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Why telling the truth is crucial right now

Media Uncovered  |  By Carly Goodman, Jul 11, 2017
Photo: AFSC

As big news breaks, we are seeing officials floating misinformation and untrue explanations. The New York Times even editorialized that a "culture of dishonesty" has taken root in the Trump administration, undermining the public’s trust in institutions. 

A recent study shows that partisanship may be more important than facts in shaping a public opinion. In an experiment, supporters of President Trump were given information showing that his speeches contained false and misleading information. While people were able to accept the new, correct information about jobs and crime, the fact that Trump had spread false information didn’t curb people’s support for their candidate. They recognized the information as false, but they didn’t care. This is a disturbing insight for those of us working to build more peaceful, inclusive communities.

In a culture of dishonesty and doubt, it is that much more challenging to make social change. So what can we do about it?

Although that study that affirmed the dominance of partisanship in decision-making, it also contained a silver lining: Facts matter, and can make a deep (if not decisive) impression. Remember that although some people won’t care if something is a lie, many people will. While we may not be able to challenge the strongest partisan support for a candidate or politician, we can bring the truth to light.

Here are tips on how to do so:

Tip #1: Read beyond headlines and check the evidence.

On social media, it can be tempting to share or retweet stories without reading them thoroughly. These days it’s especially important to be careful to spread news that is well-supported with evidence. What are the sources for the information in the story? How did the author arrive at their conclusion? Amplify stories that are transparent about the evidence and true.

Tip #2: Focus on the truth and tell an affirmative story.

When you see a lie gaining traction, it can be tempting to argue. But repeating a lie in order to debunk it can give it more weight and power – and it’s unlikely to convince anyone who believes it anyway. Check the facts but don’t repeat the lie. Instead, tell the true affirmative story.

Tip #3: Remember the purpose of the lie.

When lies circulate widely, it’s worth asking why. The Trump administration’s lies about widespread voter fraud, for example, are designed to erode faith in democracy and provide justification for voter suppression. Instead of debunking the myth, focus on the real problem, which is voter suppression.

More broadly, dishonesty from the administration seems designed to destabilize faith in our institutions and to make us doubt our own perceptions of what’s real and what’s false. That is why we need to stay committed to telling the truth, and to stay focused on building a more peaceful and just society.

About the Author

Carly Goodman is a historian and the Communications Analyst and Mellon/ACLS Public Fellow at AFSC.

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