According to numerous publications on both sides of the Atlantic, we live in a “post-fact” society. The creep of cognitive bias has reached such heights that the truth is no longer powerful enough to strike down a false argument. It is evident in Brexit, where politicians campaigned on the basis of outright lies about welfare tourism, healthcare funding and more. The furore over Thursday’s High Court decision on the requirement for Parliamentary approval before invoking Article 50 demonstrates that, for all the principled talk of restoring Parliamentary sovereignty, what campaigners apparently meant was unchecked Government power.
It is perhaps more evident in the support for Donald Trump, who is comfortable denying that he has said things when a cursory Google search will provide video evidence. This American Life aired a troubling show recently demonstrating just how entrenched political belief has become — it is no longer simply a viewpoint but an identity.
Can facts actually survive this onslaught or are they now irrelevant? Much of the shift came from us and particularly our use of social media. Our friendship groups mean our interactions tend to exist in an echo chamber in which we are exposed only to similar viewpoints to our own. This is part of the reason that I think the Brexit vote came as such a shock to many. This is coupled with the easy carelessness with which information is now shared, meaning that misinformation spreads just as rapidly. We complain about newspapers hiding their retractions after lazy journalism but individuals can be just as bad. All this is to say that we can change a lot by changing how we approach social media.
I am proposing a short recommended checklist for posting articles that I am going to call The FACT Charter because I am not feeling particularly creative. However, it does sport a helpful (one might say contrived) mnemonic.
- Fact-check before sharing or reposting
- Assess critically for bias
- Challenge your friends
- Think out loud
Fact-check before sharing or reposting
This is really the crux, as it becomes ever-easier to share articles in just one or two clicks. It is equally easy to view it as someone else’s article and abdicate blame for any errors but, like it or not, by sharing that article you are essentially becoming a publisher, widening the circulation of that story. You do not have to start from scratch: see whether the source material is a reputable news outlet or some guy’s blog; check that a study’s conclusion actually says what the writer claims. If it turns out to be untrue, that’s okay: you’ve still gained another data point.
The argument that it would be too time-consuming to check the source is essentially saying that your time is worth more than that of your friends reading it. If you don’t have time, wait. At the very least, point out clearly that you’ve not checked the underlying information.
Assess critically for bias
There is no such thing as neutral journalism but bias varies dramatically. Often a strong opinion piece is warranted and worth sharing. But equally it can be lazily convenient to share a partisan article that aligns with our beliefs but does not really provide a particularly nuanced or balanced view. Look for something more neutral and — if you feel less inclined to post that version — assess why you are sharing it. A separate recommendation is regularly to read a news source with a conflicting viewpoint to your own, to ensure yours is being challenged and not simply reinforced in isolation.
Challenge your friends
Our friends keep us honest. Not every post has to turn into an argument, of course, but if friends post stories that seem suspect to you, ask them for the evidence behind it. Ignoring it is a doing them a disservice.
Think out loud
Provide your own commentary when sharing articles, highlighting what you have taken away. It forces you to engage with the content rather than just a knee-jerk share because of a headline seeking a viral audience. It may be the best way to reduce the effectiveness of click-bait headlines (which incidentally, will only go away if we make a concerted effort not to click on them whenever we spot them). If nothing else, your commentary will encourage a dialogue which is always more interesting.
Let’s make facts great again!