Lies and democracy: Who are the truth tellers?
by Allan LEONARD for FactCheckNI
6 December 2019
As part of the annual general meeting of NICVA, the umbrella body of the voluntary and community sector in Northern Ireland, there was a panel discussion on the topics of truth, trust, and how everyone engages with a bombardment of information. Entitled, “Lies and Democracy: The Fight for the Truth”, BBC Radio Ulster presenter, Seamus McKee, moderated the discussion with panellists Amanda Ferguson, John Barry, and Orna Young.
Seamus McAleavy (Chief Executive, NICVA) welcomed the audience of over a hundred and explained the motivation behind choosing the theme of the discussion: “There’s so much talk of fake news … There seems to be a willingness on a large part of the public just to take [false] information and not worry whether it’s authentic or not … We want to really explore that.”
Seamus McKee set the scene with remarks on the importance of themes in election campaigns. For the current UK General Election, he cited a newspaper column that described it as “theatrical misinformation”, with the internet as “a beautiful precision tool”.
Geoff Nuttall (Head of Policy and Public Affairs, NICVA) presented an interactive, live quiz, “Spot the Truth”. Delegates used their smartphones and the Mentimeter service to answer a few questions. We learned that there are 35 staff members at NICVA, polar bears have black skin, and Germany exports more to the US than the UK does.
Each panellist made a brief presentation before an open discussion with the audience. The first presentation was by Amanda Ferguson, who described herself as “a freelance journalist from north Belfast, so I’m always delighted to do a gig within the constituency” (NICVA’s offices are located near an interface at Duncairn Gardens).
Ferguson described her first experience of directly being accused of being “fake news”; at an attempt to interview Britain First leader, she told Paul Golding that she was from the Irish Times, “somebody helpfully said to him Irish News and … ‘She’s “fake news” so don’t talk to her!’” The person who highlighted the fact that Ferguson had done work for the Irish News did so on a purposely inflammatory way, as that newspaper’s readership is primarily of Irish nationalists. This could be a good case of a simplistic and abused definition of “fake news” as being a source of information that you don’t agree with. For example, Ferguson said that people will take a position on where they think you come from, “or as I call it, whether you smell of Mass”. In what is known as the “telling process” — determining whether someone is Catholic of Protestant by particular cues, such as one’s name or where they live — it isn’t as obvious with Ferguson. She spoke of her cross-community background, with her parents in a “mixed marriage” and her attending “Catholic primary school and Protestant secondary school”. Ferguson described how she experienced sectarianism both ways: “You get a different perspective and I hope that people feel that I bring that to my journalism.”
One concern that Ferguson highlighted was the appearance of people not being phased so much by news of unbecoming behaviour or suspicious campaign funding, etc. She remarked that people expect journalists to filter out what the truth is, but in an environment where public figures can “just directly lie, and even when they’re challenged on it, they’ll just deny it”.
Yet Ferguson spoke about how media itself can frame a discussion to its own liking. She described how she was asked to participate in a panel event on TV, when the producer asked her if she would say that she would support the SDLP. Ferguson replied, “No”, describing her cross-community background: “And because I didn’t slot into the box that they needed, I wasn’t part of the programme.” Ferguson called for a wider variety of voices, especially those from minority communities, to be heard throughout the media.
Ferguson said that it is very important, particularly with so much misinformation and online targeting, that people know who trusted sources are for news and information. She gave an example of her mother sending her health scare stories from random websites, “and I tell my mom, ‘Just go to the NHS website and you’ll find all the information that you need on that’”. Ferguson concluded by saying that it has never been more important than it is now to educate people on how to sort out fact from fiction — complimenting FactCheckNI and its work — as well as to support good journalism.
Before Seamus McKee introduced the next speaker, he asked the audience to raise their hands if they thought other people look at news through their own biases. Most hands went up. How many in the room look at news themselves through their own biases? Most hands remained up. How many trusted journalists? Many hands went down. “That’s very interesting … We have a lot of work to do, Amanda,” McKee replied.
Professor John Barry (Queen’s University Belfast) is a Green political theorist and activist. Wearing a black t-shirt with the motto, “Go back, we screwed everything up!”, he delivered a presentation entitled, “Mythic Thinking, Frames, and Democratic Politics”.
Like Ferguson, Barry spoke about the framing of discussions. “False equivalency” is when you give disproportionate access to a minority view, and more so when it is a debunked or discredited one, such as the opposition to vaccination or the denial of climate change science. “The BBC, until last year — even though 95% of climate scientists tell us that humans are causing climate breakdown — gave equal time to those who deny climate change.”
Barry argued that fact checking alone will not defeat a false narrative. False narratives are to be defeated with better narratives. On the issue of climate change, he said that what works for him when he finds himself talking with people from a Christian perspective is to frame the conversation in terms of stewardship of the natural world: “Scientific and academic language is completely immune. You appeal to people’s hearts and aspirations.” Barry added that academics and experts bear some responsibility for losing respect, because there is a sense that ordinary people feel being spoken down to, instead of experts “getting alongside them and finding a common language”.
Barry said that he works to a definition of “democracy as non-violent disagreement”, with people respectfully engaging in disagreement. But if people aren’t operating from the same factual basis, how can you get negotiation, Barry asked. Also, in the case of Northern Ireland politics, “How do you trade two-fifths of your identity in history against one-fifth of somebody else’s? It doesn’t work like that.”
Nostalgia is another element of “post-truth”, Barry added. People are afraid and anxious, they are less risk averse and more receptive to politics of fear: “And in that way, ‘post-truth’ politics is a gateway drug to a fear-based politics, which works.”
