Facts vs. Misinformation

Viewed from one angle, the defining battle of our time isn’t necessarily left vs. right or Democrat vs. Republican or even democracy vs. fascism; it’s facts vs. misinformation.

In some ways, that struggle is more elemental to a functioning society than any of the others. If every basic fact is disputed or called into doubt, we lack a common, agreed-upon reality. We become unable to deliberate or compromise or make informed decisions. Liberal democracy itself becomes an unsustainable enterprise.

If this seems too abstract, consider the impact misinformation has had on American life just in the past year: a deadly insurrection in the U.S. Capitol, premised on lies about the outcome of the election and falsehoods about the process of counting electoral votes; widespread refusal to wear protective masks during a pandemic, running up the death count throughout the country; vaccine hesitancy that is needlessly drawing out the endgame of that pandemic.

Given that, you might expect Kathleen Hall Jamieson to despair. She’s the co-founder of FactCheck.org and an academic at the University of Pennsylvania whose research on rhetoric and politics not only helped give rise to the “fact check” movement in American journalism over the past several decades but refined it into something much more effective than how journalists used to approach the task.

But Jamieson is optimistic—chronically so, in her words—and her advice on misinformation is simple: Focus on those facts that are most consequential.

“With a lot of things, whether or not they’re factual doesn’t really affect anybody. I mean, they’re useful to know at a cocktail party, but they’re not consequential,” says Jamieson. “That takes a whole lot of worry out of my life, because most things that people worry about where there’s dispute over the fact just don’t make any difference to me.”

There’s a dividing line, says Jamieson: “When people start acting on misinformation, when they start acting on misconceptions and endanger others, now you’re in territory where suddenly that becomes a consequential fact.”

That’s sometimes a tricky balance to strike, because the Trump era has drastically expanded the realm of which facts may be considered consequential. For instance: At what point would we consider anonymous random message board posts from a fabulist who claims to have top-secret government clearance—posts that spin a fanciful tale of a (literally) Satanic cabal of child predators at the top ranks of the U.S. government—to be consequential? When the first person wearing a “QAnon” shirt breaches the floor of the U.S. Senate? Earlier? And when trying to dispel that misinformation, where do you even begin?

“It is not advisable to negate something; it’s advisable to displace something,” says Jamieson. “A detailed alternative account of the reality has a power that simply saying ‘that’s wrong’ or ‘no, that’s not true’ doesn’t. By simply saying, ‘No, that’s not true,’ you risk actually reinforcing [their prior beliefs].”

Complicating this further is the widespread hostility to institutions like the free press and the court system, which might be able to provide the facts that undergird that deeply detailed alternative reality, but which are being ignored by large segments of society that have been conditioned to distrust those sources, often for ideological reasons.

What does a reasonable path forward look like? How does Jamieson decide which falsehoods are worth addressing on FactCheck.org? And, post-Trump, are we in a new, more permissive era when it comes to political misinformation?

To sort through all of it, POLITICO Magazine spoke with Jamieson this week. A condensed transcript of that conversation follows, edited for length and clarity.

Let me ask you a big-picture question: Whether it’s on the topic of the vaccine, the outcome of the 2020 election, of the pandemic or politics in general, we’re in the midst of something like a war on truth—on even the idea that there can even be such a thing as truth. Why has this become, in some ways, the defining dispute of our moment?

Kathleen Hall Jamieson: [Pause] The word “truth” makes me nervous. Because when someone says “truth,” I hear it with a capital T. We live in a world in which our understanding is progressing. Knowledge is evolving. There are “truths” in the universe—truths about physics, for example. There are “truths” inside a religious universe—presuppositional things that people treat as truth.

At the point at which you say something is “true,” there is a kind of finality to it that doesn’t characterize most of the knowledge that we are talking about when we talk about politics and science. And there’s some danger in thinking that there is, because then you stopped the exploratory process, and you stop the questioning process by which we increase the likelihood that the knowledge is sure-footed. I’m more comfortable saying that there is knowledge that is more or less certain.

So, that said, we live in an environment in which institutional trust is down. The challenge to established knowledge is now greater than it once was. The institutions that certify what we can know are not as trusted as they once were—in part because they have done things that demonstrate that they aren’t able to be trusted (at least some of them in some circumstances). You’ve got more factors challenging institutional forms of knowledge production, and sometimes that’s healthy—trying to hold them accountable is a goal of journalism. Some of them are more trustworthy than others; those that are more trustworthy are trustworthy more times than some would think. There are methods underlying trustworthiness of knowledge. Transparency is a norm. When it’s not honored, less trust. Reproducibility is a norm. When it’s not honored, less trust. A culture of self-critique and of critique is a norm. When it’s not honored, less trust. Those are norms of science. Those are also norms of good journalism.

