The spectacle of former FBI Director James Comey testifying under oath that President Donald Trump lied, and the latter promising to testify under oath that Comey lied, highlights the fact that we are a low point for truth in U.S. politics. Lying proved a very successful strategy for political causes and individual candidates in the U.K. and U.S. elections in 2016, leading Oxford Dictionaries to choose “post-truth” 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. Research in behavioral science suggests, however, that we can address political deception through a number of effective strategies, which are brought together in the Pro-Truth Pledge project.
But 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 its fact checking. Polling shows, however, that trust in the mainstream media has dropped from around 50 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 of people 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 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 talk show host 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 modern history, in states such as Russia, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Turkey and Italy, post-truth politics has led to the rise of authoritarian and corrupt regimes. We must do all we can to prevent this outcome in the U.S.
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 ignore information that goes against their beliefs, and are more likely to deceive both when they see others do so and when it benefits their in-group. However, increased risk of suffering negative consequences, being reminded about ethics, publicity about and committing in advance to honesty all decrease the incentive to lie for ordinary citizens. For public figures, research suggests that transparent, clear information about who is truthful, coupled with reputational rewards for socially beneficial behavior such as honesty and enforced with 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…