How Are Pledge-Takers Held Accountable?

Caption: Skeptical baby meme saying “you mean to tell me you’re going to hold me accountable?” (Created by post author)

The Pro-Truth Pledge wouldn’t work without a way to hold at least the public figures who take the pledge accountable for their commitment. How does the pledge do so?

Crowdsourcing Accountability

While we can’t always see whether pledge-takers exert their “earnest efforts” to abide by the pledge, we can see when a pledge-taker shares misinformation, and the pledge is considered violated when a pledge-taker shares what the pledge defines as misinformation. From the perspective of the pledge, misinformation is anything that conveys information in an obviously deceptive way that leads audiences to have a fundamentally wrong impression of the truth in any given matter, and a thorough description with examples is at this link.

Violating the pledge in itself is not a problem for pledge-takers, as it does not mean you are going to be immediately punished for doing so, since the PTP is not intended to be primarily punitive. In putting facts first, we are not trying to play “gotcha” when someone makes an innocent mistake that causes a violation the pledge. After all, we aim to push ourselves and others who signed the pledge to be better than our natural inclinations – just like it is against the natural inclination of many of us to avoid a second piece of chocolate cake. Yet taking the second piece and thus violating our aspirations to eat well doesn’t mean we drop our goal of having healthy eating habits, but simply try to figure out what went wrong and aim to do better in the future.

Similarly, each of us may well eventually fail to be oriented toward the truth, and make a statement that goes against a fact-checking website or the scientific consensus or the clearly visible truth of reality. We rely on a community of truth-oriented individuals to support each other and provide compassionate correction when we fail, helping advance open-minded thinking among all of us and thus improving our society, as research shows. A key piece of the pledge is that all pledge-takers will hold all others who took the pledge accountable for upholding the truth. If someone is unwilling to correct themselves when provided clear information about their mistake, it is the responsibility of each of us who took the pledge to hold that person accountable by publicizing that person’s actions in appropriate channels, to penalize that person through harming that person’s reputation. In doing so, please make sure to provide both: 1) Clear evidence of the violation, and 2) Clear evidence of a good-faith, reasonable effort to get the alleged violator of the pledge to address the violation. If the individual is a private citizen, the matter ends there, as this sort of reputational blow provides a significant enough disincentive to cause the large majority private citizens who take the pledge to avoid lying.

Holding Public Figures Accountable

While this crowd-based accountability mechanism is appropriate for private citizens, we have a separate and more formalized mechanism for holding accountable those who identify as public figures. They get the reward of a positive reputation boost for taking the pledge, in exchange for agreeing to be held publicly accountable for their commitment to avoiding misinformation. While a public figure sharing misinformation by mistake suffers no penalty, one deliberately violating the pledge – as shown by a refusal to retract misinformation one shared – suffers substantial negative consequences.

How does this accountability work in practice? First of all, anyone – whether they took the pledge or not – can report a complaint about any public figure who signed the pledge through our “Violation Report” form. We are excited to get potential violations of the pledge brought to our attention, but unfortunately get many frivolous complaints by people who failed to read thoroughly and understand what actually constitutes a violation of the pledge. For example, it’s easy to complain that someone has not “shared the whole truth” if they did not write a three-tome book about a topic. Likewise, someone might complain about misinformation shared in private, while the pledge only applies to public speech. Similarly, someone might make complaints about a public speech act that is not visible, say a deleted tweet or an unrecorded speech: unless evidence is available, we simply are unable to investigate the matter. Overall, the burden of evidence is on the one bringing the complaint, as we have an “innocent until proven guilty” approach to public figures: otherwise, few would sign the pledge. However, we are very glad whenever a complaint proves viable, and if that is the case, then it is passed on to a PTP advocate who has some experience in evaluating complaints.

Another way a complaint can come forward is from a PTP advocate specifically assigned to monitor one or more public figures: this is one of the volunteer activities available as part of the pledge project. If a Pro-Truth advocate finds that a public figure has violated the pledge, the advocate would contact the person privately. As part of this process, the advocate would adopt “charity mode,” meaning being more charitable toward the alleged violator than is one’s intuition, together with the “innocent until proven guilty” perspective – perhaps the person misspoke, or the advocate misheard something. The advocate would use curiosity and questioning to determine whether there is clear evidence that the pledge has been violated. If there is clear evidence, provide this to the alleged violator, and if the person retracts her/his words, the matter is resolved. Let the organizers of the pledge know about this matter by emailing info [at] protruthpledge [dot] org.