We live in a world in which some good tendencies—the tendency to critique, the tendency to be skeptical—have gotten out of hand. And as a result, and we live in a polarized environment in which, for ideologically convenient ends, people who see ideologically inconvenient “knowledge” have more ways to discredit it with fewer places to anchor the knowledge.

We now have people who would argue that, no, you can’t [trust an outlet] because of some instance in which they think something was flawed. Human knowledge is always provisional. Humans are always subject to error. Institutions are as well. We’ve got to come back to a middle ground where we’ve got places where we can anchor [knowledge], with custodians of knowledge we will trust. Journalism used to be one of those. But now you have a public that looks at journalism and says, “I’m going to divide it into whether it fits my ideology or not.”

Why do you think that is? Not to make this into a the-chicken-or-the-egg situation, but is that partisan approach an outgrowth of people’s media consumption, or is people’s media consumption an outgrowth of their existing partisan allegiances?

They’re mutually reinforcing. One question that readers and viewers can ask is: On matters that are consequential to you, where do you anchor your understandings of it? What are the venues left that we trust to honor traditional norms of evidence and argument?

One is the courts. The courts have codified an understanding of what constitutes evidence, what constitutes proof. “Beyond a reasonable doubt” and “preponderance of evidence” are concepts that come through the court structure.

I was heartened by the fact that as the Trump campaign and its surrogates went into the court structure with their [false] assertions [about the 2020 elections], which they are entitled to do, the court structure—across jurisdictions, across court levels, with judges appointed by Republicans as well as Democrats—arrived at a common conclusion given common proffering of evidence. What that says is that our discourse is not so fractured that there’s no such thing as a “knowable” anymore; there is such a thing as “knowable.”

When people say there is no such thing as a discourse that is rooted in a traditional sense of defined evidence and defined standards of proof, my response is, yes, there are: the courts and science. We’re still in a world in which there is facticity.

I’m chronically optimistic — in part because that is, I think, a healthy way to live one’s life, and in part because if you simply give up because everything is going wrong, you’re not going to try to improve it.

What are the stakes here? When we’re talking about the acceptance—or not—of facts, there are very specific ways that can impact people, like vaccine hesitancy on an individual level. But there are also these very wide-angle ways that it affects society as a whole.

My concern is about consequential fact. With a lot of things, whether or not they’re factual doesn’t really affect anybody. I mean, they’re useful to know at a cocktail party, but they’re not consequential. So we ought to understand when something is consequential, what is endangering the perception of its facticity?

Much knowledge is provisional, and [we should] not quickly lock in and say, “I have the facts, and the facts are final.” The facts on the ground could be changing, and there needs to be a certain open-mindedness about the concept of “fact” and our willingness to grant it as categorically a “fact.” There needs to be a certain humility about it.

That said, consequential fact is what we need to worry about.

And how do you define a “consequential” fact?

So let’s go to a whole different domain: We need to worry about teaching civics to kids. If you’re going to teach kids civics, I don’t care whether they know when Paul Revere rode. I don’t even care if they know that Paul Revere rode. In fact, I don’t care whether Paul Revere rode.

I do care that they understand there are three branches of government. I care that they understand that there are checks and balances built into our system. I care that they understand we have a veto—and what that means, when you exercise it, and how you override it. I care that they understand that there’s an independent Supreme Court; that we’ve set up the Supreme Court to be different and that it’s not a political branch of government. Those are consequential. They are consequential because if you understand them, you act and think differently about our system of government. The willingness to protect our system is, in part, a function of understanding our system, and understanding that our system has presuppositional facts—consequential facts—under it. If I don’t understand those things, then if the Supreme Court issues a series of unpopular decisions that I don’t like, I’m more likely to say that maybe we should get rid of the Supreme Court. Those facts are consequential because if you don’t understand them, you might think it’s OK to subvert a system that I think is a good system and deserves protection.

When people start acting on misinformation, when they start acting on misconceptions and endanger others, now you’re in territory where suddenly that becomes a consequential fact. So, is there a sex-trafficking ring of pedophiles led by Hillary Clinton and the Democrats? You might worry about people believing that. But I worry a lot more when Edgar Maddison Welch takes a gun into Comet Pizza in Washington, D.C. [Welch believed in a baseless and disproven conspiracy theory that the pizza parlor ran a sex-trafficking ring in its basement.]

You’ve studied misinformation about vaccines—which is obviously relevant in the Covid era. What’s a consequential fact when we’re dealing with vaccinations?

