Despair, hope and a great guide for ethical PR practice

In a world characterised by ‘post-truth’ becoming the OED 2016 word of the year, fake news and a US President who in slightly less than 500 days in office has made 3,251 false or misleading claims (6.5 a day) it is unclear whether a new campaign designed to encourage people to fight misinformation and protect truth and facts is a reason for hope or despair.

Hope because someone is fighting back and despair because it seems so necessary.

The campaign, the Post Truth Pledge (PTP) “was launched in May 2017 and by January 2018 it had over than 5000 pledges, including 80 officials and candidates for public office and 300 other public figures,” according to Gleb Tsipursky and Zachary Morford in a paper, Addressing Behaviours That Lead to Sharing Fake News, in Behaviour and Social Issues.

Of course our situation is not that unusual in human history. We haven’t inherited a consistent tradition of truth, even if we think we are children of the Enlightenment. In the past truth was defined by religions and rulers and punishments were dreadful for those who pointed out that the truths were actually less than truthful. In particular, religious groups busily prosecuted not only heresies against their view of truth but also prosecuted ambivalence – often through burning at the stake or hanging, drawing and quartering. In the ambivalence case James Shapiro’s book, 1606 William Shakespeare and the year of Lear, recounts the post-Gunpowder plot obsession with ‘equivocation’ – an alleged devious plot by Jesuits to undermine the English church and way of life based on half-truths. Bill Clinton’s “I did not have sex with that woman” would be a modern example of the concept. In the case of the plot to blow up Parliament, James I and many of the ruling class an equivocating conspirator might say he had met Guy Fawkes and left it at that without mentioning what was discussed.

And today, along with the political developments, there are still also examples of academic fraud; publication of papers with conclusions based on statistically insignificant findings; flaws in the reviewing system for leading publications; suppression of ‘unsatisfactory’ findings by drug company researchers; and, a proliferation of publication outlets which are perhaps less than leading.

What is significant, however, about the PTF is that it “draws on behavioural science research about what causes us to lie and how to prevent such deception, as well as successful strategies in promoting pro-social behaviours,” Tsipursky and Morford said.

The strategy is based on the success of pre-commitment as a behavioural influence and bringing people who make the pledge into contact with social reinforcers, for instance on social media. In particular it seeks to counter lying and cognitive biases which underlie the spread of misinformation. Other behavioural science concepts which are taken into account are ways of overcoming confirmation bias and other cognitive biases such as in-group bias and the Dunning-Kruger effect. The blog has written about the Dunnng-Kruger effect before – it occurs when someone with limited expertise or knowledge or skills in an area has an inflated view of their abilities. For vivid examples take a quick look at a cross-section of MPs and Senators, including Cabinet Ministers and cross benchers, in the Australian Parliament. As we have seen with a number of them the effect has hilarious, but also very dangerous, impacts.

The blog was made aware of the PTF by the excellent George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication which said: “We believe that fighting misinformation and protecting truth and facts in our public discourse requires differentiating those who spread misinformation from truth-tellers, rewarding truth-tellers with a better reputation, and uniting truth-tellers in a cohesive constituency across the political spectrum. The Pro-Truth Pledge at offers an easy way to do so by reclaiming the fuzzy concept of ‘truth,’ which different people can interpret differently, with 12 clearly-observable behaviours listed on the pledge website that research in behavioral science shows correlate with truthfulness. Private citizens, public figures, and organizations can take the pledge. Private citizens get the benefit of contributing to a more truthful society. Public figures and organizations get reputational rewards, since the pledge provides them with external credibility by holding them accountable through crowd-sourced fact-checking.”

“The pledge is effective. Two research studies at Ohio State University demonstrated the effectiveness of the pledge in changing the behavior of pledge-takers to be more truthful with a large statistical significance. Another way we know it’s effective is that the pledge and the truth-oriented politicians who took it have been attacked in editorials, meaning that the PTP not simply changes people’s behaviors, but is also shaping public discourse and political outcomes enough that it’s experiencing pushback from those who don’t want truth and facts to win out,” the Center said.

Now the blog is not too keen on pledges associating them with all sorts of things – such as abstinence from alcohol – and agrees with Menken’s description of the puritans who advocate such things as people whose lives are lived in terror that someone somewhere is having fun. Nevertheless this pledge seems qualitatively different and well worth making. It reads:

I Pledge My Earnest Efforts 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
Encourage truth
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

The blog would sometimes be a bit cynical about exercises such as this but two recent books, let alone Trump, have made it less cynical. One is Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny in which he says “Post-truth is pre-fascism”; and the other is Madeleine Albright’s new book Fascism: A Warning. As a friend pointed out, Ms Albright is one of the few people alive who can testify from experience as to what that threat entailed during the 20th and 21st centuries.

…..and on another note altogether the 12 behaviours are probably a very good guide to PR practitioners seeking a road map for consistently ethical behaviour and effective communications.