Facts are an insufficient response to falsehoods

“When confronted by falsehood, we need to tell the truth, of course, but we need to focus on truths bigger than a fact check: truths about network dynamics, the history of polarization, and the formation of political identity.”

This is a wishlist for 2021.

That information-sharers — journalists or otherwise — approach mis- and disinformation as problems of identity and epistemology, not problems of zombification.

When we throw facts at people who believe wildly false things, we’re often making a few basic assumptions about them.

The first is that believers have been duped by mis- and disinformation. If we could just expose them to true facts, they’d change their minds. A related assumption is that believers are in a cult or have otherwise been brainwashed by social media.

Both assumptions feed into the journalistic imperative to inform the public — to tell the truth early and often. But facts aren’t reliably corrective in and of themselves, especially when believers occupy a totally different ideological paradigm as the debunker. Researchers have been circling this tension for years, and many journalists have begun contending with it as well.

In 2021, it will be even more important to wrestle with the limitations of facts as a solution to falsehood. An enormous number of citizens will burst forth into the new year convinced that Joe Biden is not the president, that his government is illegitimate, and that, therefore, they don’t have to do what he says — about Covid or anything else. That’s bad. Not contending with our assumptions will make things worse; it will keep us focused on the wrong things.

When confronted by falsehood, we need to tell the truth, of course, but we need to focus on truths bigger than a fact check: truths about network dynamics, the history of polarization, and the formation of political identity.

That newsrooms tackle the challenges of scaling down, not just scaling up.

When setting out to tell these truths, it will be important to manage expectations. However carefully contextualized a news story might be, believers in falsehood might never see it. Or if they do see the story, they might take something totally unintended from it. Most perniciously, if journalists are saying a conspiracy theory is false, that might be fodder for some — particularly those who see mainstream journalism as an arm of the Deep State — to do their own research, algorithmically docenting them towards results that confirm their beliefs.

It might not be possible to push back against these sorts of beliefs at scale, certainly not while algorithms keep people right where they are. This challenge is further complicated by the fact that journalists can only guess at believers’ unique identities and deep memetic frames, sense-making apparatuses that structure what a person sees, thinks, does, and which demarcates their good “us” from their bad “them.” That makes catering to people’s quirks, and individual rhetorical needs, very difficult.

The people who love and live with falsehood-believers, on the other hand — they have a much better shot at explaining things in frame-sensitive ways that might pull believers back from the edge of the rabbit hole, or at least throw a rope down for those already gone. The best stories in 2021 will provide the kind of context, and the kind of rhetorical models, that can help everyday people have better — more informed, more strategic, more identity-minded — conversations with the believers in their lives.

That journalism scholars, critics, and practitioners look beyond journalism to address journalism’s challenges.

The fact that people on the left and right so often disagree on what the facts even are speaks to problems bigger than journalism. Solutions to those problems must be bigger than journalism too.

In 2021, the institution will — and should — continue grappling with a range of challenges, most pressingly issues of trust. But the focus, and allocation of resources, needs to go toward education more broadly.

Within journalism, there are already calls to ramp up media literacy efforts, particularly among K-12 students. However, strategies directed at distinguishing truth from falsehood won’t be enough, for all the reasons that fact-checking itself isn’t enough.

That’s not all. In our present hyperpolarized climate, facts are, for many, explicitly partisan. K-12 instructors, and even some college instructors, often don’t have the freedom or job security to simply swat down falsehoods — because that too easily leads to charges of bias against conservatives. That’s a chilling prospect for many. It’s also untenable pedagogically.

So, in 2021, researchers, educators, and practitioners will begin reimagining media literacy efforts, especially in classrooms. To be successful, and most likely to help restore trust, these efforts must not paper over our epistemological divide. They must, instead, make our epistemological divide an object lesson. These efforts must also foreground all the bigger truths mentioned above: network dynamics, the history of polarization, and the formation of political identity. Journalism will factor into these discussions. But journalism will just be one part, always in dialogue with everything else.

The difference between a wish and a prediction is the if in if-then: If these specific conditions are met, then we can expect these specific outcomes. A prediction assumes the if is as good as done. A wish looks — maybe hopefully, maybe wearily, maybe fearfully — towards the horizon of the then.

There are lots of reasons these ifs won’t happen in 2021: because people sure are committed to the corrective value of facts, despite all the evidence to the contrary; because people assume that the authorities they appeal to (science, expertise, having an advanced degree or impressive title) are universally appealing to others; because so many of us are raised to cleanly distinguish this from that, education from journalism, journalism from technology, technology from people.

But maybe 2020 will have been enough to shake these assumptions free. Maybe the horizon of the then is closer than we think.