Here’s a consequential historical fact: You’re not vulnerable to smallpox right now. Why is that important? Because it tells you that vaccinations work. The measles vaccination works. Why is it important to understand that measles vaccination works? Because if you don’t believe that—or if you believe that dangers of it override the benefits of it—then you might have a community outbreak, as a Somali community did in Minneapolis [in 2017].

I want to make sure people understand how vaccination works, because it’s consequential knowledge. How do we know the vaccine is safe? That’s consequential knowledge. You should know we have all these checks you have to go through before that vaccine gets authorized. It’s not just the person who did the study; other people look at it—independent steps that are predefined. All of those are protections to make sure the vaccine is safe. How big was the study? Did it include people like me? That’s consequential knowledge if I’m going to decide to take the vaccine.

Why worry about whether somebody says you should put UV light on your skin in order to prevent Covid? Well, first, because it’s bad for you to do that. I want you to know: Here’s how light works, here is how the protective effect of these lights that are in the ceilings work, as opposed to putting lights on your skin. Same thing about drinking bleach: I don’t want people to think that because bleach works to clean your countertops, you ought to ingest it.

Some things you need to know because if you don’t, somebody will tell you something that you might actually act on and do yourself harm or someone else harm. So, [that’s a] consequential fact. That takes a whole lot of worry out of my life, because most things that people worry about where there’s dispute over the fact just don’t make any difference to me.

Let’s talk about fact-checking. Your work on that topic has been influential in contributing to this “fact check” era of political coverage. How do you weigh the benefits of publishing a fact-check against the risk of inadvertently giving a falsehood oxygen to spread?

As someone who co-founded FactCheck.org—and still checks them all before they post—the first question I ask is: Is it important that people know this? In politics, if there’s a deception and you believe it and as a result vote for the wrong candidate, it should be fact-checked. We should do it consistently and aggressively because people might be casting misinformed votes. That is a consequential fact.

So my first question is: Is it consequential? The second is: Assuming it is consequential, how prevalent is the misbelief? Because if it’s consequential, but the deception just isn’t circulating very widely, I don’t want to run the risk of getting it circulation by responding to it.

It is not advisable to negate something; it’s advisable to displace something. A detailed alternative account of the reality has a power that simply saying “that’s wrong” or “no, that’s not true” doesn’t. By simply saying “no, that’s not true,” you risk actually reinforcing [their prior beliefs]; it’s not inevitable, but there is some risk there.

As we’re looking at [Covid] and deceptions about the science, we need an alternative model to the fact-checking model I helped develop out of our analysis of deception in politics in the ’88 presidential campaign. If you go and look at [coverage from that year,] you’ll see the press engaging in “he said, she said” about adjudication of claims in which there is an external reality that a reasonable person could interrogate. When the deceptions in the advertising were “corrected” in broadcast news, they were not being corrected effectively, they were being magnified.

The first thing we did after that election was over was to ask how to fix that. For television news, the fix was to say: Instead of showing the [“Willie Horton”] ad full screen and having the announcer talk about the corrections as the ad played — which magnified the power of the ad—we showed that, you should work up a visual grammar in which you box the ad on the screen and put a correction up over it. You interrupt the ad. You break up its power, and in the process increase the likelihood that the audience can hear the correction. We did that based on an ABC News piece that showed a [George H.W. Bush campaign] ad in which deceptions about Michael Dukakis scrolled on screen. And by virtue of putting that ad on the screen, [ABC News was] reinforcing the deceptions. In our focus groups, we showed that people didn’t hear the ABC News reporter speaking over the ad and fact-checking the deceptions; the segment actually reinforced the power of the ad.

The first question for me was: How do you increase the likelihood the reporter’s voice gets through? The second question was: How to increase the likelihood that a reporter will fact check it to start with? And then the third question was: What should you fact check? But I, as a scholar, neglected to ask the biggest question: When you’ve identified those things that you are fact-checking, how do correct it in a way that your correction will be heard? You don’t simply say “they said this; the other side said that.” The model I was putting forward was basically a fact-checking model. But if you don’t put in place the broader kinds of understanding, you probably haven’t done justice to your audience, because you want to minimize the likelihood that they’ll be deceived if something new comes along.

That’s how I see the science now. If we can understand the things people need to know and find a way for our journalism and scholarship to put those in in an evolving way, we could minimize the likelihood they’ll be receptive to deceptions. We’re approaching Covid through that lens. SciCheck is part of FactCheck.org focused on science, and the important science right now is Covid-related and vaccination-related. We think there’s a way to put in place accurate understandings that minimize susceptibility to deception, and that journalists who have fact-checking sites could organize their knowledge into categories and minimize the likelihood that we’d have susceptibility. Consequential knowledge can be prespecified once you know what a consequential fact is and what a consequential deception would be.

