Social scientist Gleb Tsipursky is CEO of the company Disaster Avoidance Experts, which works with individuals and organizations to keep business catastrophes at bay. Of late, however, he’s been most concerned about a different disaster-in-the-making: “Our media information ecosystem is broken. Deeply, deeply broken.”
After revealing this concern, Tsipursky notes that most people get at least a portion, and sometimes a lot more than a portion, of their information from social media. And that worries him “because fake news – misinformation — spreads on social media up to 10 times faster than real news.” Plus, he adds, peer-reviewed research reports that people find credible up to three-quarters of the fake news they hear.
“That’s very worrisome for the future of our country and other countries around the world,” says Tsipursky , who emigrated to the United States from Moldova at age 10 and later earned his Ph.D. in decision science at Ohio State University. “The future of our democracy is under grave threat because people don’t know who to trust and what to trust.”
His concern, even over the phone from his home in Columbus, Ohio, is impassioned. And more to the point, it’s palpable. “It’s the responsibility of each one of us to change our system, to take steps to address the destruction of our democracy. Because if we don’t do it, who will?”
So Gleb Tsipursky is addressing fake news, but not by trying to educate consumers about the viper already in their newsfeed. “The problem with that,” he says, “is really that less and less people trust fact checkers, less and less people trust journalists. So if you just keep doing the same thing that you were doing before, that’s clearly not working.”
Rather than approaching the issue from the supply side, he harnessed his own skills as a behavioral scientist and came at it via the demand side. He’s asking newsmakers themselves to not speak or spread fake news in the first place. Through Intentional Insights, the non-profit popularizing research on avoiding disasters that he chairs, he and his wife and business partner Agnes Vishnevkin started something called the Pro-Truth Pledge.
The pledge, which you can see below, asks people – politicians in particular – “to commit to truth-oriented behaviors and protect facts and civility.” As of the morning of this article’s posting, 91 organizations, 646 government officials, and 922 public figures were among the 9,043 signers. Signers are most in the U.S., then in other English-speaking countries like Canada, Britain and Australia, but there’s a group of 500 signers in Brazil thanks to a particularly enthusiastic volunteer there. (The Pledge is currently translated into Spanish, Hungarian, Russian, Ukrainian, Portuguese, German, French and Polish.)
I Pledge My Earnest Efforts 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 my opinion
- Cite: share my sources so that others can verify my information
- Clarify: distinguish between my opinion and the facts
- Acknowledge: acknowledge when others share true information, even when we disagree otherwise
- Reevaluate: reevaluate if my information is challenged, retract it if I cannot verify it
- Defend: defend others when they come under attack for sharing true information, even when we disagree otherwise
- Align: align my opinions and my actions with true information
- Fix: ask people to retract information that reliable sources have disproved even if they are my allies
- Educate: compassionately inform those around me to stop using unreliable sources even if these sources support my opinion
- Defer: recognize the opinions of experts as more likely to be accurate when the facts are disputed
- Celebrate: celebrate those who retract incorrect statements and update their beliefs toward the truth
On a gut-level you might pass this by as a nice, well-intentioned effort — but bound to go nowhere. Yet Tsipursky stands by his effort with a raft of social science research.
“The Pro-Truth Pledge is a pre-commitment mechanism,” he explains. “We know from research on honor codes, fraternity pledges and more that if people make a commitment to honesty and have clear standards about truthfulness, they are much more likely to be honest. The Pro-Truth Pledge does that.”
That sort of emotional connectedness is one of the things that he sees as absent from more reason- and logic-based efforts to throttle fake news. “If people aren’t motivated to use fact checkers, why should they use fact checkers? So how would more and more fact checking be helpful to people who aren’t motivated to use them?” (Tsipursky is not anti-fact checker, by the way. He’s just concerned that their noble efforts aren’t turning the tide against fake news.)
