What is Misinformation?

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. It can mean using made-up statistics to support one’s argument. 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. 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 general, misinformation is anything that conveys information in an obviously deceptive way that leads audiences to have the wrong impression of the truth of reality.

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. Rather than going through the process of vetting fact-checking websites, we have decided to outsource that work to Facebook, which is partnering with websites it has vetted and evaluated as credible. As of the initial unveiling, the websites include Snopes, Politifact, ABC News, and FactCheck.org, and more will be added over time. All these are members of a common coalition, the Poynter International Fact Checking Network, and have committed to a common set of principles. Any other websites that Facebook uses will be considered credible for PTP purposes. 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.

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