If the alleged violator is a public figure, the advocate would escalate the matter to a PTP local, regional, or national mediating committee, depending on the status of the public figure. This committee includes a group of vetted volunteers who would evaluate the evidence provided by the advocate, contact the public figure for a chance for the person to offer an explanation, and make a ruling – either determining that there is a violation, that there is no violation, or that the evidence is insufficient to make a judgment. If there is a ruling of a violation, then this ruling is evaluated by a member of the PTP Central Coordination Committee, to ensure fairness and accuracy, and provide an external perspective. In the case that the PTP Central Coordination Committee member also determines that a violation has occurred, the committee then contacts the alleged violator, offering the person another chance to retract her/his words. By this time, the public figure had a number of opportunities to clarify the situation and correct it if a mistake has been made, rather than if the public figure aimed to make a deliberate deception to pollute the truth and hurt all of us. This process might sound a little convoluted, but it minimizes the possibility of the PTP being politicized or corrupted at a local level.

If the public figure still refuses to take her/his words back, the PTP mediating committee would issue a press advisory that the public figure is in contempt of the pledge to put reputational pressure on the thought leader, with clear evidence of the violation as well as the efforts it made to get the public figure to revise the violation. The PTP mediating committee would also contact relevant organizations with which the person who violated the pledge is affiliated, such as the radio station if it is a radio show host, or a university if it is a scientist. It would also issue a PTP Action Alert to those who indicated they want to receive such alerts – either at the local, regional, or national level, depending on the stature of the public figure – for them to email/Tweet and otherwise message the public figure encouraging her/him to revise the relevant statements, and writing letters-to-the-editor about the situation. Finally, the public figure will be listed on the PTP website as in contempt of the pledge. This provides considerable reputation pressure for a public figure to avoid being in contempt of the pledge – if the public figure envisions violating the pledge deliberately, s/he would be better off not signing it at all. To summarize, innocent violations of the pledge will not be penalized, only deliberate attempts to misrepresent the truth and thus undermine the public good of truth and trust.

Who will monitor the PTP mediating committees? Other pledge-takers, of course. The PTP mediating committees have strong incentives to ensure that their rulings are as fair and objective as is possible, because their whole reputation rests on such objectivity. The outcomes of their proceedings – if there is a ruling of a violation – will be provided as evidence for scrutiny by other pledge-takers, and the public at large. These outcomes will not be provided if the public figure retracts her/his words at any stage, to prevent reputation damage for the public figure, since the PTP is not meant to be punitive but corrective.

Violations of the pledge only apply to statements made in and about the public sphere. In other words, it does not apply to private interactions, such as when a wife tells her husband his new shirt makes him look really muscular, regardless of what she really thinks. It does not apply to semi-private contexts, such as when a fisherman tells tall tales about the size of the fish he caught. It also does not apply to religious or other values-based contexts, except in cases where the statement is a clear piece of misinformation about public policy. It also does not apply to cases that cannot be reasonably verified by an outside party and/or have to do with personal beliefs and spiritual experiences, such as when a politician or a pastor says “I support this policy because of God’s personal revelations to me,” or an environmentalist says “I support protecting the environment because otherwise the spirit of Mother Earth would suffer.” The pledge matters only in verifiable statements in the public sphere, such as when a private citizen shares a piece of viral deception online, or a journalist misquotes a source, or a pastor makes false claims about miracle healing and thus encourages parishioners to avoid going to doctors, or a scientist hides unfavorable experimental results relevant to public policy, or a politician spreads lies about her opponent.

While the pledge is only violated when one shares misinformation, public figures who take the pledge can engage in more subtle forms of shading the truth, what is known as “spin.” Such shadings of the truth only rises to the level of violation of the pledge when it meets the bar of what we consider misinformation from the perspective of the pledge, namely conveying “information in an obviously deceptive way that leads audiences to have a fundamentally wrong impression of the truth in any given matter.” In more light cases of “spin” where this bar is not met, the pledge organizers will not be able to impose formal reputational sanctions on the public figure engaging in spin. We made this choice of avoiding punishing light cases of spin because there is too much potential for differences of opinion to prejudice evaluations of what constitutes spin, as well as our intent to follow Blackstone’s formulation as enshrined in the judicial system: “it is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.” However, we encourage other pledge-takers informally to call out the public figure for engaging in spin. In almost all cases, spin will go against one of the truth-oriented behaviors outlined in the pledge. Please bring this matter to the attention of the public figure engaging in spin, and encourage that public figure to model the spirit of the pledge, even if their words do not technically violate the pledge.

Conclusion

Hope this provides you with clear guidance of how to hold people accountable for taking the pledge. Let us know what your experience is like and what questions you have!

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