Susan Crawford: Now, Kathleen Hall Jamieson who’s one of our most respected writers about the American political conversation and founder of flackcheck.org is here to talk to us about what is truth.
Kathleen Hall Jamieson: Actually I’m here to say that’s an irrelevant question for what factcheck.org does or flackcheck.org does. I think when we are dealing in the domain of fact-checking, we are trying to ensure fidelity to the knowable. And that is different from the larger world that is full of all sorts of normative inferences about what is true and what is false.
And one of the dangers as we narrow into the small world of what is knowable—fidelity to what is knowable—with standards of evidence clear to everyone in the academic community; with acceptable definitions; with methodological disclosure; the best available methods; with the context of competing ideas when there is disagreement; with disclosure to primary sources that you can go and check on your own. All of that, the danger is that we are taking the agenda that is being set by those who are the political players, and by checking within it ignoring the things that are consequential that we ought to be debating, that to some extent exist in another world which is a world about what is desirable and good, and what the trade-offs actually are and how we should arbitrate those trade-offs.
And so I think the question that we ought to be asking is how do we ensure that we adhere to facticity where it is possible in politics so that people are not deceived while not being distracted by that process from the things that matter that may not be as clearly arbitrated on those grounds because they are about normative statements. They are about what is desirable and what is good.
I founded factcheck.org with Brooks Jackson in 2003 because I thought journalists had given up their role as custodians of fact about politics and had begun to accept he said/she said as if neither side necessarily was saying something that was more accurate than the other side. Sometimes they were both accurate but not talking to each other—ships passing in the night. Sometimes neither was accurate. Sometimes, one was and one wasn’t. I thought journalists could know that a reasonable amount of the time and should tell people that, as a result minimizing their confusion and minimizing the cynicism that comes by rejecting all of that because you assume that they’re all lying. Or alternatively my partisan is always telling the truth and the other side is always deceiving, which I think is fundamentally a disengaging move in politics. And I think that’s destructive of the democratic structure.
But in that environment, if we let the irrelevant displace all of the stuff that actually matters, we haven’t served the larger good well. flackcheck.org is an attempt to complement factcheck.org. And we were asked “Is there something that people could do?” I’m going to give you something to do. Go to flackcheck.org. If you need a QR sticker I will give you one. On that site you will find a way to contact your local broadcaster in order to tell your local broadcaster, in an email which you can modify the message of, copy to us if you’d like—you can also disclaim that if you if you prefer—that you want the local broadcaster to insist on the accuracy of third-party ads before that person puts them on the station.
Third-party ads political party ads, special interest group ads, and super PAC ads. Broadcasters don’t have to take those ads. They have the right to reject them outright. And, if they air them they have the right to insist on their accuracy. The burden of proof… (Law school.) Burden of proof should be on the advertiser to establish accuracy, not the broadcast station to establish that it is not accurate.
And, because they can reject ads for any reason, they could also say that ads that are fearmongering, as well as those that are fact-mangling, are not worthy of their communities and as a result ought not to be on their airwaves. They don’t have an obligation to screen these ads this way, but they have the right to do it.
Now, how do you get them to act on that right? Through normative pressure. We know from the psychology literature that we value our reputations, and in a community we value the views of others in our community. If we looked across this room right now and said if everyone here emailed through this process right now the six television stations or so in your home media market (not the media market here, your home media market), with your address at the bottom, what do you think the psychological impact would be on the station manager who suddenly gets those emails? Or the corporate owner, who would like the corporate owner’s reputation tied to respect in the community?
We know from our studies of psychology it could matter. Do this for me. Go on flackcheck.org. Email your stations. Tell them “insist on the accuracy of ads,” and make that message personal. We’ve given you a form letter. Strip it. Write what upsets you about all of this, and in the process tell them that a whole lot of things that aren’t subject to facticity problems nonetheless are normatively undesirable. Those ads that inspire fear of others. Those ads that play on the margin in order to divide us as a community. Those aren’t worthy of our communities—tell them that. They can make a difference and we can make them make a difference by doing this one simple thing. Please do this for me.