Did the Trump years cause you to reconsider which facts you think of as “consequential?”

I started out working as a rhetoric scholar, focusing on the ways in which people use language and argument to persuade and communicate to other people. The number of times that Donald Trump made a statement and then hedged so that it wasn’t a categorical assertion is high. There’s a pattern to that: People can hear those statements as being categorical, but he has denial that he said it categorically. He essentially developed a rhetorical pattern of nonaccountability for statements where he was insinuating conclusions.

When faced with something [he said] that was potentially politically inconvenient because it was now being rejected, he tagged it as, “I meant that as a joke, I meant that satirically.” His statement about climate change being a “hoax?” “Oh, I meant that as a joke.” A second rhetorical marker by which he could distance himself from things that proved controversial was in the “if this is true” category: “Some people say,” or “I don’t know, but …” and then he asserts something. It makes it difficult to fact-check him, because ordinarily, you fact-check something that’s a propositional statement, not something that’s got a hedge built into it.

It made me acutely aware of the extent to which audiences are accomplices in their own persuasion. We’ve known that since Aristotle: Meaning exists at the intersection of a text, a context and a receiving audience. And [Trump’s] audiences were able to hear things that you couldn’t find explicitly said, because they were bringing assumptions to bear on the rhetoric. This is important in the context of his rally on January 6. Because the question is, what are the presuppositions that have been cultivated over time that disposes an audience to believe that it had been instructed to go to the Capitol? And, in the case of some of their pleadings in court, [believe that they] would be pardoned? Or that they had been invited there and that, as a result, this was not unlawful?

Our understanding of how you engage in traditional political discourse—and hold people accountable for that discourse—was shattered by Donald Trump. This is a genre break. This wasn’t rhetoric that followed the norms of presidential rhetoric inside constraints. And certainly, the arguments he made shattered all historical norms in their capacity to delegitimize an election.

But I think the larger question is: Where do we go from here? An audience’s expectations of an institution are created by their exposure to an institution. We have people who came of age politically and the only rhetoric they knew of a president prior to the last two months was Donald Trump. The incapacity of the structures in place to hold Donald Trump accountable for rhetoric incentivize someone else to follow those patterns. Have we normalized that? It’s an open question and a troubling one.

You’re not a fan of the term “fake news,” which was popularized by President Trump.

I think it was popularized by Jon Stewart [the former host of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show”].

That’s interesting: “the best fake news show on television.” I hadn’t considered that, but I think you’re right, that’s where I first heard it.

For Donald Trump, “fake news” was any anything he didn’t like that appeared in a media channel—which doesn’t give you a definition; it gives you a disposition. Channels he didn’t like were “fake news.” It’s an assertion of identity.

If something is news—in my definition of news—that is legitimate journalism. When someone points out an error, it corrects. If you do that—you’ve got to do some other things as well—you’re acting in a journalistic fashion. Journalists are supposed to do that. You can’t have “fake” news. It’s an oxymoron. If some entity engages in correction when error is pointed out, it’s not fake. I want to preserve “news” as a valued category. I don’t want to destabilize the definition of “news” to permit something that’s fake to be called “news.” By letting the category “fake news” stand, you run the risk of undercutting people’s perceptions of the legitimacy of news.

But secondly, it violates the scholarly norm of precise specification. The scholars who say they’re studying “fake news” are not studying fake news; they mean anything that’s deceptive. Their object of interest is not news, it is deception. “Fake” should be the noun as their object of scrutiny, not the adjective. In my world, you’re not studying “fake news” unless you’re studying things that pretend they are news sites and appropriate the credibility of a news site and deceive you about it.

Is there a term you’d prefer?

I want to use the term “viral deception” for what they’re studying—“V.D.” And I want to analogize it to venereal disease: You don’t want to catch it. You don’t want to spread it. You want to quarantine and cure it. I want to move from the concept of “fake news,” using your disgust at the idea of having V.D.—like venereal disease—to try to break your cognitive schema. You start to see the world through this other lens; I’m trying to get you to move through some other emotional space before I get you over into “viral deception,” so that when I say “V.D.,” you say “blechh."

Why, as a journalist, would you adopt the language that delegitimizes your profession? And some do. It’s been conventionalized in journalism. And yet it’s like walking out into the world saying, “I just want you to know that today I’m going to do my part to delegitimize what I do by using the term ‘fake news.’ But of course, I am not fake news. But somebody else must be, because I’ve adopted the category.”
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This is not a CAPTIS article. Originally, it was published here.