Introduction to fact-checking: What do you do when peer pressure challenges the truth?

Introduction to fact-checking: What do you do when peer pressure challenges the truth?

Which of these lines of asterisks is longest?

Line One:  *********************************

Line Two:  ***************************************************

Line Three:  ******************

No one is watching you. No one has any idea which line you pick.

Knowing the answer under these circumstances is one thing.

Standing by your answer regardless of what others say is a completely different thing. 

Lies, misinformation, and disinformation spread fastest when people don’t know or don’t care whether the information they repeat is factual or not.

Some people spread untruths because they don’t know what fact-checking is, or don’t have time for fact-checking, or have no idea what “fact-checking” means because it has never been explained to them.

But there is also evidence that even when people do know the factual answer, peer pressure will persuade them that going along with the crowd is better than making waves or standing out.

In these troubled times, we need more people who know how to tell fact from fiction and will hold firm to facts—even if a monsoon of fake news and other propaganda rains down on them.

It is true that the answer to most political questions is not as cut-and-dried as the objective measurement of the length of a line. But our country is in turmoil right now about a great many things that can be measured objectively, so the exercise is still worth considering.

Looking again at the example above, which line of asterisks is longest: one, two, or three?

Now look at each of the situations below, imagine it’s happening to you, and give your answer again:

  • What if your favorite celebrity has been paid a large promotional fee to tell people line three is longest. Which line is longest then?
  • What if a close family member tells you excitedly in a phone call that s/he just heard line one is longest. Which line is longest then?
  • What if the highest spiritual authority in your worship community preaches that people who say line two is longest are damned for eternity?
  • What if you are out with a small group of friends, having a great time, and one of them says confidently, ”Everybody knows line one is the longest. I mean, there’s no question, is there?” What do you say?
  • What if you are in a work meeting with 20 people, and your boss goes around the table asking each person in turn which line is longest. All of the other 19 people say line three is longest.  You are the last one asked for a response. What do you say?
  • What if your social media feeds are filled with family and friends arguing about which line is longest?
  • What if a very highly educated person goes viral with a video insisting that smart people disagree about which line is the longest, because the word “longest” means something different to different people?
  • What if you see an opinion poll that says “55% of people in your congressional district believe line one is longest, 15% believe line two is longest, and 30% believe line three is longest!”
  • What if your favorite radio host or TV anchor ends the show each day with: “Remember, friends: All three lines are the same length.” Which line is longest then?

Were you able to imagine what it would feel like to be in each of those situations?

Were any of the situations harder or easier to decide than others?

Do you have any recent examples in real life, political or otherwise, where the facts were clear but you were under pressure to say/do/believe something contrary to fact?

What helped you or hurt you as you decided what action to take in response?

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