Our Era’s Defining Battle: Facts vs. Misinformation

Given that, you might expect Kathleen Hall Jamieson to despair. She’s the co-founder of FactCheck.org and an academic at the University of Pennsylvania whose research on rhetoric and politics not only helped give rise to the “fact check” movement in American journalism over the past several decades but refined it into something much more effective than how journalists used to approach the task.

But Jamieson is optimistic—chronically so, in her words—and her advice on misinformation is simple: Focus on those facts that are most consequential.

“With a lot of things, whether or not they’re factual doesn’t really affect anybody. I mean, they’re useful to know at a cocktail party, but they’re not consequential,” says Jamieson. “That takes a whole lot of worry out of my life, because most things that people worry about where there’s dispute over the fact just don’t make any difference to me.”

There’s a dividing line, says Jamieson: “When people start acting on misinformation, when they start acting on misconceptions and endanger others, now you’re in territory where suddenly that becomes a consequential fact.”

That’s sometimes a tricky balance to strike, because the Trump era has drastically expanded the realm of which facts may be considered consequential. For instance: At what point would we consider anonymous random message board posts from a fabulist who claims to have top-secret government clearance—posts that spin a fanciful tale of a (literally) Satanic cabal of child predators at the top ranks of the U.S. government—to be consequential? When the first person wearing a “QAnon” shirt breaches the floor of the U.S. Senate? Earlier? And when trying to dispel that misinformation, where do you even begin?

“It is not advisable to negate something; it’s advisable to displace something,” says Jamieson. “A detailed alternative account of the reality has a power that simply saying ‘that’s wrong’ or ‘no, that’s not true’ doesn’t. By simply saying, ‘No, that’s not true,’ you risk actually reinforcing [their prior beliefs].”

Complicating this further is the widespread hostility to institutions like the free press and the court system, which might be able to provide the facts that undergird that deeply detailed alternative reality, but which are being ignored by large segments of society that have been conditioned to distrust those sources, often for ideological reasons.

What does a reasonable path forward look like? How does Jamieson decide which falsehoods are worth addressing on FactCheck.org? And, post-Trump, are we in a new, more permissive era when it comes to political misinformation?

To sort through all of it, POLITICO Magazine spoke with Jamieson this week. A condensed transcript of that conversation follows, edited for length and clarity.

Let me ask you a big-picture question: Whether it’s on the topic of the vaccine, the outcome of the 2020 election, of the pandemic or politics in general, we’re in the midst of something like a war on truth—on even the idea that there can even be such a thing as truth. Why has this become, in some ways, the defining dispute of our moment?

Kathleen Hall Jamieson: [Pause] The word “truth” makes me nervous. Because when someone says “truth,” I hear it with a capital T. We live in a world in which our understanding is progressing. Knowledge is evolving. There are “truths” in the universe—truths about physics, for example. There are “truths” inside a religious universe—presuppositional things that people treat as truth.

At the point at which you say something is “true,” there is a kind of finality to it that doesn’t characterize most of the knowledge that we are talking about when we talk about politics and science. And there’s some danger in thinking that there is, because then you stopped the exploratory process, and you stop the questioning process by which we increase the likelihood that the knowledge is sure-footed. I’m more comfortable saying that there is knowledge that is more or less certain.

So, that said, we live in an environment in which institutional trust is down. The challenge to established knowledge is now greater than it once was. The institutions that certify what we can know are not as trusted as they once were—in part because they have done things that demonstrate that they aren’t able to be trusted (at least some of them in some circumstances). You’ve got more factors challenging institutional forms of knowledge production, and sometimes that’s healthy—trying to hold them accountable is a goal of journalism. Some of them are more trustworthy than others; those that are more trustworthy are trustworthy more times than some would think. There are methods underlying trustworthiness of knowledge. Transparency is a norm. When it’s not honored, less trust. Reproducibility is a norm. When it’s not honored, less trust. A culture of self-critique and of critique is a norm. When it’s not honored, less trust. Those are norms of science. Those are also norms of good journalism.

We live in a world in which some good tendencies—the tendency to critique, the tendency to be skeptical—have gotten out of hand. And as a result, and we live in a polarized environment in which, for ideologically convenient ends, people who see ideologically inconvenient “knowledge” have more ways to discredit it with fewer places to anchor the knowledge.

We now have people who would argue that, no, you can’t [trust an outlet] because of some instance in which they think something was flawed. Human knowledge is always provisional. Humans are always subject to error. Institutions are as well. We’ve got to come back to a middle ground where we’ve got places where we can anchor [knowledge], with custodians of knowledge we will trust. Journalism used to be one of those. But now you have a public that looks at journalism and says, “I’m going to divide it into whether it fits my ideology or not.”

Why do you think that is? Not to make this into a the-chicken-or-the-egg situation, but is that partisan approach an outgrowth of people’s media consumption, or is people’s media consumption an outgrowth of their existing partisan allegiances?

They’re mutually reinforcing. One question that readers and viewers can ask is: On matters that are consequential to you, where do you anchor your understandings of it? What are the venues left that we trust to honor traditional norms of evidence and argument?

One is the courts. The courts have codified an understanding of what constitutes evidence, what constitutes proof. “Beyond a reasonable doubt” and “preponderance of evidence” are concepts that come through the court structure.

I was heartened by the fact that as the Trump campaign and its surrogates went into the court structure with their [false] assertions [about the 2020 elections], which they are entitled to do, the court structure—across jurisdictions, across court levels, with judges appointed by Republicans as well as Democrats—arrived at a common conclusion given common proffering of evidence. What that says is that our discourse is not so fractured that there’s no such thing as a “knowable” anymore; there is such a thing as “knowable.”