The Truth Is Under Attack

Fake news. Misinformation on Facebook and Twitter. Conspiracy theories concerning vaccines and climate change. Alternative facts from the White House. The president’s lawyer claiming “truth isn't truth.” The truth is being attacked. What can we do to defend truth?

A basic assumption of democracy is that people evaluate information and come to reasoned judgments. But this system depends on an agreement about the state of the world. People should be able to agree about what is true. As Daniel Moynihan once famously quipped, “Everyone is entitled to his opinion, but not his own facts." But now we can’t seem to agree on the facts. The problem isn’t your fault or my fault really. We are being peddled false information. Many people present misinformation. Often the peddlers of this false snake oil know they are lying. But some people have come to believe and then spread misinformation. Thus false information is ubiquitous; constantly bubbling through various media environments.

And let me be clear about why it is a problem when the truth is under attack: Everyone is susceptible to misleading information. Misinformation can lead people to create false personal memories and to believe false things about the state of the world. When presented with misleading information about the past, people will change their memories. Sometimes they will identify the wrong person in a lineup. In other situations, people will create entirely false memories – believing that they spilled punch at a wedding as a child. When we remember with friends, family, and coworkers, we can discover that we don’t have the same memories of experiences. We remember different aspects of the same events, and sometimes our memories diverge so much that it appears the memories are completely different. Supposedly, this is what Rudy Guiliani, President Trump’s lawyer, meant with his comment that “the truth isn’t the truth.” People disagree about the past. Everyone has their own memories. But even when we disagree, even when we create false memories, even when we confidently identify the wrong person, the truth remains. There is always a truth about what happened in the past.

We also can adopt misinformation about the state of the world. Many people have been exposed to false information about various news topics. A recent story at NPR described a classic example of fake news. In the 1980s, a fake news story about the cause of AIDS was promoted by the KGB, the former Russian intelligence organization. The news spread. Furthermore, the fake story has never disappeared. That old fake story about the cause continues to float around. Misinformation has led many people to believe a variety of false things, such as that vaccines cause autism (they don’t), and that climate change isn’t real or isn’t caused by humans (it is real and is caused by human activity). Repetition of misinformation contributes to people believing false information. Even trying to counteract fake news can lead people to rebound and more firmly believe the fake news. Of course, our political beliefs make us more likely to believe misinformation and fake news that is consistent with our political side – a point I noted in a previous blog post about the size of President Trump’s inauguration crowd.

So how do we defend the truth?

We know that people will come to believe misinformation. Even people who engage in critical thinking are at risk if they are repetitively exposed to misinformation and if that misinformation is consistent with their political positions. Personally, I am most suspicious of things I want to be true, both as a scientist and as a consumer of news. But I know I am still human. I know my memories may be false. I know that I probably have adopted some misinformation and have some incorrect beliefs about the state of the world.

Critical thinking is crucial but may not be enough. We need help.

When most news was presented to the public through TV news programs and traditional papers, editors and journalists followed ethical standards that helped the news adhere to the truth. When errors occurred, ethical journalists acknowledged and corrected. But today there are so many promoters of “news.” I’ve put news in quotes because some of what is promoted is known to be false. And this matters.

When social media platforms become the source of news for many people, they may have the same ethical obligations as newspapers and journalists. Social media platforms can’t hide behind claims of being neutral. Being neutral with respect to true information and misinformation isn’t neutrality. Instead, this promotes the misinformation by treating it the same as the truth. Similarly when news and opinion shows present people peddling snake oil, misinformation, and conspiracy theories, they have ethical obligations. Giving air time to people who deny climate change, for example, promotes that misinformation – even when the peddlers of false information are asked hard questions.

Defending truth may rely on more than critical thinking among consumers of information – that is, you and me. Defending truth may also require that social media platforms and TV shows behave with the integrity of journalists (a point Jalbert and I made in a recent evaluation of misinformation in the news). Social media platforms should have an ethical obligation to take down misinformation and remove accounts that repetitively present and promote misinformation. Some of these platforms have recently been moving in that direction. Various social media platforms have removed false accounts used by Russian sources to promote misinformation and disrupt elections. Many have also removed accounts linked to Infowars, a source that has repeatedly promoted misinformation and conspiracy theories.

Protecting the truth is critical for democracy, and for making personal decisions (such as vaccinating your children). When the truth is under attack, each of us must engage in careful critical evaluation of news. But our news sources, both traditional and social media platforms, also have some ethical obligations to defend the truth.