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The Pro-Truth Pledge
An Effective Strategy for Skeptics to Fight Fake News and Post-Truth Politics

How do we get politicians to stop lying? How do we get private citizens to stop sharing fake news on social media? Deception proved such a successful strategy for political causes and individual candidates in the UK and US elections in 2016 that the Oxford English Dictionary named post-truth as its word of the year, with the definition of “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” The extensive sharing of fake news by private citizens led Collins Dictionary to choose “fake news” as its word of the year for 2017, meaning “false, often sensational, information disseminated under the guise of news reporting.”

We are facing a nightmare scenario. For many years now, traditional gatekeepers for ensuring the veracity of public information—news media, civic leaders, authorities on various topics—have been trusted less and less. Social and digital media have only accelerated this trend, exemplifying the potential of technological disruption to undermine our democracy.

Fortunately, if we can create a mechanism that differentiates the liars from the truth-tellers, we have a hope of protecting our democracy. At the same time, tilting the scale toward truth requires addressing the psychological factors that cause people to tolerate untruths. Using research from behavioral science research about what causes people to lie and what motivates them to tell the truth, a number of behavioral scientists (including myself) and concerned citizens have launched the Pro-Truth Pledge at ProTruthPledge.org, which combines our knowledge of behavioral science with crowdsourcing to promote truth-oriented behavior.

The pledge is meant for both public figures and private citizens to sign. So far, thousands of private citizens across the globe and several hundred public figures and organizations signed it, including globally-known public intellectuals such as Jonathan Haidt, Steven Pinker, Peter Singer and Michael Shermer. You might be especially surprised that many dozens of politicians have signed it as well.

The Pro-Truth Pledge incorporates 12 countermeasures to the psychological factors that foster misinformation. Signers pledge their earnest efforts to make it a practice to:

  • Verify: Fact-check information to confirm it is true before accepting and sharing it.
  • Balance: Share the whole truth, even if some aspects do not support your opinion.
  • Cite: Share your sources so that others can verify the information.
  • Clarify: Distinguish between your opinion and the facts.
  • Acknowledge when others share true information, even when you disagree with their point of view.
  • Reevaluate if your information is challenged, and retract it if you cannot verify it.
  • Defend others when they come under attack for sharing true information, even when you disagree with their point of view.
  • Align your opinions and your actions with true information.
  • Fix: Ask people to retract information that reliable sources have disproved, even if they are your friends or allies.
  • Educate: Compassionately inform those around you to stop using unreliable sources, even if these sources support your point of view.
  • Defer: Recognize the opinions of experts as more likely to be accurate when the facts are disputed.
  • Celebrate those who retract incorrect statements and update their beliefs based on the truth.

As a skeptic, you may already be doing everything described here, and if so, the Pro-Truth Pledge allows you to make a clear public statement while also calling on public figures to take the pledge. If you are not, now is your chance to commit to the kind of behaviors you would want our public figures to follow, and then challenge them to make this commitment along with you.

Because the pledge is to “earnest efforts,” it doesn’t mean that you have to be perfect in following all of these; just make a good-faith effort to adhere to these behaviors. The pledge does not address private speech, spiritual speech, or personal experience—only public discourse.

The pledge has teeth: it’s an opt-in, libertarian-style mechanism for holding each other accountable. Private citizens who signed the pledge have an opportunity to be advocates for the pledge if they sign up to help. One role of advocates is to hold other pledge-takers accountable for avoiding sharing misinformation, especially public figures. We have a clear evaluation and accountability mechanism, in which anyone can participate. Thus, for public figures, signing the pledge provides a marker of credibility, since they are being held accountable, in the same way that the Better Business Bureau provides a marker of credibility for ethical businesses.

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

This is not a partisan project: there are plenty of honest public figures on all sides of the political divide, and both conservative and liberal politicians, media figures, and public intellectuals have taken the pledge. Something bigger is at stake: preventing the inevitable consequence of growing corruption and authoritarianism that follows from post-truth politics. The more people take the pledge—ordinary citizens like you, as well as politicians and journalists and civic leaders—the more impact the pledge will have. We talked to a number of politicians and other public figures who indicated the pledge is too burdensome for them to take now, and to come back when we have more people who went to ProTruthPledge.org and signed it. So when you sign the Pro-Truth Pledge, you know you are making a real difference in fighting against the lies and protecting our democracy from the scourge of lies.

Research on network effects shows that you powerfully impact the people in your social network, and as skeptics committed to reason, it is our responsibility to show skeptics in the best light possible. Taking the pledge, and sharing publicly about our commitment to the truth, will be a crucial signal to our social network about the positive role in our society that skeptics—that you and I—can play. The fake news and post-truth politics are a systemic problem, and without an intervention by everyone who cares about the truth, they will continue. So be part of the solution: go to ProTruthPledge.org and sign the pledge to fight against the lies and protect our democracy.

