Monday, March 17, 2008

Telling the Truth

I read an article about the persistence of fiction in the New York Times Magazine yesterday, and I've been thinking about strategic persuasion ever since.

In 2004, Andy Martin, a loose cannon Illinois Republican, "exposed" Barack Obama as a Muslim. Despite news organizations' and fact checkers' efforts to make it clear that Martin's claim was unfounded, almost four years later, the rumors persist.

Farhad Manjoo, the article's author, writes:

Journalists typically presume that facts matter: show the public what is true, and they will make decisions correctly. Psychologists who study how we separate truth from fiction, however, have demonstrated that the process is not so simple.

We hear stories, and we remember them. When we hear them over and over again, we remember them more vividly, and they feel increasingly real. In determining a story's veracity, we often rely on relative sense of familiarity: the more familiar, the more likely to be true.

We have a predictable psychological vulnerability to strategic persuasion. Scary.

And extra scary for those of us laying a foundation on which to build an open source research project.

We are aggregating expert opinions and collecting user opinions and hopefully figuring out which companies do business most humanely and sustainably. We are susceptible to all kinds of falsehood. Our decision to focus on the positive, to gather gold stars rather than black marks, makes us susceptible to greenwash. Our decision to engage the greenest and most activist people we know in early user testing and design makes us susceptible to exaggerated accounts of psychopathic corporate behavior. And our openness to user opinions makes us susceptible to false rumor perpetuation, mistakes, and infiltration from both pro- and anti-business interests.

I don't think we have a choice, though. We have to invite our users to participate. We have to include even the most radical of the activists. We have to engage the companies. In my opinion, drawing from all corners of the collective wisdom is the only way to go.

But, if we believe the article, how do we do that? How do we invite all information, true and false, and expect not to perpetuate the false just as much as the true?

We can certainly start by shooting for the Wikipedia solution and trying to harness the size of a community to keep things accurate. As much abuse as Wikipedia takes for its imperfections, the fact that so many millions of people are on the site everyday is an impressively effective check against inaccuracy. Impactful falsehoods simply don't last. Committed users feed info to moderators, and moderators swoop in and clean up messes.

But isn't it a problem that people see the falseness at all? Didn't the NYT Magazine article just teach us that?

It did. But it also might have taught us how to strategically persuade for the truth.

Nicholas DiFonzo, a psychologist at the Rochester Institute of Technology, gives Obama high marks on his handling of the Muslim rumor, particularly a refutation Obama offered during an interview late in January with the Christian Broadcasting Network. Obama offered a clear, point-by-point rebuttal to every argument in the chain e-mail, and he provided an important alternative story — "dirty tricks."

The alternative story. If fiction has power, why can't fact have it too?

Maybe this is all about storytelling. Maybe fiction has been more compelling than fact because it is, by nature, more creative. Maybe it's better crafted and thus a better story.

And maybe that's the key for all of us. Barack Obama. Al Gore. Participant Productions. Dave Eggers. Chris Abani. Hunter S. Thompson. Everyone. Tell the story well. Enlighten creatively.

All I have to do now is figure out how to build that into a user community culture...