What is Misinformation?

The Pro-Truth Pledge (PTP) is violated when a pledge-taker shares misinformation. From the perspective of the PTP, misinformation is anything that goes against the truth of reality. It can mean directly lying about the situation at hand, for instance when an athlete denies taking steroids that she was actually taking. It can mean lying by omission, as when a scholar publishes a study with a successful experiment, while hiding that he conducted 50 of the same experiments that failed, until by random chance one finally worked, a phenomenon known as publication bias. Another example is when politicians cherry-pick numbers or stories that are not representative of actual reality to support their candidacy, for instance saying that violent crime is rising and giving an example of a gruesome murder when in reality police statistics show a decrease in violent crime. Misinformation can mean using obviously inflated statistics to support one’s argument, such as an economic commentator saying that people are better off right now because they earn more money while failing to adjust current earnings for inflation. It can mean misrepresenting someone else’s position in such a way that a neutral observer would have a completely twisted perspective of that position. Misinformation can mean representing an opinion as a fact, such as referencing an editorial or expert analysis (both opinions) and treating them as facts. It can mean insisting something is true despite lacking clear evidence that it is in fact true, especially after being challenged about the claim. It can mean sharing an article whose headline is at odds with the conclusions reached in the article. In a nutshell, 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.

In some cases, such misinformation is obvious, so that any reasonable external observer – in this case, fellow pledge-takers who evaluate each other – can see it. In other cases, it is less so. For those cases, the PTP calls on pledge signers to rely on credible fact-checking websites and/or on the scientific consensus. We consider credible any fact-checkers that have passed vetting by the Poynter Institute’s International Fact-Checking Network and are listed as “verified signatories” on this website. Someone who takes the pledge will be considered in violation of the pledge if they make a claim that is similar to those rated as “mostly false” or “completely false” by one of these websites (they use different language, but you get the idea). In a case where credible websites disagree, for instance one calls a claim “mostly false” and another calls it “mostly true,” we will not consider the claim a violation of the PTP.

In some cases, fact-checking websites have not evaluated certain claims, but the claim will be opposed by scientific research. Since science is the best of all methods we as human beings have found to determine the reality about the world and predict the outcomes of our actions, someone will be evaluated as in violation of the pledge if they make a claim that goes against the scientific consensus. We are comfortable with the Wikipedia definition of scientific consensus as “the collective judgment, position, and opinion of the community of scientists in a particular field of study. Consensus implies general agreement, though not necessarily unanimity. Consensus is normally achieved through communication at conferences, the publication process, replication (reproducible results by others), and peer review. These lead to a situation in which those within the discipline can often recognize such a consensus where it exists, but communicating to outsiders that consensus has been reached can be difficult, because the ‘normal’ debates through which science progresses may seem to outsiders as contestation. On occasion, scientific institutes issue position statements intended to communicate a summary of the science from the ‘inside’ to the ‘outside’ of the scientific community.” Thus, we can recognize scientific consensus by position statements by prestigious scientific organizations, such as this statement from 18 associations on climate change, or the result of meta-analysis studies (evaluations of a series of other prominent studies) that come to a clear determination, such as this study on the relationship of vaccines and autism. Since science gets ahead in part through individual scientists with expertise in a certain domain challenging the scientific consensus in that domain, those who are scientists do not have to abide by the scientific consensus in areas where they have scientific expertise; for all others, since it is very rare for the scientific consensus to be accurately judged as wrong by external observers, going against the scientific consensus is a violation of the pledge. Note that while we encourage deferring to experts in any specific domain, due to people’s intuitive tendency to have excessive confidence in their own opinions and underestimate the value of expert opinions, we consider going against expert opinion a violation of the pledge only in the case of a clear scientific consensus.

No one is perfect, and we do not assume anyone will be perfect in sticking to the truth-oriented behaviors described in the pledge. That is why the pledge asks for your “earnest efforts” to pursuing these behaviors, as opposed to perfection. We encourage all pledge-takers to support and encourage each other in pursuing truth-oriented behaviors, by highlighting opportunities for improvement in doing so by other pledge-takers and praising those who pursue such behaviors even despite obstacles. At the same time, we cannot read anyone’s mind and see whether they dedicated “earnest efforts” to these behaviors or not. What may be easy to some people may be incredibly difficult to others, for all sorts of reasons; what may be glaring lapses in pursuing these behaviors may be invisible to others. Thus, we do not consider situations where pledge-takers failed to engage in these behaviors as violations of the pledge. Still, we do need at least some clear and externally-verifiable standards of when people violate the pledge, something that all pledge-takers can agree on and externally verify. The three points above offer that opportunity for clear external verification that all pledge-takers agree to avoid: statements deliberately meant to mislead, going against credible fact-checking sites, or going against the scientific consensus.

Similarly, we encourage pledge-takers to use reliable sources of information. By reliably, we mean sources that, as a rule, avoid the three points above: they do not include statements deliberately meant to mislead, do not go against credible fact-checking sites, and do not go against the scientific consensus. Of course, no source of information is perfect: mistakes will happen, and an important point of evidence is the willingness of the source of information to acknowledge its error and change the information it provides. But such mistakes should not happen frequently, less than 5% of the time, otherwise it would not be accurate to describe the source of information as reliable. Naturally, those public figures and organizations who took the pledge should be assumed to be more reliable sources of information,  due to the accountability mechanism encouraging accuracy and truthfulness.

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 does not apply to religious or other values-based contexts, except in cases where the statement is misinformation about public discourse. It 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.” It does not apply to internal communications within an organization, unless these communications are about public discourse: for instance, the pledge would not apply to conversations about hiring, unless there is a claim made that an organization is hiring people because of changes in public policy. The pledge matters only in verifiable statements relevant to broader public discourse, 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 encourages parishioners to avoid going to doctors, or a scientist hides unfavorable experimental results relevant to public policy, or a business owner makes false claims about the value of the product they are offering or how a policy impacts their business, or a politician spreads falsehoods about her opponent or denies clear evidence based on the scientific consensus on a topic.

P.S. You can either ask a public figure to retract their statement privately, or if that doesn’t work, you can report a violation here.

6 thoughts on “What is Misinformation?

  1. I would also like to let people know that it actually IS possible to evaluate when the scientific consensus on an issue could be wrong or misleading (doesn’t happen that often, of course). However, evaluating that requires learning a different way of thinking about the nature of beliefs/opinions/views, and it involves a little bit of probability theory. You can do it, but it might take a little bit of extra time and effort. I wrote an explanation of how this works on my blog, if anyone is interested.


  2. why do we need a framework for the truth.. I think this actually is very dangerious to do.. if we look at history we know often the truth was never the consensus of the majorty on a subject of matter, actually the opposite is the truth.. so NO thanks very much.

    1. Given the three ways we are defining misinformation, we are very comfortable with the effort to figure out and agree on what is truth to be very productive and socially valuable.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.