Take the Pro-Truth Pledge!

About the Author

Dr. Gleb Tsipursky is Assistant Professor in the History Department along with the Decision Sciences Collaborative at Ohio State University. He is President and Co-Founder of Intentional Insights, a nonprofit advocating truth-seeking, rational thinking, and wise decision-making, and the co-founder of the Pro-Truth Pledge, an initiative to fight misinformation and advocate for truth.

38 Comments

  1. Peter Olins says:

    Thanks for launching this project.

    You repeatedly use provisos such as “…even when you disagree with their point of view.” Can you give some examples of situations where this would be relevant?

    • Gleb Tsipursky says:

      Peter, it would apply where we can agree on the facts, but not the interpretation. For example, we can both agree the temperature is 73 degrees, but some would have the opinion that it’s hot, and some the opinion that it’s cold. Or we can both agree that Obamacare reduced the rate of uninsured Americans, but we can agree or disagree about whether it was worth the added financial burden and bureaucratic overhead. More here: https://www.protruthpledge.org/facts-opinions-experts/

  2. Chris Rich says:

    The true power of the media lies not in what is chosen to be said but rather in what is chosen not to be said. It’s not fake news, it’s omitted news.

    Facts? What are facts? Whose facts do I want? How long should it take for facts to arrive? When do I know I have the facts? Can I assume it is proof when The New Times tells me so, or when Fox news posts a red hot bulletin? What about CNN’s truth?

    There is so much damn truth it all feels like a lie.

    • Gleb Tsipursky says:

      Chris, I think there are lots of problems with the media. The pledge is meant to address some of them. Something is better than nothing, and if we can tell apart the ones who get their facts straight from the ones who don’t, that’s major progress in our current political environment, unfortunately.

    • Gregg Johnson says:

      Agreed Chris, and not just omitted “news” but the placement of sensational but essentially irrelevant stories into the mainstream under the guise of real news. IMO, this is the biggest fault of media these days, and it only serves to stoke the dissemination of the equally salacious by those in opposition.

  3. Valkyrie Ziege says:

    ; “The Truth”, according to whom? We don’t need blathering conspiracy nut-cases in tin-foil-hats deciding which animals are “more equal than others”.
    We already have enough of those types interfering with invited speakers with opinions they don’t like, including at schools, and for physically attacking teachers for having the “wrong” opinion, and teaching the “wrong” things. Sugar-coating the poop of political correctness as being “A Pro-Truth Pledge” isn’t changed by the sugar-coating.
    We saw this same “oath” in “Animal Farm”, and how it was changed to accommodate the elite end of the spectrum.

  4. Patrick says:

    Untruth has a significant cost advantage and is great for profits. All the pledges in the world won’t change that.

  5. Mark Palmer says:

    While I wholeheartedly support the principles of the pledge I do wonder how this will be play out in the current political and cultural moment.

    Verify seems is a little slippery right now, particularly within the #metoo movement. Without a doubt, men have exerted power over women to satisfy male ego and lust and it’s a horrible and offensive part of human history. But should the solution to an imbalance be another imbalance?

    There are a number of well-intentioned media experts skipping verification in favor of righting an institutionalized wrong. A news reporter recently said she “will not rest until everyone women is believed.” Is verification unnecessary if the accusation is bad enough and the victim powerless? Maybe. But there will be individual casualties.

    Will there be exceptions to the pledge?

  6. awc says:

    Our relationship with the truth can be complex it is not unlike a relationship with a loved one. Getting what we want by denying reality or calling into question veracity of the relationship by pursuing the truth, our wish to be a part of something more than the self we accept untruths. Ultimately the relationship gives us something we deeply desire.

    One of the best documentaries I have ever seen “The Century of the Self” covers this topic exactly. What I found a bit depressing at the end for me was even when untruths are presented because of our personal preferences we are willingly deceived to get the feelings we want.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eJ3RzGoQC4s

  7. Bad Boy Scientist says:

    This pledge sounds like a nice idea but humanity being what it is I am not optimistic that it will be very effective.

    Having oath-takers keep each other in line isn’t necessarily a way to protect the truth and beat down lies. Doxxing carries its own baggage.

    I think we need to develop better, more robust tools to fact check what we read & hear. Snopes just isn’t enough anymore.

    • Gleb Tsipursky says:

      Those who sign up for the pledge can choose to opt into having their names publicly listed in a database or not. They get the reputational boost if they do, and that carries the appropriate consequence of being held accountable.

