The spectacle of former FBI Director James Comey testifying under oath that President Donald Trump lied, and the latter promising to testify under oath that Comey lied, highlights the fact that we are a low point for truth in U.S. politics. Lying proved a very successful strategy for political causes and individual candidates in the U.K. and U.S. elections in 2016, leading Oxford Dictionaries to choose “post-truth” as its 2016 word of the year. As such, it might seem ludicrous to many that we can solve the problem of lies in politics. Research in behavioral science suggests, however, that we can address political deception through a number of effective strategies, which are brought together in the Pro-Truth Pledge project.
But first, we need to identify why current mechanisms of preventing political deception don’t work well. The traditional mechanisms for identifying the truth about politics come from mainstream media and its fact checking. Polling shows, however, that trust in the mainstream media has dropped from around 50 to 32 percent from 2000 to 2016, and only 29 percent trust fact checking. No wonder fewer and fewer Americans are getting their news from mainstream media and engaging with fact checkers.
At the same time increasing numbers of people are using social media to get news—62 percent, according to studies. Unfortunately, a study by Stanford University shows that most social media news consumers cannot differentiate real from fake news stories. The situation is so bad that, according to research, in the three months before the presidential election the top 20 false news stories had more Facebook shares, reactions and comments than did the top 20 true news articles.
Given the crumbling trust in traditional media and our vulnerability to lies on social media, we should not be surprised that politicians on both sides try to manipulate voters into believing lies. After all, the incentive for politicians is to get elected, not tell the truth. To be elected, politicians need to convey the appearance of trustworthiness—what talk show host Stephen Colbert infamously called “truthiness”—as opposed to being actually trustworthy. If politicians can safely ignore fact checking by traditional news media and instead use social media to get their followers to believe their claims, the scale is tilted toward post-truth politics.
In the long run, this tendency leads to high political polarization and the deterioration of trust in the political system. In modern history, in states such as Russia, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Turkey and Italy, post-truth politics has led to the rise of authoritarian and corrupt regimes. We must do all we can to prevent this outcome in the U.S.
Tilting the scale toward truth requires a two-pronged approach, one targeting both private citizens and public figures. Research shows that without any intervention people tend to ignore information that goes against their beliefs, and are more likely to deceive both when they see others do so and when it benefits their in-group. However, increased risk of suffering negative consequences, being reminded about ethics, publicity about and committing in advance to honesty all decrease the incentive to lie for ordinary citizens. For public figures, research suggests that transparent, clear information about who is truthful, coupled with reputational rewards for socially beneficial behavior such as honesty and enforced with penalties for dishonesty are the most vital interventions.
To solve the problem of systemic lying, a group of behavioral scientists, along with many concerned citizens have launched the Pro-Truth Pledge. This asks all signees to commit to a set of truth-oriented behaviors. Whenever they share a news article, signees are encouraged to add a sentence stating they took the Pledge and verify that they fact checked the article, which serves to remind people of their ethical commitment.
Pledge takers are encouraged to share publicly with their networks about taking the Pledge, asking others to hold them accountable—thus deliberately increasing the risk of negative consequences of sharing fake news. Likewise, the Pledge asks signees to hold others accountable, requesting those who share fake news to retract it. Further reinforcing all the above, Pledge takers can get monthly newsletters, follow the Pledge’s Twitter and Facebook accounts, join a community of fellow Pledge takers online or in person, get truth-oriented resources and volunteer to help with the Pledge.
Public figures—politicians, journalists, media figures, CEOs, academics, ministers, speakers and others—get additional benefits, in line with the research. They have the opportunity to share a paragraph about why they took the Pledge and provide links to their online presence. The paragraph is then sent around in the Pledge newsletter and posted on social media, as a way of providing a reputational reward for committing to truth-oriented behavior. Public figures also get their public information listed in a database on Pro-Truth Pledge and can post a badge on their own Web sites about their commitment to the Pledge, providing clarity to all about which public figures are committed to truthful behavior.
These rewards for public figures will grow more substantial as the Pledge becomes more popular and well known, creating a virtuous cycle. The more private citizens and public figures sign the Pledge and the more credibility it gets, the more incentives other public figures will have to sign it. Whereas these early adopters will be most committed to honesty, behavioral science suggests that later adopters will be more likely to do so out of a desire to gain a reputation as honest, and thus will be more likely to cheat.
To address this problem, the Pledge crowdsources the fight against lies. One of the volunteer roles for the Pledge is monitoring public figure signees. If a volunteer suspects a public figure has made a false statement, the volunteer would approach the person privately and ask for clarification. The matter can be resolved by the public figure issuing a retraction—everyone makes mistakes—or the volunteer realizing the public figure’s statement is not false. If the matter is not resolved, the volunteer would then submit the case to a mediating committee of vetted and trained Pro-Truth Pledge volunteers. They would investigate the matter and give the public figure an opportunity to issue a retraction or explain why the statement is true.
If the public figure refuses to do so, the mediating committee then assumes that the public figure lied—meaning a deliberately false statement was made, and rules the person in contempt of the Pledge. This ruling triggers a substantial reputational punishment. The mediating committee issues a media advisory to all relevant media venues that the public figure is in contempt of the Pledge and puts that information on the Pledge Web site. The committee also sends an action alert to all Pledge takers who are constituents to that public figure, asking them to tweet, post, text, call, write, meet with and otherwise lobby the public figure to retract their statement. A public figure who intends to lie is much better off not taking the Pledge at all.
Will the Pledge work to tilt the scale toward truth? In order to tell, we’ll need to evaluate whether and why people are taking the Pledge and also whether the Pledge changes their behavior.
Rolled out in late March, the Pledge has over 1,000 signees so far and has already had some positive mainstream media coverage. The Pledge takers include a number of politicians, talk show hosts, academics and public commentators who expressed strong enthusiasm for the project.
What about behavioral change? A retired U.S. intelligence officer described how he saw an article “that played right to [his] particular political biases” and his “first inclination was to share it as quickly and widely as possible. But then [he] remembered the Pledge [he’d] signed and put the brakes on.” The story turned out to be false, and “that experience has led [him] to be much more vigilant in assessing and sharing stories that appeal to [his] political sensibilities.”
Michael Smith, a candidate for Congress in Idaho, took the Pledge, and later posted on his Facebook wall a screen shot of a tweet by Donald Trump criticizing minority and disabled children. After being called out on it, he went and searched Trump’s feed. He could not find the original tweet, and although Trump may have deleted it, the candidate edited his own Facebook post to say, “Due to a Truth Pledge I have taken, I have to say I have not been able to verify this post.” He indicated that he would be more careful with future postings.
The evidence so far shows that the Pro-Truth Pledge has the potential to protect our democracy from the tide of lies. Whether it will succeed depends on how many people go to the Web site sign the Pledge, spread the word, lobby public figures to sign it and monitor those who do. The early results look promising.