I thought I had it all figured out. Tribalism was here to stay. Facts didn’t matter any more. Factchecking was a fool’s errand. Politics had become purely about picking sides, about competing narratives, a spectator sport where all the voters cared about was crushing the opposing team. Politics was no longer a matter of policies and vision – it was no longer even a matter of ideology. Donald Trump could lie as much as he wanted and his supporters would either believe him or not, but they wouldn’t care. If anything, it seemed as though lying was, in fact, encouraged. It was seen as a smart offensive move on the pitch, where both teams weren’t playing by the same rules.
I was frustrated by liberals’ fixation on “going high” when others “go low”. I was angry at civility and politeness and euphemism when addressing racist or authoritarian behaviour. I had had enough of the earnest “democracy dies in darkness” belief that good journalism would expose and vanquish the liars. In a newsletter lamenting the post-truth climate of the recent UK election, I wrote: “All is fair in love and war, and politics has become war”.
And then an email landed in my inbox from a member. The first line read: “Are you familiar with the Pro-Truth Pledge project?” Scanning the email and website link, I cynically assumed it was some idealistic exercise in jargon – a project that would coin some academic phrase such as “factfulness”, while continuing the pointless cycle of trying to hold liars to account. But it was much more than that. The Pro-Truth Pledge project doesn’t deny human nature but studies it. Based on behavioural science, it has found a way to re-stigmatise lying. It’s aimed at those frustrated by “misinformation and incivility in public discourse”, creating a sort of bottom-up pressure on politicians to be accountable for their lies.
I was frustrated by liberals’ fixation on ‘going high’ when others ‘go low’. I was angry at civility and politeness and euphemism when addressing racist or authoritarian behaviour.
Intrigued, I put in a call to the member who had emailed, Agnes Vishnevkin, one of its co-founders. She explained that the premise of the Pro-Truth Pledge was based on the tribal nature of our brains. Where we are today is not some aberration. It’s not some deterioration in political culture or degradation of human nature. We have always been like this. People believe lies because the best lies communicate something that the recipient wants to hear, something comforting and simplistic that the person being lied to readily receives from the liar because they want it to be true. They will not factcheck because the purpose is not to learn the truth of things; the purpose is to be reassured. So far, so bleak.
“It’s not that people are stupid,” Agnes told me. “It’s because people are people.” Our brains developed hundreds of thousands of years ago. They’re hardwired to look for threats and to fear competing tribes. Group cohesion was a matter of life and death. These brains have not developed much since, and smartphones are now giving them information every day that triggers fear of others and a tribal mentality.
Pro-Truth Pledge’s solution is not to give up and engage in similar untruthful behaviour to win people over. Rather, its founders want to harness the power of those who do believe in the importance of truth to put pressure on politicians and representatives to be – for want of a better word – factful. By acknowledging that we are in a crisis, the project confronts the problem head on without simply reeling off a series of factchecks. It is idealistic but rooted in a realistic view of human nature: when pressure is applied upwards to politicians to sign the pledge, some will comply, and then be held accountable.
The belief that the truth didn’t matter anymore was, in fact, a fear that if we didn’t start doing something differently, if we didn’t start mimicking the tactics of the winners, we would lose for eternity.
The project’s success depends on individuals passing it on. It’s not going to change anything overnight, but it’s a start. As I got excited about the project, I came to realise that my jaundice was a coping mechanism. My tribe keeps losing, and I felt the game was rigged. The belief that the truth didn’t matter anymore was, in fact, a fear that if we didn’t start doing something differently, if we didn’t start mimicking the tactics of the winners, we would lose for eternity.
Telling the truth wasn’t working. The Pro-Truth Pledge made me realise that what we are up against is something we have always been up against. The way forward is not to give up – we need to get creative. “It’s a difficult time,” Agnes told me. “There are a lot of emotions right now. And I had let them get the better of me.”