Verified facts can be used to support erroneous conclusions. Here is how we can put an end to that.
Fact-checking has become popularized as the definitive process for certifying truth in the media. This has occurred in response to the proliferation of a wide variety of internet subcultures, often based largely upon misinformation. Propaganda and bad faith communication are all too common, making the checking of facts an important part of sensemaking.
While fact-checking is necessary, it is often not enough to provide the whole picture. Under current conditions of escalating culture and information war, facts themselves have become weapons. Neither propaganda nor bad faith communication require the speaking of falsehoods. It is often more effective to mislead and misinform through a strategic use of verified facts. The ability to critique and correct for the misuse of facts in public culture is an essential component of the democratic way of life.
Unfortunately, today it is standard practice for both institutions and individuals from all sectors of society to offer strategically cherry-picked and decontextualized facts, set within a predetermined emotional or ethical frame. This way of using facts is an effective tool to bring some people towards previously unappealing conclusions. It also provides rhetorical ammunition to those already predisposed to drawing these conclusions. While honestly passing the scrutiny of the fact-checkers, such an approach is nevertheless far from entirely truthful.
In today’s so-called “post-truth” digital media landscapes, the practice of weaponizing facts has become widespread, microtargeted, and optimized for psychological impact. The normalization of mishandling facts threatens to undermine people’s sense of living in a shared reality. For some, it goes so far as to undermine the idea that reality can be known at all.
Democratic forms of government are now being undermined by the mishandling and misrepresentation of “facts.” Stopping our descent into a “fact-blind culture” requires a new approach to the way we pay attention to and talk about “the facts.” For those seeking to improve the state of the epistemic commons, and address 21st-century challenges to sensemaking, there is no way forward that does not involve fundamental upgrades to how “facts” are handled in public discourse.
There is a growing body of literature on fact-checking as a media practice. The fields of epistemology and the philosophy of science now have sub-branches seeking to address the crisis concerning “facts” in public culture. A thriving international movement of fact-checking is leading to the establishment of many new organizations aimed at certifying the truth. The details of these efforts can be found elsewhere.
Despite often earnest effort, the recent growth of fact-checking is not making the situation obviously better. Some argue that more fact-checking is in fact making things worse. How can that be?
The answer is that fact-checking—the verification of specific claims—does nothing to address the three primary ways in which facts can be used to mislead (see the box below). Because fact-checking offers official verification, it permits easier use of facts to mislead and misinform. This sounds counterintuitive. But the more accepted a fact is, the greater its effect when it is made part of a misleading campaign.
A misleading campaign of facts runs according to some combination of the three primary ways outlined in the box above. Information campaigns that are factually truthful but nevertheless misleading are the stuff of classic propaganda, as we have documented in our recent series on the problem of modern propaganda. For decades there has been cumulative innovation in the industry of public relations. Techniques for misleading with facts have been continually and scientifically advanced.
Today, the strategic misuse of facts is becoming a common practice employed by everyday citizens on social media. Many people post to their social media feeds only those facts they endorse, which support their existing beliefs and ideologies. Verified facts are collected as ammunition for culture war, rather than for the sake of gaining a comprehensive understanding. Microtargeting then caters to these preferences, ensuring that there is a steady supply of cherry-picked facts on offer. The resultant filter bubbles and algorithmic radicalization have been discussed in our related paper on 21st-century information warfare.
The algorithmic radicalization prevalent on social media does not require “fake news.” Because facts can be used to mislead, extreme polarization and ideological identity capture can occur when individuals engage with information that is factual. This is possible when facts are taken out of context, cherry-picked, and emotionally loaded. Facts become weapons for use in politically charged discourses in which winning is more important than accurately representing larger and more complex truths. This debases the usefulness of “facts” and fact-stating discourses, which is to debase a necessary component of adequate public sensemaking.
But what would happen if we decided to slow down and think about the facts together? What if we really wanted to understand what was going on in a way that accounted for all the facts and their various frames and interpretations?
The rivalrous “checking” of facts must give way to a more collaborative mutual understanding of facts. With a focus on education, this approach requires that individuals seek earnestly to evaluate the complexity of factual claims. Working together, individuals engage in a collaborative process to understand the implied significance and meaning of the facts in question, including all the associated complexity and nuance. There are four essential ways of understanding facts (see Box 2). Understanding facts requires a process that transcends but includes the familiar process of fact-checking, adding considerations of context, representativeness, and framing.
