Politics

The internet is a great source for facts, but Jan. 6 reminds us truth isn't the problem

Commentary: Social media has ushered in a golden age of disinformation. But the real issue is people who aren't interested in the truth.

Trump supporters clash with police and security forces as people storm the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on Jan. 6, 2021.
Brent Stirton/Getty Images

Long before the internet, my working-class parents made one of the biggest investments in their kids' education imaginable for them at the time: They bought a set of encyclopedias.

But they couldn't afford to buy the whole set at once. Instead we got the alphabetized volumes of the Encyclopedia Americana a month at a time, and it took over three years to get the 30 volumes. (Some letters were spread over two books.) Having access to all the information was a real game changer, especially since we didn't live walking distance to a public library. My brother, sisters and I would pore over the pages as we did our homework, and I still can hear my dad saying "Look it up!" whenever I asked him a question.

Seems crazy now to think about printed encyclopedias as a crucial information source, given that about 85% of Americans today have access to the sum of human knowledge on the smartphones in our pockets and that Google can serve up answers to any question in less than a tenth of a second. But the days of encyclopedias weren't that long ago -- the internet wasn't really a thing until the early '90s.

I'm reminded of those encyclopedias because it's the first anniversary of the Jan. 6 insurrection, when a few thousand Americans tried to violently overthrow the government because the mob accepted the very Big Lie, Donald Trump's false claim that he won the November 2020 election. In the 14 months since votes were cast, we're still dealing with misinformation about a contest in which President Joe Biden defeated Trump fair and square. About 70% of Republicans said in a Washington Post-ABC News poll after the Capitol riot last year that Biden wasn't the legitimate president, but that number has now dropped to 58% of Republicans, according to a Washington Post-University of Maryland poll in December. Even though the truth made some tiny headway, that's still a lot of people who believe something that's not true.

Here's the thing: The truth is amazingly just a few clicks away on the internet for anyone willing to look at primary sources of fact. I've linked to examples throughout this column, and I definitely didn't include bloviators, conspiracy theorists, con artists, commentators and politicians looking to capitalize on lies, big and small.

But as you may already know, the problem isn't the truth. Telling someone today to "look it up" or  "do the research" can be a waste of time because, as scholars, researchers and philosophers including Elizabeth Anderson note, some people want to believe what they want to believe, even if it's not true.

"When group interests, creeds, or dogmas are threatened by unwelcome factual information, biased thinking becomes denial," Adrian Bardon, a professor of philosophy at Wake Forest University, wrote in a January 2020 article for Nieman Lab called The fact-checker's dilemma: Humans are hardwired to dismiss facts that don't fit their worldview.

"Unfortunately," he added, "these facts about human nature can be manipulated for political ends."

And elections are certainly about politics.

I spoke with Bardon in December about what's been happening in our highly politicized country since the insurrection. He says we're not dealing with a lack of information, because if we were, the Big Lie wouldn't continue to be an effective political tool in the US,  given all the evidence that it is, in fact, a big lie. Instead, the willingness to dismiss facts and ignore truth is about social identity and community acceptance, coupled with a general distrust of experts and expertise -- including institutions, governments, the media -- who many people feel don't care about their needs.

"When it comes to beliefs, like worldview beliefs or your religious ideology, accuracy is not the point," says Bardon, who's also the author of The Truth About Denial: Bias and Self-Deception in Science, Politics and Religion. "The point is integrating with your social group, sending the right signals that you're part of the group. That's not the time to start worrying about accuracy. That's the time to believe what you need to believe."

So now what? For people trying to get the truth heard, including those of us in the media, there's obviously no easy fix. But fighting the good fight could start with more transparency, truth sandwiches, empathy and understanding.

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Biden takes the oath of office at his Jan. 20 inauguration after an election he won.

Andrew Harnik/Getty Images

'Avoid retelling the lies'

Transparency is pretty straightforward. When anyone makes a claim or asserts something is a fact, they should offer up the source of that information. "Many people say" or "people tell me" don't count. Who says? Who are they? This is where we, as consumers of information, get a chance to vet reliable sources of information from the propaganda spouted by bloviators, bad actors and the like who spread their "fake news," most notably across social media channels.

Since it's also true you can't believe everything you read on the internet, knowing the original source of information so you can quickly fact check is important. And it's why so much attention is focused on what social media giants like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter are doing -- and not doing, as CNET's Queenie Wong reports -- to stop the spread of misinformation and disinformation. That includes shutting down the accounts of those who violate rules around lying. More than half of US adults say they got their news from social media platforms "often" or "sometimes" in 2020,  according to a survey by the Pew Research Center.

"It is absolutely 100% on the backs of the social media companies to continue to crack down on these [misinformation] movements and maybe risk one tiny little sliver of their profits in the service of doing the right thing for the greater good," Mike Rothschild, a conspiracy researcher and author of The Storm Is Upon Us, which provides a history of the QAnon conspiracy theory, told my CNET colleague Oscar Gonzalez about the misinformation pandemic we're living through.

Added Rothschild, "I don't know that QAnon would have spread if Facebook, Twitter and YouTube had cracked down on it in 2018."

A truth sandwich is a way for the media to put out their message in a way that doesn't feed into the spin, lies or disinformation being spread by bad actors, as NPR explains in its overview of the concept that UC Berkeley linguistics professor George Lakoff, who's studied how propaganda works, is credited with originating. On Twitter in 2018, he described the "Truth Sandwich."

