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article imageQ&A: A practical plan for putting truth back into politics Special

By Tim Sandle     Sep 18, 2020 in Politics
With the U.S. election season transparency and truthfulness are key. Gleb Tsipursky and Tim Ward, who have championed the Pro-Truth Pledge, have co-written a book looking at the key ethical considerations and plan for putting trust back into public life.
The Pro-Truth Pledge project seeks to uplift truthfulness and fight misinformation. To date some 1,000 politicians have taken the pledge together with over 1,100 other public figures, plus close to 10,000 ordinary citizens.
The cover of Pro Truth: A Practical Plan for Putting Truth Back Into Politics  reproduced with permi...
The cover of Pro Truth: A Practical Plan for Putting Truth Back Into Politics, reproduced with permission of the authors.
Tim Ward
Media expert Tim Ward has co-written a book with Dr. Gleb Tsipursky, the Board Chair of Intentional Insights, the book delves into book the Pro-Truth Pledge project. The book, published by Changemakers Books, is called Pro Truth: A Practical Plan for Putting Truth Back Into Politics. The new text is well-timed to the political season, which is heating up ahead of the U.S. presidential election and it will resonate with current concerns about figures in public life.
Tim Ward is a communications expert based in Washington DC. Digital Journal spoke with Tim Ward about the background to the book, its aims and objectives, and its importance over the coming months.
Pro Truth: A Practical Plan for Putting Truth Back Into Politics co-author Tim Ward (with permission...
Pro Truth: A Practical Plan for Putting Truth Back Into Politics co-author Tim Ward (with permission from the author).
Tim Ward
Digital Journal: How have we reached this place of post-truth politics?
Tim Ward: Lying politicians have always challenged our democracy. Remember Watergate? Iran-Contra? Monica? But when exposed, the liars have either resigned, repented, or at least been repudiated. Trump, however, came to political prominence through promulgating a lie – Birtherism. The movement that coalesced around him did not seem to care about what was actually written on Obama’s birth certificate; they wanted him to be illegitimate, and it didn’t matter that the whole enterprise was a lie.
This kind of behavior is called emotional reasoning: the flawed assumption that whatever we feel indicates the truth about the world. For instance, “if I feel anxious, therefore there must be danger.” We all do this to some extent. When a sports team we love gets a penalty, our first instinct is to blame the ref for being biased or blind. But the tendency to take politics as a team sport, and go with our emotional reasoning, is balanced by voters who use critical thinking – especially when the media points it out a big lie. Somehow in 2016 this broke down. Too many voters were ready to overlook Trump’s many lies, and they found other reasons to vote for him. During the election, when Trump turned on the media and accused them of being the liars – “fake news folks!” – and his followers cheered, journalists were flummoxed. We entered post-truth territory.
DJ: What have been some of the worst examples of ‘false statements’ on the part of politicians in recent years?
Ward: Here’s three big, consequential lies that deny reality and undermine trust in public institutions, courtesy of President Trump:
Lie about the Pandemic: “It’s going to disappear. One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.” (White House, Feb 28, 2020).
Lie about Climate Change: “Global warming is a total, and very expensive, hoax!” (Tweet, Dec 6, 2013)
Lie About Election results: “Mail-In Ballots will lead to massive electoral fraud and a rigged 2020 Election.” (Tweet, July 2, 2020)
These are single instances of significant lies the president has stated many times, amplified by right-wing echo-chambers. Mainstream media that all-too often repeats Trump’s outrageous lies without sufficiently debunking them. This is dangerous. When a lie gets repeated over and over, it becomes familiar to our ears, and that very familiarity makes it seem more likely true. This is known as the illusory truth effect. Think of the impact the phrase “Crooked Hillary” had on the electorate in 2016.
DJ: You and Dr. Gleb Tsipursky both serve on the board that oversees the Pro-Truth Pledge. How successful has this campaign to bring honesty and accountability into politics and public life been to date?
Ward: Over 11,000 people have signed the Pro-Truth Pledge, which Gleb co-founded in 2016. Significantly this includes over 1,000 elected officials. Two former presidential candidates have also signed it – Beto O’Rourke and Tim Ryan. This is the heart of the movement, a set of simple principles that all who value truth can sign on to. It’s easy to sign, and easy to share. Spreading the word is one of the most vital tasks now, as the campaign has kicked into high gear for the November election. One measure of our success will be if the congressional candidates are asked about truthfulness in town halls and debates by their own constituents. Our hope is that candidates will not only sign the pledge, but will invite their opponents to sign too. If they do, then lying will be off limits – or heavily penalized - in candidate debates. We need lots of voters to join use in this effort to make truth matter in 2020.
DJ: What motivated you and your co-author to write your new book, Pro Truth: A Practical Plan for Putting Truth Back Into Politics? Is the timing geared towards the U.S. general election?
Ward: Yes, exactly. This is no typical election. It is also a referendum on American democracy. Having a set of common facts enables citizens and their politicians to discuss, debate, negotiate, compromise, and ultimately pass wise legislation that affects their lives. That’s the genius of democracy: it allows people of different beliefs to collaborate for the common good. When it works, this makes democracy the best political system in the world. It only works, however, when citizens value truth. If politicians and leaders devalue truth, trust between groups that hold different values gets eroded, and democracy declines.
People then look to others who share their beliefs - their “tribe” - as the only ones they feel they can trust. Those from other tribes they come to view as enemies ready to undermine and attack them. Too easily this leads to tribal epistemology – a perverse situation in which people believe that whatever their side says is true, and whatever the other side says is false. Facts based on evidence no longer matter. The only metric for truth is loyalty to one’s own side. So, if democrat Al Gore says climate change is a threat, Republicans must rally around it being a hoax. If Donald Trump says building a wall on the Mexican border will reduce illegal immigration, Democrats must declare that a wall is immoral. There’s no thinking here, no investigation of reality, just a knee-jerk reaction against whatever the other side says.
