Guest post by Gleb Tsipursky
How do we get politicians to stop lying? How do we get private citizens to stop sharing fake news on social media? A new book, Pro Truth: A Pragmatic Plan to Put Truth Back Into Politics, provides an answer, documenting a new Pro Truth movement centered around the Pro-Truth Pledge.
We are facing a nightmare scenario. For many years now, traditional gatekeepers for ensuring the veracity of public information—news media, civic leaders, authorities on various topics—have been trusted less and less. Social and digital media have only accelerated this trend, exemplifying the potential of technological disruption to undermine our democracy.
Fortunately, if we can create a mechanism that differentiates the liars from the truth-tellers, we have a hope of protecting our democracy. At the same time, tilting the scale toward truth requires addressing the psychological factors that cause people to tolerate untruths. Using research from behavioral science research about what causes people to lie and what motivates them to tell the truth, a number of behavioral scientists (including myself) and concerned citizens have launched the Pro-Truth Pledge at ProTruthPledge.org, which combines our knowledge of behavioral science with crowdsourcing to promote truth-oriented behavior. The pledge is the tip of the iceberg of a broader Pro Truth movement described in the book.
The pledge is meant for both public figures and organizations, as well as for private citizens, such as you, dear reader. In fact, many thousands of private citizens across the globe have signed the pledge. So have over 800 politicians (including 4 members of the US Congress, over 50 state legislators, and 3 former US Democratic Presidential candidates); over 200 organizations (including Skeptical Science, Stand Up Republic, Media Bias Fact Check, and United Coalition of Reason); and over 1,000 other public figures (including globally-known public intellectuals such as Jonathan Haidt, Steven Pinker, Peter Singer, Chip Heath, and Michael Shermer).
The Pro-Truth Pledge incorporates 12 countermeasures to the psychological factors that foster misinformation. Signers pledge their earnest efforts to make it a practice to:
- Verify: fact-check information to confirm it is true before accepting and sharing it
- Balance: share the whole truth, even if some aspects do not support my opinion
- Cite: share my sources so that others can verify my information
- Clarify: distinguish between my opinion and the facts
- Acknowledge: acknowledge when others share true information, even when we disagree otherwise
- Reevaluate: reevaluate if my information is challenged, retract it if I cannot verify it
- Defend: defend others when they come under attack for sharing true information, even when we disagree otherwise
- Align: align my opinions and my actions with true information
- Fix: ask people to retract information that reliable sources have disproved even if they are my allies
- Educate: compassionately inform those around me to stop using unreliable sources even if these sources support my opinion
- Defer: recognize the opinions of experts as more likely to be accurate when the facts are disputed
- Celebrate: celebrate those who retract incorrect statements and update their beliefs toward the truth
You may already be doing everything described here. If so, the Pro-Truth Pledge allows you to make a clear public statement while also calling on public figures to take the pledge. If you are not, now is your chance to commit to the kind of behaviors you would want our public figures to follow, and then challenge them to make this commitment along with you.
Because the pledge requires “earnest efforts,” it doesn’t mean that you have to be perfect in following all of these; just make a good-faith effort to adhere to these behaviors. The pledge does not address private speech, spiritual speech, or personal experience—only public discourse.
The pledge has teeth: it’s an opt-in, libertarian-style mechanism for holding each other accountable. Private citizens who signed the pledge have an opportunity to be advocates for the pledge if they sign up to help, and that’s part of the Pro Truth movement. One role of advocates is to hold other pledge-takers accountable for avoiding sharing misinformation, especially public figures. The pledge has a clear evaluation and accountability mechanism, in which anyone can participate. Thus, for public figures, signing the pledge provides a marker of credibility, since they are being held accountable, in the same way that the Better Business Bureau provides a marker of credibility for ethical businesses.