Then, take all those people who are your followers and your friends and your relatives—just multiply out by your relatives. Take your social connectedness now and just get me five more people to do the same thing and tell them to get me five more people. And here’s the other thing that we know: very few people who are station managers ever get letters telling them anything except letters that are just from kooks. A thoughtful letter from someone who actually lives in the community with a real address potentially makes a difference, and that’s you. I would ask you to do this.
What else is flackcheck.org trying to do? The way in which one responds to visually evocative multimodal advertising is not really terribly amenable to propositional journalistic rebuttal. It would be more effective—and there is some evidence that in fact propositional journalistic rebuttal may actually lay down a trace of the deception, thereby magnifying it. It would be more effective if we could get into the visual channel to counter the visual, verbal, oral, musical deceptions. FlackCheck, the sister site of FactCheck (FactCheck, traditional journalism) is an attempt to move into the visual/oral domain in order to reframe their metacommunication, wherever possible using humor, in order to knock down all the rest of the tracing that that ad may have left. So that when you see it you’re more likely to defend against it.
And it has a second premise. The second premise is that you can learn to detect patterns of deception, and that that will be more helpful to you than learning all those facts. Because for practical purposes, what you need to know is when you should be wary about something and then check it. And as a result, flackcheck.org has an attack campaign against Abraham Lincoln that is designed to ensure that he is not reelected in 1864 and instead George McClellan is elected. Now, those of you who know your history know that would’ve been a catastrophe for the nation. A failed general would not have been the one to lead us through the end of the Civil War.
Now, as a result in this duplicitous, sleazy, disgusting attack campaign… Put together by people who are so ashamed they will not put their names on it, on the flackcheck.org site, we’re using every duplicitous means we can to make it a referendum on Lincoln instead of a comparison between Lincoln and McClellan. Because McClellan can’t win the exchange if it’s a two-person vote. That is, this person better than this person? No question, it’s Lincoln. And as a result we are featuring every sleazy move that you will recognize as standard practice in politics today, in the hope that across the sleazy attack campaign you will come to recognize the patterns of deception that are now routine in political advertising. And as a result when you see them, step back and move to a fact-checking function in order to see whether they’re accurate or not—that claim is accurate or not—but also in the process to increase the likelihood that when you see it you will tag the people who offer it to you as people not to be trusted. If we can tie sleazy messages back to sources, and sources back to candidates, hence the importance of journalists continuing to say “the pro-Romney super PAC, the pro-Gingrich super PAC” we can increase the likelihood that we tie the candidate with the duplicitous moves. Easier to do that I think with patterns of deception than with individual elements that’re factually inaccurate.
flackcheck.org is trying to do one more thing, we’re trying to break the echo chamber. We’re trying to do that by increasing the likelihood that if you want to see instability by the other side, you will have to in our WoW, Way out of Whack attack section of the web site, also look at comparable instability by your own. Since your enclave into your own media universe is increasingly through all of the technological devices available (that’s being magnified as you know), the likelihood that you’re going to think that the other side is consistently non-factual and uncivil is very high, but that your own never is is also very high. Well in fact, both sides do it. Whether one is a little more, a little less…open to question but both sides do it. And so if you’ve only heard that Joe Wilson said, “You lie,” about Barack Obama, we’re going to make sure that you’ve heard Democrats saying it about George W. Bush. If you’ve only heard about Hitler references against governor Walker, we’re going to make sure you’ve heard about Hitler references against Barack Obama. So what we’re going to try to do is establish the normative underpinnings of what a civil culture looks like by showing you breaches and then ridiculing them, to try to get you to distance back. Rush Limbaugh, thank you for a case study in the last few days.
Truthiness in Digital Media event site