Whitney Phillips is assistant professor of media, culture, and digital technologies at Syracuse University.

This is a wishlist for 2021.

That information-sharers — journalists or otherwise — approach mis- and disinformation as problems of identity and epistemology, not problems of zombification.

When we throw facts at people who believe wildly false things, we’re often making a few basic assumptions about them.

The first is that believers have been duped by mis- and disinformation. If we could just expose them to true facts, they’d change their minds. A related assumption is that believers are in a cult or have otherwise been brainwashed by social media.

Both assumptions feed into the journalistic imperative to inform the public — to tell the truth early and often. But facts aren’t reliably corrective in and of themselves, especially when believers occupy a totally different ideological paradigm as the debunker. Researchers have been circling this tension for years, and many journalists have begun contending with it as well.

In 2021, it will be even more important to wrestle with the limitations of facts as a solution to falsehood. An enormous number of citizens will burst forth into the new year convinced that Joe Biden is not the president, that his government is illegitimate, and that, therefore, they don’t have to do what he says — about Covid or anything else. That’s bad. Not contending with our assumptions will make things worse; it will keep us focused on the wrong things.

When confronted by falsehood, we need to tell the truth, of course, but we need to focus on truths bigger than a fact check: truths about network dynamics, the history of polarization, and the formation of political identity.

That newsrooms tackle the challenges of scaling down, not just scaling up.

When setting out to tell these truths, it will be important to manage expectations. However carefully contextualized a news story might be, believers in falsehood might never see it. Or if they do see the story, they might take something totally unintended from it. Most perniciously, if journalists are saying a conspiracy theory is false, that might be fodder for some — particularly those who see mainstream journalism as an arm of the Deep State — to do their own research, algorithmically docenting them towards results that confirm their beliefs.

It might not be possible to push back against these sorts of beliefs at scale, certainly not while algorithms keep people right where they are. This challenge is further complicated by the fact that journalists can only guess at believers’ unique identities and deep memetic frames, sense-making apparatuses that structure what a person sees, thinks, does, and which demarcates their good “us” from their bad “them.” That makes catering to people’s quirks, and individual rhetorical needs, very difficult.

The people who love and live with falsehood-believers, on the other hand — they have a much better shot at explaining things in frame-sensitive ways that might pull believers back from the edge of the rabbit hole, or at least throw a rope down for those already gone. The best stories in 2021 will provide the kind of context, and the kind of rhetorical models, that can help everyday people have better — more informed, more strategic, more identity-minded — conversations with the believers in their lives.

That journalism scholars, critics, and practitioners look beyond journalism to address journalism’s challenges.

The fact that people on the left and right so often disagree on what the facts even are speaks to problems bigger than journalism. Solutions to those problems must be bigger than journalism too.

In 2021, the institution will — and should — continue grappling with a range of challenges, most pressingly issues of trust. But the focus, and allocation of resources, needs to go toward education more broadly.

Within journalism, there are already calls to ramp up media literacy efforts, particularly among K-12 students. However, strategies directed at distinguishing truth from falsehood won’t be enough, for all the reasons that fact-checking itself isn’t enough.

That’s not all. In our present hyperpolarized climate, facts are, for many, explicitly partisan. K-12 instructors, and even some college instructors, often don’t have the freedom or job security to simply swat down falsehoods — because that too easily leads to charges of bias against conservatives. That’s a chilling prospect for many. It’s also untenable pedagogically.

So, in 2021, researchers, educators, and practitioners will begin reimagining media literacy efforts, especially in classrooms. To be successful, and most likely to help restore trust, these efforts must not paper over our epistemological divide. They must, instead, make our epistemological divide an object lesson. These efforts must also foreground all the bigger truths mentioned above: network dynamics, the history of polarization, and the formation of political identity. Journalism will factor into these discussions. But journalism will just be one part, always in dialogue with everything else.

The difference between a wish and a prediction is the if in if-then: If these specific conditions are met, then we can expect these specific outcomes. A prediction assumes the if is as good as done. A wish looks — maybe hopefully, maybe wearily, maybe fearfully — towards the horizon of the then.

There are lots of reasons these ifs won’t happen in 2021: because people sure are committed to the corrective value of facts, despite all the evidence to the contrary; because people assume that the authorities they appeal to (science, expertise, having an advanced degree or impressive title) are universally appealing to others; because so many of us are raised to cleanly distinguish this from that, education from journalism, journalism from technology, technology from people.

But maybe 2020 will have been enough to shake these assumptions free. Maybe the horizon of the then is closer than we think.

Whitney Phillips is assistant professor of media, culture, and digital technologies at Syracuse University.

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