  8. Joe Visalli says:

    A recent PBS show about a historical philosophical discussion between CS Lewis and JRR Toiken about the power of myth talked about the Truth being the result of Objective Fact filtered through personal and cultural myths (or biases or assumptions). If this is true then there is no absolute truth, only a relative one. This would be the case even for scientific and mathematical “facts”, all of which depend on assumptions and a variety of limitations whether stated or not. Stating biases, assumptions and limitations in addition to providing balance, etc., is essential for telling the “truth”.

  9. Larry says:

    “We talked to a number of politicians and other public figures who indicated the pledge is too burdensome for them to take now…”

    And that’s it in a nutshell folks.

  10. Professor Ferrel Christensen says:

    This truth-pledge idea is well-intended, but by my lights misguided. It is what used to be called a “motherhood issue”–NO one will disagree that we should tell the truth (as opposed, say, to “fake” claims). So it does no good to champion truth in the abstract. A pro-science pledge makes some sense, but only to the degree that what counts as science is agreed on by all parties–and a big part of today’s problems is that, on top of ideologues denouncing “so-called science” and “male science”, a great many ordinary people have no idea what science is: being untrained in it, they believe in what “science says” much as their ancestors believed in the local witch-doctor–which is to say, they believe irrationally in science. IMO, the only pledge that makes sense is one to become, and help others become, more aware of scientific evidence and methods. Something which, as it happens, (*ahem*) I have already spent my life doing…. :-)

    • Gleb Tsipursky says:

      I’m sad to see you did not read the pledge itself. It calls on people to follow clear, observable behaviors, which are highly aligned with the scientific method, but also go beyond it. We can observe if the behaviors are followed or not. There’s a reason hundreds of scientists took the pledge.

      • Marcus Laine says:

        The scientific method?

        Would you please explain this to me. As a scientist we do not have ‘sort of a methodology’ but a rigourous one. Do you document all prior conclusions, define terms, have a precise regimen for coming to a new conclusion?

        ‘China and the US sign a trade agreement’. Science…China the political entity? Does the US include territories? Sign means with a pen? A trade agreement is what type of international legal term?

        What seems like ridiculous and absurd nitpicking is essential to ‘scientific method’. Assumptions and ‘common sense’, in contrast, are ephemeral dust in the wind.

  11. Randy Grein says:

    I am one of the politicians (novice) who took the Pro-Truth pledge this year for my first campaign. I was unsuccessful in unseating a 24 year incumbent – late start, no experience, no exposure and no money. And yet, despite being outspent 40:1 I was able to convince 31.4% of the voters that I was not merely qualified, but the better candidate. The Pro-Truth pledge, I believe, played a part. It was not a large part but it played well with my message of honesty and integrity in local politics. The next election will, of course be the real test. Will it make a difference with adequate campaign support?

    I did notice that some commenters do not quite grasp the effectiveness of a pledge to stick to the truth and are trying to dig deeper into philosophy than is necessary or even advisable. ‘Truth’ in common usage is ‘what is real’, evidence-based, factual. Voters are concerned with rather clear-cut questions – did you vote for X in council, will the proposed bill result in a net decrease in middle class taxes, is your proposed solution workable? No need to dig deeper for the nature of truth when there is an abundance of the opposite observable in politics.

  12. Billy Bobby says:

    I think it’s hilarious that anyone thinks a politician is going to sign the pro-truch pledge and not be lying about it, seriously…. people need to get a grip, this is all they know how to do, how do you think every single politician gets elected in the first place, by LYING! As long as the system is pay for play to the tune of millions and millions of dollars this will NEVER change…The only way to fix the lying is to remove the incentive to lie….$$$$ Check your history books, citizens used have to serve as politicians for free as a SERVICE to their country, they got NOTHING in return other than the gratitude of their neighbors, their main incentive was to leave things better than they were when they arrived…

  13. Mr. Block says:

    I get all my news from Verrit. The rest of the webnet has too much Fake News and Bad Opinions.

    I’m very concerned about Iran.

    I am a smart person.

    and North Korea is coming to get us.

    I am very smart.

    and both sides should come together, that’s when things really get done.

    and Iran is the number one state sponsor of terrorism.

    I am a Skeptic™ and an informed NPR gatekeeper.

    Yemini children who? Saudi who?

    Oh, and Russia. Russia Russia Russia Russia Russia Russia Russia Russia PUTIN.

    I am a smart person.

  14. 123elle says:

    I believe that the U.S. is in the throes of epidemic psychosis, not unlike suicide cult membership or Orson Welles’ inadvertently triggered panic over aliens. When people are as confused and mistrustful of even veteran news organizations as I see them to be; when they believe frankly lunatic conspiracy theories like Pizzagate and are obsessed with religion to the point of denying evolution, any pledge to the truth only refers them to “their” personal truth.