The response, as Barry started his presentation, is to tell a positive story, “which my own Green movement has been crap at doing”. He added, “The apocalyptic will not mobilise people. You want to present a vision of a better future as like a postcard of a beautiful holiday.”
Orna Young (Co-founder and Research Director, FactCheckNI) began her presentation by describing research she did before establishing Northern Ireland’s first and only dedicated fact-checking service. This research was in regard to the role that social media had in relation to violence taking place near interface areas: “Social media had a horrendous impact.” She said that FactCheckNI was founded on the basis that misinformation — especially rumour — was pushing people into behaviours that was detrimental to their wellbeing and future prospects.
Young noted that even the term “fact checking” is being hijacked (with reference to the Conservative Party press office rebranding its Twitter account as “factcheckUK”). She advised the audience to look for a badge of verification, issued by the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN), of which FactCheckNI is a member.
There are currently 225 active fact-checking organisations in the world, stated Young. Besides FactCheckNI, elsewhere in the UK are Full Fact, Channel 4 FactCheck, BBC Reality Check, and Ferret Fact Service (FFS); TheJournal.ie Fact Check project is based in Dublin, Ireland.
What distinguishes FactCheckNI, said Young, was it working within a deeply divided society: “We work with a conflict lens.” Another unique aspect is its training provision, which few fact-checking organisations do globally. With grant funding that it received in 2015 from Building Change Trust, FactCheckNI has been able to train thousands of people in critical thinking skills.
In this regard, Young explained that the essence of critical thinking is being able to distinguish facts from opinions: “A fact is something that can be backed by evidence; an opinion is something that is based on someone’s belief.” You can’t fact check an opinion. With reference to Barry’s argument that an ardent denier of climate change won’t accept fact checks that debunk hoax theories, Young said that the role of fact checkers is not to tell such people what to think (i.e. “Fact checks rebuke your hoax!”), rather for deniers to value facts in their own arguments: “We want people be more engaged.”
Young reviewed six questions that everyone should ask themselves when absorbing a piece of information:
- Who? Is it a retweet from someone in your Twitter bubble? Or a reliable, official source like the Northern Ireland Statistics Research Agency (NISRA)?
- What? Is it a fact or an opinion? Can it be backed up with evidence?
- Where? Found in a public space or a private chat group? Meant to invite discussion or discover fellow believers?
- When? Shared before, during, or after an event? Something repurposed from the past?
- Why? Published as part of a wider story or agenda? What is the context?
- How? Inflammatory language? Baiting your emotions?
Furthermore, she described an online toolkit that anyone can use, which includes guides on teaching yourself fact checking:
- Get the whole story, not just a headline.
- Images can be faked.
- Check what other people say.
- How do you feel?
- People who make false news try to manipulate your feelings.
- If it looks too good to be true, it probably is.
- Don’t be the one who doesn’t spot the joke.
Young concluded with a quotation from an article that FactCheckNI published on the importance of fact checking:
“Fact checking is no guarantee against a group of people deciding to ignore the evidence of factual truths, but without the effort of fact checking we surrender each of our reality to others.”
The discussion was opened to the audience, and one attendee remarked that what seems to have changed over the years is that now “lying in public life seems to be consequence free”, even when evidence exposes lies and misrepresentations. Amanda Ferguson answered that what has also changed is some media treating politics as a form of celebrity entertainment, with a style of overly familiar informality — referring to politicians on a first-name basis — that can make it more difficult to jeopardise a media relationship with such public representatives later.
On the issue of the role of a fact checker to change people’s minds, Seamus McKee cited an example of Jim Shannon MP, who subsequently updated a statement on Northern Ireland/Unionist support for the backstop proposal by Prime Minister May, after the publication of a fact check by FactCheckNI. Orna Young replied that that is valid, with another observation that Northern Ireland party election manifestos for the 2019 General Election have used precise language, with an apparent awareness that they will be fact checked.
John Barry endorsed the view that fact checking has a valuable role in developing policy — his nickname whilst at local government councillor was “Evidence-based Barry”. “But,” he added, “the reality is the truth will not set us free.” Rather, he argued that narratives and stories are more compelling and appeal to people’s values.
From the audience, Anne Moore spoke about how Bolsheviks were prepared to die in prison than acknowledge that “maybe their lives had been led by a lie”; their identity gave them a more important purpose in life and meaning. This is psychologically referred to as “identity protective cognition”, she explained. What Moore wanted to know is how do you change the story in a political system based on identity (as such in Northern Ireland), in order to address issues like climate change. Barry replied, “An easy question, thanks Anne!”
Seamus McKee ended the discussion with a question for the three panellists to answer: “Who are the truth tellers?”
John Barry replied that the easy answer would be academics, “because we go through a rigorous process of peer review”. But he elaborated on what he saw as a general decline in trust in experts along with a rise of right-wing populism. He encapsulated this with a quotation from G.K. Chesterton: “When men choose not to believe in God, they do not thereafter believe in nothing, they then become capable of believing in anything.”
Orna Young said that the truth tellers are you: “We want people to go out and find it themselves, not to sit on Twitter and be told it … We want people to be more engaged in the media saturation that we live in. We want them to be less passive consumers of the media.”
Amanda Ferguson answered that a lot of journalists are out there and trying to get to the truth. In general, the people on the street are telling the truth … It’s their truth, it’s their version of the truth and you have to pick through all that, present what people are saying, and then give your analysis. That’s all you can really do.”