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.

Further Reference

Truthiness in Digital Media event site