    When people are unable to distinguish between reality and fiction, we call them disturbed and possibly psychotic. Their “reality” is some form of paranoia, and as we know, there’s not a possibility of talking or reasoning a paranoid out of his or her obsession.

  15. Barbara Harwood says:

    Respect for the truth must be taught in school. Instead, we were given a number of “facts” about history that were plainly wrong. We arrived at another level of education only to be told to forget the nonsense that you learned earlier and learn this. Eventually, you start to believe that it is all lies and that the teachers are making it up as they go along. How are we to pick the truth from the skein of unreliable information that we are constantly exposed to?
    Most children learn fairy tales that they know are not true as they are literally presented, but they are merely tales to foster a proper behavior. I was told a number of strange stories in Sunday School, but I never believed that they took place as they were presented. I did not believe them at the time because I was unaware that I was required to.
    Pledges are relatively easy to take while we are certain that we know the truth, but lies have a way of becoming believeable if repeated enough. Some of your readers quoted “Animal Farm”, but “1984” is just as relevant.

  16. Doc S, Hp D says:

    this sentence is false

  17. Rasmus Ehlers says:

    I see this as a nice attempt to guide us all in navigating all the “spam”
    A thought:
    This whole fake news business! Well the news might just be that now it’s close to real time. The truth might just be that this is not news. I remember news stories from the newspapers in the times before the internet was populated. There you had the same trend albeit there might just have been more time for the journalists to fact check. Now everybody is potential agents. If you look at history keeping from various sources in retrospective and notice how it sometimes gets re-evaluated, you can get a sense of how many interpretations there initially would have been. There is much bias, favouritism, and outright fakery in both this new ‘fad’ called fake news, and in our history books. Somewhere in between you could infer that this is a human condition reaching a sort of singularity.

  18. Marshall Gill says:

    Ah, Gleb, you have provided an excellent example of how truth can be manipulated in the very first paragraph of your explanation of “facts-opinion-experts”.

    Comparing something that is specifically refutable through video evidence to a much more general and speculative video evidence is not specifically lying but it is a manipulation of facts.

    We know for a fact that Hillary was not attacked by sniper fire. It is a single and easily verifiable fact. The number of people who attended the inauguration, on the other hand, requires much more expertise to discern. Claiming that “experts” determined the “real” numbers seems less than skeptical, to me.

    How about climate science? Do I believe Michael Mann or Judith Curry or Anthony Watts? Which ever one signs your pledge first?

    As for voters, if they are so stupid that you will vote for someone because they pinky swear to tell the truth they are not using reason, since all human beings lie, even those who sign pledges to always tell the truth.

    For true skeptics, eternal vigilance is the only option.

  19. Marcus Laine says:

    No thanks. As a scientist I have rigorous standards for what I considered acceptable facts and conclusions.

    Anything less that this is opinion, guesswork, filler, surmising, etc. regardless of the intention.

    ‘We know as a fact that…’ utter hubris and sums up the arrogance of our individual view of reality.

  20. Dr Michael W Ecker says:

    Many of the posts here are good, but one overarching theme of quite a few is to decry the inexactness of what is proposed.

    Seriously? This is a classic case of the perfect being the enemy of the good. Here, the good is pretty clear to most people with a good mind and a worldview that takes into account all of reality so as to create coherence and balance. On the other hand, we all know that the perfect is the classic “road to hell paved with good intentions”.

    So, can we please all step with the ultra-scientific, perfect “It won’t work because this is not perfect in manners x, y, z…” We know pretty well who are the largest purveyors of fake news. That is what we need to keep in sight – not our fellow thinkers who disagree only on small points about the details.

    ‘Nuff said??

  21. Pat Frank says:

    eSkeptic is an ironic forum for a truth pledge, given Michael Shermer’s systematic censorship of skeptical articles about human-caused global warming, since my 2008 A Climate of Belief.

    As Dr. Gleb Tsipursky is an assistant professor of History, a critical discussion of the recommendation by the late but very influential Howard Zinn, that historians discard the standard of objectivity (reference 53 here) in favor of political advocacy, would have been nice to see in his essay recommending adherence to truth.

    Has Zinnist advocacy affected the integrity of historical scholarship and teaching in the academy since 1995? How severely?

  22. sudhanshu says:

    wow very good

  23. sudhanshu says:

    excellent

  24. Gleb Tsipursky says:

    I very much agree with Dr Michael W Ecker. If we let the perfect be the enemy of the good, we will never get anything done. Let’s be practical and focus on effectiveness, not on the tyranny of tiny differences. So make a difference, everyone, by going on ProTruthPledge.org, signing the pledge, and making a real difference for truth and facts in our society.

  25. Eric says:

    Not so sure about this one: “Recognize the opinions of experts as more likely to be accurate when the facts are disputed.”

    Not when many “experts” at universities have such dubious careers.

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