Beyond simply verifying a fact, it must be placed in context and positioned relative to all other closely relevant facts. This includes gathering facts about the methods used to generate the fact in question. Verifying one fact requires verifying many others, while working towards presenting as comprehensive a network of related truths as possible. The emotional impact of any given fact is always complex. Interpreting a fact involves values and judgments not determined by the fact itself. Verification of factuality is only the beginning of a larger process of meaning-making, which involves considerations that cannot be reduced to specific debates about the “facts.”
Misleading with facts can only be done when attention is not paid to all four ways involved in the comprehensive understanding of facts. Fact-checking as currently practiced typically only focuses on one of the four. Educational efforts aimed at improving public discourse must consider more than how to detect deceptions and lies. There is a great deal more to understanding a fact than knowing if it is true. And there is a great deal more to understanding complex realities than agreeing on a set of facts.
The point of this article is not that fact-checking is bad, but that it is necessary yet partial. As it stands, it is inadequate as a response to information war—but this does not mean it should be abandoned. The future of our civil society and public sphere depends upon drastically upgrading current approaches to dealing with “facts.” Our task is to create new processes for determining what counts as a shared, socially meaningful, mutually understood “truth.” Obviously, this requires more than making sure that every fact is checked.
It is possible to expand our approaches to dealing with facts in public discourse in ways that include more complexity, nuance, and perspective-taking. A start would be to have fact-checking sites and discussions informed by the models offered above, instead of being constrained to only “checking.” Until such steps are taken to improve public culture, it will remain as easy to mislead with facts as it is to manipulate through deception—perhaps even easier.
The stakes are high when it comes to the future of “facts.” As has been made clear: the mishandling of facts eventually breaks public sensemaking, and the breaking of public sensemaking eventually breaks society. The clock is ticking. As more and more “facts” pile up, our culture nevertheless gets farther and farther away from reality. Information warfare is now systematically and rapidly undermining the possibility of coherent public fact-stating discourses. This leads to a situation where political and public relations campaigns begin to operate more explicitly and self-consciously outside the truth. Of course, “facts” remain important—especially if they are officially verified—because they can be used as ammunition. But the larger, more complex truth is lost, accepted as a casualty of culture war.
This kind of cynical, post-truth culture is antithetical to democratic ways of life. But the solution is not to create centralized “Truth Committees.” These would serve as the official legitimators of censorship, becoming the ultimate authorities on shared social reality. Open societies are defined, in part, by the free flow of reliable facts through public culture. They are different thereby from societies that route information through narrow channels and give over individual judgment to the dictates of authorities. Responsibility for the integrity of public fact-stating discourses should be distributed throughout civil society. The movement around the advancing field of fact-checking should not seek to consolidate power, but to distribute it.
There is no technical “fix” or simple solution for improving the overall tenor and complexity of public communication about facts. There are, however, possibilities for digital technologies to enable educational initiatives of profound depth at massive scale. The same technologies that are now being used to mislead us with facts can be used to help us piece all the facts together and place them in the right context. The now crucial nexus of digital technologies, education, and politics can be reconfigured to allow for widespread learning and mutual understanding. Even though these facts are clear, there is, as always, the question of what we choose to do with them.
Joel Best, Damned Lies and Statistics: Untangling Numbers from the Media, Politicians, and Activists (2012, University of California Press). ↩
George Lakoff, Don't Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate (2014, Chelsea Green Publishing). ↩
Stephen J. Ceci and Wendy M. Williams, "The Psychology of Fact-Checking" Scientific American, October 25, 2020, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-psychology-of-fact-checking1/. ↩
Dan M. Kahan, David A. Hoffman, Donald Braman, Danieli Evans and Jeffrey J. Rachlinski, "“They Saw a Protest”: Cognitive Illiberalism and the Speech-Conduct Distinction," Stanford Law Review 64, no. 4 (May 2021), https://www.stanfordlawreview.org/print/article/they-saw-a-protest/. ↩
"Checking the Fact-Checkers in 2008: Predicting Political Ad Scrutiny and Assessing Consistency," Journal of Political Marketing 15, no. 4 (2016) https://doi.org/10.1080/15377857.2014.959691. ↩
Morgan Marietta, David C. Barker and Todd Bowser, "Fact-Checking Polarized Politics: Does The Fact-Check Industry Provide Consistent Guidance on Disputed Realities?" The Forum 13, no. 4 (January 2015) https://www.americanpressinstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/Marietta-Barker-Bowser-2015-Forum.pdf. ↩