Caption: Logo of Unfakery Facebook page created by Felicia Winfree Cravens (courtesy of Unfakery)
In politics, it’s often difficult to know what’s true, what’s spin, and what’s an outright lie. With governments expanding at every level, and increasing the number of issues they have control over, the stakes for elections, bond initiatives, and public referenda get higher every election cycle. That means the incentives to spread misinformation about issues and candidates get higher as well.
It’s profitable to lie and cheat, and we have even come to expect it to be the norm with politicians, activists, and advocacy media. Too often the focus is on doing whatever it takes to win an election or a debate, rather than searching for truth to find a solution to a problem. We complain about the lies and the spin, but we view them as a permanent feature of the political process. It’s baked into the cake, we tell ourselves; what can we do?
As the founder in 2009 of the Houston Tea Party Society, I spent a lot of time thinking about that very question, especially in light of the plague of fake news infecting the political sphere. My fellow conservatives have been relentlessly targeted by people wanting to manipulate their emotions in order to make a profit. If there’s anything I learned in twenty years of conservative political activism, it’s that people react and respond to misinformation all the time, in ways that have serious consequences. And when I saw some friends and allies from my days in politics sharing those fake articles and images over the past few years, I decided I couldn’t just hide them from my feed and ignore the problem. There HAD to be something I could do to push back against fakery and misinformation. The truth deserved a defense.
I read a lot of scholarly articles and studies and white papers about fake news. There was no shortage of paragraphs about how bad it was, who created it, why they created it, how it worked, who fell for it. But nobody seemed to be talking seriously about what to do about fake news, how we should respond to it. Debunking sites were well established, but were frequently dismissed as biased by those sharing fakery. And debunker sites only answer the question of “Is this specific thing true or false?” instead of teaching better habits and strategies to people to avoid future fakes.
That led me to create Unfakery, a Facebook page chiefly geared towards conservatives, devoted to countering misinformation, holding all media outlets accountable, and helping people learn how to become better information consumers. And once I found the Pro-Truth Pledge, I knew this belonged in our toolbox.
Unfakery could debunk articles and images all day long, and build dozens of tools to teach better information habits. But unless our target audience values truth more highly than serving an agenda or winning political points, we won’t be able to make a real impact on the problem of fakery. Nor will we be able to affect the large number of people whose opinions and voting are shaped by it. I believe the keys to establishing a more truth-centered culture are contained in the principles of the Pro-Truth Pledge: sharing, honoring, and encouraging truth.
If we want people to value a commitment to truth, we have to model it. We have to publicly discuss it, and do so often. We have to uphold it as a prominent value again. We have to permeate our social spheres with references to the search for truth, and orient our conversations around it. We can’t brush aside a truth because it disagrees with us or doesn’t serve our agenda. We can’t lie about things other people said or did in order to achieve our purpose, and still call ourselves honest.
For instance, too often these days I see people defending their share of a fake quote with “It sounds like something he would say!” or “She may not have said it, but it’s what she believes!” These are dishonest defenses for sharing made-up quotes by famous people. This kind of fakery is NOT acceptable. It should be obvious to everyone that you do not get to put words in other people’s mouths, and yet some people are thoroughly convinced this IS acceptable. There should be no room for “fake but accurate” excuses for misinformation.
When you take the pledge, you let people know that truth matters to you, and you are willing to be held accountable for promoting it. That’s important for people in politics and business; we can all agree with that, and encourage and promote them taking the Pro-Truth Pledge.
But it’s even MORE important for the rest of us to consider taking the pledge and living by it. We shape the culture ourselves by what we collectively approve and what we reject. When we give political lies a pass because they agree with us, or dismiss them because “that’s just politics,” then we perpetuate a culture in which truth is an afterthought. That will only serve to spiral us further down into the current truth crisis, and prevent us from having meaningful, productive conversations with people who have the same goals as we do, but differ in how to achieve them.
People generally don’t want to be seen as dishonest on social platforms where their reputations constitute their greatest social capital. So let’s take advantage of that. Promoting truth, especially in online arenas, can be contagious. Broadcast that you are willing to be held accountable by taking the Pro-Truth Pledge, and then encourage others to do it as well. Start building networks of accountability partners and truth defenders.
We can keep complaining about the lies and fakery we encounter every day, and continue to write it off as ‘how politics works.’ Or we can take the pledge, stand for truth, and start changing the culture now.