The accountability mechanism works. For example, Michael Smith, a candidate for Congress, took the pledge. Sometime later, he posted on his Facebook wall a screenshot of a tweet by Donald Trump criticizing minority and disabled children. After being called out on it, he went and searched Trump’s feed. He could not find the original tweet, and while Trump may have deleted it, the candidate edited his post to say, “Due to a Truth Pledge I have taken, I have to say I have not been able to verify this post.” He indicated that he would be more careful with future postings.
The Pro-Truth Pledge is effective for private citizens as well, as peer-reviewed research on the pledge itself shows. As one example, see this peer-reviewed article, which shows the effectiveness of the pledge in changing the behavior of pledge-takers to be more truthful. Published in the academic journal Behavior and Social Issues, the article reports the results of a study evaluating the sharing of pledge-takers on Facebook by researchers who observed the behavior of study participants. Researchers examined the first 10 news-relevant posts one month after study participants took the pledge and graded the quality of the information shared, including the links, to determine how closely their posts matched the behaviors of the pledge. They then looked at the first 10 news-relevant posts 11 months before they took the pledge and rated those. The study found large, statistically significant improvement in pledge-takers’ adherence to the 12 behaviors of the pledge, such as fewer posts containing misinformation and including more sources.
Another peer-reviewed study, published in the academic journal called Journal of Social and Political Psychology, found similar results using a different methodology. It further strengthens the evidence for the effectiveness of the pledge as a powerful tool in changing the behavior of pledge-takers.
This is not a partisan project: there are plenty of honest public figures on all sides of the political divide, and both conservative and liberal politicians, media figures, and public intellectuals have taken the pledge. The leadership of the project spans from academics like myself, to conservatives such as the founder of the Houston Tea Party Felicia Winfree Cravens, to those with a progressive orientation such as business leader Michael Tyler.
Something bigger than partisanship is at stake: preventing the inevitable consequence of growing corruption and authoritarianism that follows from post-truth politics. The more people take the pledge—citizens like you, as well as politicians and journalists and civic leaders—the more impact the pledge will have. We talked to a number of politicians and other public figures who indicated the pledge is too burdensome for them to take now, and to come back when we have more people who went to ProTruthPledge.org and signed it. So when you sign the Pro-Truth Pledge, you know you are making a real difference in fighting against the lies and protecting our democracy from the scourge of lies.
Research on network effects shows that you powerfully impact the people in your social network, and as science-minded people committed to reason, it is your responsibility to show yourself in the best light possible. Taking the pledge, and sharing publicly about our commitment to the truth, will be a crucial signal to our social network about the positive role in our society that science-minded people—that you and I—can play. The fake news and post-truth politics are a systemic problem, and without an intervention by everyone who cares about the truth, they will continue. So be part of the solution: go to ProTruthPledge.org and sign the pledge to fight against the lies and protect our democracy. And join the broader Pro Truth movement by reading Pro Truth: A Pragmatic Plan to Put Truth Back Into Politics.
Dr. Gleb Tsipursky is a cognitive neuroscientist and behavioral economist passionate about promoting truth, rational thinking, and wise decision-making. A civic activist and philanthropist, he’s the volunteer President of the Board of the nonprofit Intentional Insights and co-founded the Pro-Truth Pledge. Professionaly, he serves as the CEO of the consulting, coaching, speaking, and training firm Disaster Avoidance Experts. He’s a best-selling author of a number of books, most notably Pro Truth: A Pragmatic Plan to Put Truth Back Into Politics (Changemakers Book, 2020), as well as the national bestsellers The Truth Seeker’s Handbook: A Science-Based Guide and Resilience: Adapt and Plan for the New Abnormal of the COVID-19 Coronavirus Pandemic. He published over 550 articles and gave over 450 interviews for prominent venues such as Time, Scientific American, Psychology Today, The Conversation, Inc. Magazine, CNBC, CBS News, NPR, Newsweek, and elsewhere. His expertise stems from his research background with over 15 years in academia, including 7 years as a professor at the Ohio State University, where he published dozens of peer-reviewed articles in academic journals such as Behavior and Social Issues and Journal of Social and Political Psychology. Email: gleb (at) intentionalinsights (dot) org.