Those efforts also founder through the false consensus effect, a cognitive bias where we assume other people are like us. “In reality, other people are very different from us,” Tsipursky says. “The people who use fact checkers have a strong investment in truth and reasonable, rational thinking, whereas other people don’t. The people who are using fact checkers, they assume that other people are misguided, versus what is actually going on: that these people don’t care so much about fact checkers.
“So what we needed to do, from what we saw, was change the paradigm by looking at the behavioral science research, seeing what would actually cause these people to care, and using those incentives, basically.”
Tsipursky drew lessons from research on the environmental movement, which uses reputational rewards — and punishments – to produce actual action. So politicians get an initial boost by taking a pledge, and then are kept in line by the possibility of having the community call them out now that they’ve been given a lever.
He likens it to the Better Business Bureau. “A business constrains its ability to act in such a way as to align with the ethics of the Better Business Bureau, and gets a better reputation as a result. And of course, many businesses chose not to because they don’t want to be constrained by these ethics.” And that, Tsipursky says, tells you something about the businesses – or politicians.
Part of the Better Business Bureau’s own success, of course, involves its scale and own reputation. There are already many pledges politicians can take – Grover Norquist’s anti-tax pledge has proven a particularly compelling one for conservative American politicians – but those are usually tied to a certain policy prescription. The Pro-Truth Pledge, at least in theory, is nonpartisan on its face.
So far, the pledge has been most attractive to minor parties. Tsipursky breaks down the political affiliation of signers as Libertarians first, followed by Democratic/liberal, socialist/Green, and then Republican/conservative. Given this, the Pledge crew makes a specific outreach to conservatives and the intensely religious. “In our current political environment,” Tsipursky says, “with the administration being a source of so many lies and deception, it’s very intuitive for liberals to take the pledge, less intuitive for conservatives to do so.” Among the Pledge’s advisory board is Felicia Winfree Cravens, the founder of the Houston Tea Party Society, and Lorenzo T. Neal, a conservative Christian pastor. (Other board members are social scientists Stephan Lewandowsky and Peter Singer and businessman Michael Tyler.)
Signers include Pierre Whelan, an Episcopalian bishop, roughly 30 state legislators (seven Republicans), and Stand Up Republic, a civic organization led by Utah Republican Evan McMullen. And while McMullen gained prominence as an anti-Trump Republican, and the truth-challengedness of the Donald Trump presidency is widely noted, Tsipursky takes pains to stress that the Pro-Truth Pledge isn’t anti-Trump, just anti-dishonesty. “We are not opposed to the values of the Trump administration. We are opposed to some of the methods that they choose to bring this about.” And if Democrats are caught being dishonest, the Pledge will call them out, too, said Tsipursky , citing New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez’s “Health News NJ” as a particularly flagrant example.
If a Pledge signer is reported to have bent, or broken, the truth, the Pledge crew investigates and if there is something dishonest, asks for it to be retracted or removed. Tsipursky noted at least two examples in the current election cycle in which signers have retracted statements or tweets made in the campaign that were inaccurate or couldn’t be supported. Had they not retracted, Tsipursky said the next step is to bug them on social media, and then lastly to publicly revoke their membership in the Pledge class and thus let loose some devastating optics.
While the U.S. midterms are a big test for the Pro-Truth Pledge, the next step – apart from sustaining a global footprint – is to research the effectiveness of the pledge, both on the citizenry and on politicians.
Their main metric for success was until recently peer-reviewed studies that showed private citizens who took the Pro-Truth Pledge were “quite a bit more likely to be more truthful” on social media. While the Pledge team assumes that translates into everyday life, “Facebook and social media is the biggest problem we want to change, because that’s where fake news spreads. The team has anecdotal evidence that public figures are more truthful after pledging, but has not yet completed peer-reviewed research on that particular key population.
In the long term, Tsipursky says, he’d like the Pledge to reach a tipping point where it becomes an expected part of the political conversation, and where politicians are routinely pledging – or delicately explaining why they won’t. But the goal isn’t numbers, but honesty. “Our output is them taking the pledge; the outcome is that they’re more truthful.”