A Behavioral Science Solution to Lies in Politics

The spectacle of Attorney General Jeff Sessions testifying under oath about possible collusion with Russia and his failure to reveal his multiple meetings with the Russian ambassador highlights that we are a low point for truth in American politics. This low point is even more clearly visible in former FBI Director James Comey testifying under oath that President Donald Trump lied, and Trump promising to testify under oath that Comey lied. Deception proved a very successful strategy for political causes and individual candidates in the UK and US elections in 2016, leading Oxford Dictionary to choose “post-truth” politics as its 2016 word of the year. As such, it might seem ludicrous to many that we can solve the problem of lies in politics. However, research in behavioral science suggests that we can address political deception through a number of effective strategies, which are brought together in the Pro-Truth Pledge.

First, we need to identify why current mechanisms of preventing political deception don’t work well. The traditional mechanisms for identifying the truth about politics come from mainstream media and fact-checking. However, polling shows that trust in the mainstream media has dropped from around 50 percent to 32 percent from 2000 to 2016, and only 29 percent trust fact-checking. No wonder fewer and fewer Americans are getting their news from mainstream media and engaging with fact-checkers.

At the same time, increasing numbers are using social media to get news, 62 percent according to studies. Unfortunately, a study by Stanford University shows that most social media news consumers cannot differentiate real from fake news stories. The situation is so bad that, according to research, in the three months before the 2016 presidential election, the top 20 false news stories had more Facebook shares, reactions and comments than did the top 20 true news articles.

Given the crumbling trust in traditional media and our vulnerability to lies on social media, we should not be surprised that politicians on both sides try to manipulate voters into believing lies. After all, the incentive for politicians is to get elected, not tell the truth. To be elected, politicians need to convey the appearance of trustworthiness — what Stephen Colbert infamously called “truthiness” — as opposed to being actually trustworthy. If politicians can safely ignore fact-checking by traditional news media, and instead use social media to get their followers to believe their claims, the scale is tilted toward post-truth politics.

In the long run, this tendency leads to high political polarization and the deterioration of trust in the political system. In other democratic states — Russia, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Turkey, Italy — post-truth politics led to the rise of authoritarian and corrupt regimes. We must do all we can to prevent this outcome in the US.

Tilting the scale toward truth requires a two-pronged approach, one targeting both private citizens and public figures. Research shows that, without any intervention, people tend to reject facts that go against their beliefs, and are more likely to deceive when they see others do so and also when it benefits their in-group. However, increased risk of suffering negative consequences, being reminded about our ethics, publicity about one’s honesty and committing in advance to honesty decreases lies for ordinary citizens. For public figures, research suggests that transparent, clear information about who is truthful, and reputational rewards for socially beneficial behavior such as honesty, and penalties for dishonesty are the most vital interventions.

To solve the problem of systemic lying, a group of behavioral scientists, along with many concerned citizens, have launched the Pro-Truth Pledge project, at ProTruthPledge.org. This pledge asks all signees to commit to a set of truth-oriented behaviors. Whenever they share a news article, signees are encouraged to add a sentence stating that they took the pledge and verify that they fact-checked the article, which serves to remind people of their ethical commitment. Pledge-takers are encouraged to share publicly with their networks about taking the pledge, asking others to hold them accountable — thus deliberately increasing the risk of negative consequences of sharing fake news. Likewise, the pledge asks signees to hold others accountable, requesting those who share fake news to retract it. Further reinforcing all the above, pledge-takers can get pledge monthly newsletters, follow the Twitter and Facebook accounts of the pledge, join a community of fellow pledge-takers online or in-person, get truth-oriented resources and volunteer to help with the pledge.

Public figures — politicians, journalists, media figures, CEOs, academics, ministers, speakers and others — get additional benefits, in line with the research. They have the opportunity to share a paragraph about why they took the pledge and provide links to their online presence. The paragraph is then sent around in the pledge newsletter and posted on social media as a way of providing a reputational reward for committing to truth-oriented behavior. Public figures also get their public information listed in a database on the pledge website and can post a badge on their own website about their commitment to the pledge, providing clarity to all about which public figures are committed to truthful behavior.

These rewards for public figures will grow more substantial as the pledge gets more popular and known, creating a virtuous cycle. The more private citizens and public figures sign the pledge and the more credibility it gets, the more incentives other public figures will have to sign it. While these early adopters will be most committed to honesty, behavioral science suggests that later adopters will be more likely to do so out of a desire to gain a reputation as honest, and thus will be more likely to cheat.

To address this problem, the pledge crowd-sources the fight against lies. One of the volunteer roles for the pledge is monitoring public figure signees. If a volunteer suspects that a public figure made a false statement, the volunteer would approach the person privately and ask for clarification. The matter can be resolved by the public figure issuing a retraction — everyone makes mistakes — or the volunteer realizing that the public figure’s statement is not false. If the matter is not resolved, the volunteer would then submit the case to a mediating committee of vetted and trained Pro-Truth Pledge volunteers. They would investigate the matter and give the public figure an opportunity to issue a retraction or explain why the statement is not false.

If the public figure refuses to do so, the mediating committee then assumes that the public figure lied, and rules the person in contempt of the pledge. This ruling triggers a substantial reputational punishment. The mediating committee issues a media advisory to all relevant media venues that the public figure is in contempt of the pledge and puts that information on the pledge website. The committee also sends an action alert to all pledge-takers who are constituents to that public figure, asking them to tweet, post, text, call, write, meet with, and otherwise lobby the public figure to retract their words. A public figure who intends to lie is much better off not taking the pledge at all.

Will the pledge work to tilt the scale toward truth? In order to tell, we’ll need to evaluate whether people are taking the pledge, and also whether the pledge changes their behavior.

Rolled out in late March, the pledge has over 1,000 signees so far. The pledge-takers include a number of politicians, talk show hosts, academics and public commentators who expressed strong enthusiasm for the pledge. The pledge has already had some positive mainstream media coverage.

What about behavioral change? John Kirbow, a US Army veteran and member Special Operations community took the pledge. He then wrote a blog post about how it impacted him. He notes that, “I’ve verbally or digitally passed on bad information numerous times, I am fairly sure, as a result of honest mistakes or lack of vigorous fact checking.” He describes how after taking the pledge, he felt “an open commitment to a certain attitude” to “think hard when I want to play an article or statistic which I’m not completely sold on.” Having taken the Pro-Truth Pledge, he found it “really does seem to change one’s habits,” helping push him both to correct his own mistakes with an “attitude of humility and skepticism, and of honesty and moral sincerity,” and also to encourage “friends and peers to do so as well.”

Michael W. Smith, a candidate for Congress in Idaho, took the pledge, and later posted on his Facebook wall a screenshot of a tweet by Donald Trump criticizing minority and disabled children. After being called out on it, Smith went and searched Trump’s feed. He could not find the original tweet, and while Trump may have deleted that tweet, the candidate edited his own Facebook post to say that, “Due to a Truth Pledge I have taken I have to say I have not been able to verify this post.” Smith indicated that he would be more careful with future postings.

The evidence so far shows that the pledge has the potential to protect our democracy from the tide of lies. Whether it will succeed depends on how many people go to the website and sign it, spread the word, lobby public figures to sign it and monitor those who do. The early results are promising.