Learning from my grandfather’s Red Feed during this election

For the last year, my grandfather has moved from reading the printed newspaper every day (Washington Post, NYTimes, Boston Globe depending on where he is at the time) to reading things recommended to him on his new Facebook account, influenced by the internet’s increasingly present algorithms and filter bubbles. The experience is very Red feed/Blue Feed between us. It meant I went from receiving fact checked articles on topics he found interesting to weekly emails from random blogs on the internet that bleed hate from the headline, even before I clicked the links in his emails.

At first my blood would BOIL… why was he sending me things that bash everything I am and do in very poorly formulated sentences and non-existent arguments? The bulk of the page used “facts” taken out of context that were often very outdated about immigration and jobs and technology and Obama’s presidency. I tried to ignore these articles. But they kept coming to my inbox.

I started to read through some of them. Coming from him, it felt really disrespectful and strange. He would never speak to me or my friends with the language I saw in these articles… so why was it ended up in my inbox?

Theory: Maybe I could ask him?

One solution: I tried to write back and note my discontent with the source and asking him what he took out of the source, what could I focus on to make sense of what he hoped I would take out of this article… there was never any response to support the argument or tell me how to read the article as he had. Looking back, I was not really creating a space for conversation and the response probably sounded like: this is garbage, why would you send this to me? Not exactly an open field for discussion, I needed a new approach.

New Theory: I started to think about why he might be sending me these articles, and I think it’s because the subject matter is about things I care very deeply about and this was a source he had found that could maybe help me think about my argument for “the other side.” Or maybe this was him showing interest in the topics I talk about a lot. There was love at the back of the sender, though the resource was like reading a poorly written oped from a hate group that had somehow ended up in his internet searches. Maybe there was another way to have a conversation about the sources or, drop the sources entirely, and offer him my own notes on what I was learning… YES! CONVERSATIONS FROM MY OWN RESEARCH! Civic discussion!

Proposed solution: CUT OUT THE BAD SOURCE ENTIRELY and replace with new info from a trusted source! (Turns out, this is cool option even if I don’t successfully remove the presence of these bad sources.)

To keep trying new things: I started to look at this as a researcher. What is the other side writing about and reading? These are more based in fears and growing fear of the “future” than it was spreading immediate information. Why was this a necessary and/or useful goal for the writer?

New Theory: He is an excellent listener and talks to everyone and likes a lot of what I post on Facebook, which is pretty liberal. He doesn’t think I am terrible or crazy. Maybe he hopes to teach me how to talk to a different group of people and reach them where they are right now. Maybe he is encouraging listening in different ways than I am used to at present.

Solution: Ok, I can engage a new audience and learn to listen in new ways. I can listen and deep canvass and spend time building community. I like to build new communities that support each other. Maybe the fear and anger that is pouring out of the page is trying to tell me something in a different way than I am interpreting the arguments or “facts” here. That this “article” exists may be indicative of something else than it says directly it words, it’s presence as something “valid” to someone is a fact of something else entirely… time to do more research and listening… from here I can grow.

I should note before all of these things, I had to walk away from my email for a while to think about the situation before I could think of possible solutions and angles on the situation. But this was an important lesson because:

  1. It made me think about where someone who reads/thinks about things completely differently from me might be coming from and find a common ground for a conversation where I did not engage with just pure emotion.
  2. I can start practicing having hard conversations and defending my views from within my family, where there is more room for forgiveness and failure.

I am sharing my notes from this experience because I hope it helps someone else navigate similar situations. If you are working through this kind of conversation with someone else, good luck!


War on Facts? Research after Election 2016

I’m exploring what it means to be a researcher (and fact checker) during and after this election cycle. Especially if this is a “post-fact world.”

I want to argue now that we’re not so much “post-fact” as we are missing and ignoring a lot of information. I’m inspired by Rebecca’s Solnit’s Hope in the Dark, which reminds us that progress is a long conversation, not a quick series of victories. And hope for me is a collection of smaller moments… so I want to share what makes me hopeful and how I think we can heal post election.

