2017 is shaping up to be the Year of Deception. The President of the United States lies far more than he tells the truth, the White House defends draconian policies with fraudulent tales of imaginary massacres and a shadowy industry of fake news purveyors thrives on social media ad revenues.
The obvious and instinctive response is to fight falsehoods with facts. Correcting falsehoods is important. People make poor decisions when they believe lies and trust liars: they expose their kids and others to deadly diseases, vote for the wrong candidate, or attempt to kill innocent people. But in fact, vaccines don’t cause autism; President Obama was born in Hawaii; and Comet Ping Pong pizzeria sells pizza, not children.
But there is one big drawback to fact-checking and lie-correcting. The more often a lie is repeated, even in the context of debunking it, the more believable it becomes. Familiarity provides the impression of truth. Furthermore, false statements, even when we know they are false, influence our emotional response to people and events.
So, we need to be judicious in our zeal to correct.
One simple and effective, yet often overlooked, action is to be smarter about how we present corrections.
· State the truth in the headline (or tweet), rather than repeating the falsehood.
· Use vivid graphics that depict reality
· If the key point is that someone is lying — say that. Then state the truth. Don’t restate the lie in the headline.
This advice is not only for journalists, but for all of us who post stories on Twitter, Facebook etc. Multiple exposures to an “alternative fact” gives it credence. Remember to make the truth, not the falsehood, the most vivid take-away.
Let’s look at an example.
This article from “The Hill” debunks Donald Trump’s false claim, made in his February 16th press conference, that he had had the biggest Electoral College win since Ronald Reagan. It’s a correction-worthy falsehood: the President said it, it is irrefutably false, and the report shows how Trump acts when presented with direct evidence of his dishonesty. The article, headlined “Trump falsely claims he got biggest Electoral College win since Reagan”, is clear and well-written.
The problem is with the presentation. The headline trumpets Trump’s fabrication, the first sentence states it again, as does the second. A video clip just below the headline features Trump saying his was the biggest Electoral College win since Ronald Reagan. By the time readers have gotten a couple of sentences into the story, they have seen and heard the lie repeated several times.
Given that repetition makes a lie more believable, even in contexts where it is flagged as false, as well as the subtle yet substantial effect it has on our emotional response to a person or event — this repetition threatens to undermine the corrective action that is the purpose of the article.
Here’s a different way of presenting it. I’ve changed to headline to one that states the actual facts — as well as the newsworthy fact that President lied about it — the key point of the article. I’ve moved the video to the bottom of the article, and in its place I’ve added a graphic that shows, simply yet vividly, the multiple recent elections that were won with more Electoral College votes than Donald Trump received.
The many readers who just glance at the headline and graphic will get the point of the article, and will not have had the falsehood repeated. This is especially important as news is increasingly shared on Facebook and Twitter, where this abbreviated material is all one initially sees.
Speaking of sharing — keep in mind that not every lie needs correcting. If you have seen numerous corrections to a fake story, there’s no need to pile on with another one. Rebutting a false salacious rumor still spreads it, further damaging the innocent subject’s reputation.
That said, it is important to publicize the truth and ensure that people have access to true information. It is important to call out politicians for lying — and when the deceitful official is a world leader, that is indeed headline news.
Should we stop fact checking? No! The key is to be smarter about how to present correction. Don’t repeat the lie — emphasize the truth. Help make (real) facts familiar.