This is the precipice upon which the United States stands today. As trust erodes, will we slide down that slippery slope? Or can we take a step back, onto the firmament of truth?
DJ: How important is a change in President for helping to drive a more open and honest political discourse? Would a Biden administration be a sufficient force for change?
Ward: That’s a question we deliberately don’t address in Pro Truth. We believe truth is not a partisan issue. Indeed, many Republican politicians and other conservatives have signed the Pro-Truth Pledge. In fact, I just finished a radio interview with Mike Sloan, a conservative talk radio host in Cincinnati who is a firm supporter of the Pledge. The whole country is stronger when politicians of all stripes tell the truth – and fear the wrath of their supporters if they betray their trust.
DJ: Social media, as you point out, is not helping the goals of transparent and reasoned debate. How can digital misinformation be tackled and where does the responsibility fall?
Ward: Ultimately, the responsibility starts with ordinary citizens – what kind of a country do we want to live in? Look at post-truth nations like Russia. Is that what we want in the US? This is where the Pro-Truth Pledge comes in for citizens. The pledge commits signers to fact check before they repost on social media, and other truth-oriented behaviors. (You can find a list of reliable fact checkers, at the Poynter Institutes’ website).
Pro Truth goes into detail about how to create a campaign against digital misinformation. You can think of online misinformation of it as like a virus that becomes contagious on the Internet – viral deception, we call it in the book. Citizens need to cut the chain of transmission – it’s like washing your hands to cut the spread of a virus. We set out four ways individuals can do their part:
Become invested in not contracting viral deception. Acknowledge the online world is full of misinformation and develop a healthy skepticism towards everything you encounter online. Stay vigilant. Make fact checking new information part of your on-line health.
Become invested in telling others about viral deception. Share your fact checking on line. Correct misinformation with links to reliable sources and fact-checking websites. In responding to friends who don’t fact check, you can not only correct and debunk their viral deceptions, you can also confirm facts in their feed that check out as true. Try something like: “Hey Charlie, I fact-checked the Fox News article you reposted and confirmed the information was true. I had never heard this before, and it has given me something to think about, thanks!”
Post signage and tools for reliable sources and fact checking. You can add to your social media profile pages the fact that you have signed the Pro-truth Pledge. Why not also add the websites you use for fact-checking? In any article you post on line, state that you have fact checked whatever the key information is, and give the sites that you used. This subtly reinforces fact-checking as a social norm.
Warn others about websites that are lax about viral deception. It’s becoming a social norm to complain to social media providers if they promote “fake news,” and sites such as Facebook have easy ways you can report troublesome content. Use that option whenever you encounter viral deceptions.
DJ: How can the spinners of fake news and half-truths be ’incentivized’ to begin being more honest with citizens?
Ward: When media venues feature misleading headlines, you can write letters to the editor encouraging them to reframe their reporting so that the truth comes first – not the emotion. By doing so, you will help address the distrust in the referees of our political system, as well as create appropriate incentives for politicians to avoid false claims. You can assure media channels that they would get your loyalty if you do so. Broadcast media are even more responsive to their sponsors, so write to them if a broadcast journalist is particularly pernicious. Both Fox News and MSNBC have fired on-air talent when their shows have been called out for bad behavior, and advertisers have dropped them.
Combatting misinformation alone might seem overwhelming. The good news is, you can join the Pro-Truth Movement, and make your commitment and passion for truthfulness part of your social life. Especially during the stress of the pandemic, engaging with others towards a cause like truth can be really rewarding. Because the movement is non-partisan, you might also find it a great way to get outside the social-media “bubble” of your current networks. The place to start is and click the support tab for options.
Frankly, a lot is riding on this election. If Trump wins, his post-truth method of campaigning and governing will seem vindicated. We will then be in a race to the bottom in politics, where from here on in, the best liar wins. We fear that this will spell the beginning of the end to American democracy more than any specific set of policies. So our message is, take it personally. Citizens have a surprising amount of leverage when they act together.
DJ: Are there any countries or political systems that you think the U.S. can learn from?
Ward: There are bad examples: Germany and Italy were both democracies when fascist authoritarians rose to power in the 1930s on a wave of social discontent, further fueled by misinformation. We have seen the same thing in the past few years in Russia, Turkey, and Brazil.
And there are good examples: Several Nordic countries take social media education seriously – including defense against misinformation. In fact, the US is already learning from these examples. In 2017 several states passed laws promoting digital literacy. For example, a bipartisan effort in the Washington state legislature encouraged schools to teach topics such as media literacy, Internet safety, and digital citizenship, calling for a mix of sources and perspectives while doing so. The same year, legislation advocating the teaching of media and digital citizenship passed in Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New Mexico.
But perhaps the best example the US can learn from is itself: America has this amazing ability to correct course, even when it is incredibly difficult and costly to do so. Think of the abolition of slavery, the end of McCarthyism, the resignation of Nixon during Watergate. When the people finally say enough! - the tide turns. With a pandemic raging, fires burning the West, hurricanes drenching the southeast, racially motivated police killings in the news and protesters in the streets, we believe people are ready for meaningful change; they want leaders who tell them the truth.
So please consider taking the Pro-Truth Pledge, joining the Pro-Truth movement, and send a strong message this election season that truth matters.
More about Gleb Tsipursky, ProTruth Pledge, Ethics, Transparency
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