1. Start with the truth. The first frame gets the advantage.

2. Indicate the lie. Avoid amplifying the specific language if possible.

3. Return to the truth. Always repeat truths more than lies.

Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan offered media organizations an additional take on Lakoff's idea: "Avoid retelling the lies. Avoid putting them in headlines, leads or tweets … Because it is that very amplification that gives them power."

Empathy and understanding are the trickiest, experts agree.

In The Perfect Storm: A Subcultural Analysis of the QAnon Movement, Chris Conner, a sociology professor at the University of Missouri, Columbia, argues that people who support the QAnon conspiracy theory do so because they mistrust the government and public officials because social systems in the US have failed them. Believers end up feeling alienated and dissatisfied with their lives. 

If these hardships aren't addressed, many may go even further down the rabbit hole, Conner said in an interview with CNET's Gonzalez. Others could end up martyrs for what they believe to be a just cause. "What's going to be productive is listening to these people and taking them seriously about what it is they were responding to," Conner said.

Bardon, of Wake Forest University, agrees that understanding context is key. For information to be effective and the truth to resonate, it needs to personally matter. He says the more local and personal the information is, the better. So a good start may be to reframe the narrative around social and political issues in a way that lets people relate them to their personal situations.

Here's how he explains it, using climate change -- a hot-button topic -- as an example. When local interest groups in southeast Florida, for instance, wanted to discuss rising sea levels as an outcome of climate change, they started by bringing local residents together around a common concern -- drinking water -- rather than calling it a discussion about global warming.

"We're all southeast Floridians, right? And we're all interested in drinking water. So what can we do about that?" From there, Bardon says, the discussion focused on how seawater intrusion was affecting the drinking water supply.

"Start out with local interests," he emphasizes. "The more local it gets, the more personal it gets, the more effective the messaging is going to be."

The decline in local newspapers focused on community issues certainly doesn't help the situation, though. In 2020 alone, over 100 local newsrooms closed, expanding news deserts across America.

us-capitol

In November, 10 months after the insurrection, some fencing remained at the top of the steps leading to the Capitol.

Kent German/CNET

Jan. 6 and the Big Lie

So how do you appeal on a personal level to people when it comes to the US presidential elections, the integrity of our voting systems and the value of a peaceful transfer of power from one administration to the next?

I don't know, to be honest. And even though I'm confident it's not a lack of fact-based information, here are four things I found in my research of the 2020 election and events leading up to the Jan. 6 insurrection that left five people dead. I've included links to the original sources, as I've been doing throughout, so you can vet them for yourself. If it helps change the mind of even just one person who believes the Big Lie, my time was well spent.

First, Biden became our 46th president after more Americans than at any other time in history -- an unprecedented 159,633,396 or 66% of US adult citizens -- voted legally in person and by mail. US officials, notably those working in the former administration, called the 2020 elections, in a 304-word statement, "the most secure in American history." Here's the vote tally by state, which details the math. And here's the Electoral College tally, which showed Biden's 306 wins versus the 232 that went to his opponent.

Second, William Barr, at the time head of the Justice Department and appointed by Trump, said there wasn't any evidence of massive widespread voter fraud after he asked attorneys general around the country to check.

Third, the internet is an incredible archive containing the findings of at least 86 judges -- both Democratic and Republican, including some appointed by the former president -- who weighed in by December 2020 on at least 60 lawsuits. Those lawsuits were an attempt to steal the vote by asking the courts to overturn the outcome of the election in numerous states, including Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wisconsin. The judicial consensus: There wasn't evidence to support dismissing the votes.

Don't want to read through all the lawsuits? US Circuit Court Judge Stephanos Bibas, a former law professor and prosecutor who was appointed by Trump in 2017, offers, in my opinion, the prevailing view when he rejected a lawsuit that asked to throw out Pennsylvania's votes for Biden.

"Charges of unfairness are serious," Bibas wrote in his 21-page ruling on Nov. 27, 2020. "But calling an election unfair does not make it so. Charges require specific allegations and then proof. We have neither here."

No. 4 on the list is, I think, the most compelling legal filing confirming Biden's victory and reinforcing the integrity of the 2020 presidential election. It's the one by Sidney Powell, the attorney working with Trump as one of the key salespeople selling the Big Lie. Powell made numerous claims, including alleging that voting machines were tainted. In a 54-page motion filed on March 22, 2021, in which she asked the court to dismiss a defamation lawsuit against her by Dominion Voting Systems, a maker of the voting machines, Powell's attorneys said: "No reasonable person would conclude that the statements were truly statements of fact." So Powell's statements weren't facts.

Biden, in an address on Jan. 6, said it plainly: "My fellow Americans, in life there's truth, and tragically there are lies. Lies conceived and spread for profit and power. We must be absolutely clear about what is true. And what is a lie." 

What's the big takeaway from the 2020 election? We should be celebrating that it survived, given how many people worked to change the votes and undermine our democracy on Jan. 6, 2021 (something the bipartisan House committee is actively investigating). That includes Russia and other foreign adversaries, who were also trying to screw up our elections directly with hacks and indirectly through disinformation campaigns, according to a US intelligence assessment declassified in March 2021.

If my father were alive today, I'd tell him that election systems throughout the US were able to repel hostile forces and deliver an election untouched by widespread fraud in 2020 in the greatest show of voter turnout ever in American history.

I know because I looked it up, thanks to the internet.