Facts are useful tools, they are not the end game. Proving “truth” alone does not mean healthy communities, because we need to meet people as people and we haven’t done that especially well these last few years. Especially when we move away from a system that creates bridges and listens and into one that ignores our communities when they ask for help. A crucial part of our healing process after this election is to listen and understand where our communities are afraid and where they are hopeful. THEN we can use facts to build solutions that meet these needs.

I am recalibrating my goals as a professional researcher and fact checker in media to serve this wider purpose. How do we listen, identify the existing problems and concerns, and then use facts to build solutions rather than silence immediately. As background, I was very anxious while following the election coverage for most of this spring and summer. It felt like this:

Image by Safwat Saleem
Image by Safwat Saleem

I cut myself off from more than a few minutes of NPR every morning because even a moment of engaging with the “logic” presented by the Trump campaign made me feel crazy. I had to take some time off from election coverage for the first election since I was really little. This was the first year I wasn’t planning GOTV efforts, phone banking, and studying candidate policies whenever I could. It was a strange place to be… my skill set felt completely useless and I wanted to find some way to participate, even if it meant waiting until after the election.

Thankfully, I ended up here thanks to a story on This American Life about the divide in research and a follow up piece about listening with empathy:

This American Life ran a story in October 2016 about the state of facts and arguments in this election cycle. These sorts of stories used to keep me up for hours, knotted with anxiety about how we recover from this election cycle.

 At one point in this piece, Ira Glass quotes Rush Limbaugh on Fact Checkers in this election reporting through the New York Times and groups like Politfact (which won the Pulitzer Prize for its work):

For someone who goes through each statement and weighs its accuracy every day… this is terrifying. It is abusive to his audience and it’s damaging to the country as a whole. But it helped me sit there and stare at the language being used to bash what I do every day. I was able to face the problem. In truth, if this is a sentiment… we might not have all the facts we need to make real arguments that people hear.

NEXT This American Life followed this terrifying episode with one that offered some important advice on how we may find a route towards healing. At least, for those willing to rebuild together.

This story dives into the heart of the divisions and spread of misinformation. The section where the community in Minnesota is struggling to make sense of rising anxiety about immigration and refugees and terrorists is telling: one woman calls out her local politician for talking at her, not listening to her concerns and acknowledging them. People are afraid and feel excluded from this political system. This is a fact some choose not to see.

As I listener, I had that moment where I realized, of course! I would never tell a friend that their feelings were irrelevant or wrong. What made it ok to tell an entire population that their feelings were irrelevant or wrong? The only way to reach a solution is to build a common understanding.

Meanwhile, the future doesn’t seem so great and its scary for huge sections of the United States. People are afraid, and no number of times that someone far away in Washington DC or New York or San Francisco saying “it will work out, don’t worry” or “you have nothing to worry about, this (mechanization shift) is better for everyone, will meet them where they are. It’s belittling.

J.D. Vance presents really important points here about his experience growing up in Ohio and the culture shock of coming to Yale Law School.

And people are struggling to manage or mitigate their fear of the present an future in their communities. In the last couple years, whenever I’ve driven through rural Massachusetts, we’ve seen informal memorials going up to remember people who’ve died locally from heroine overdoses.  Heroine’s deadly impact on our communities is visible in so many places, including the rising number of public restrooms that are now closed because local organizations, like churches and gas stations, cannot handle the overdosing cases taking place in these spaces. Suicide rates are at a 30 year high and the future we imagine “fondly” in some places, where machines take over jobs that once kept families fed and housed are disappearing. Worse yet, these struggling families are regularly shamed by even their own politicians for needing support and having trouble finding work that allows them to survive and support their families.

Maybe my role as a researcher and activist can take a different bent, I can fact check but I can also listen better.

When we meet these communities with silence or do not speak to and acknowledge their fears, they will find “information” that does meet them where they are. Information is still a commodity, which means, the informal market will offer solutions if the formal market does not fill existing needs. It is strategically better for everyone if we have direct conversations about things like immigration and disappearing jobs, engaging with both real information and individual concerns and emotions, than it is to ignore it or say these concerns are irrelevant.

I argue that NOT engaging with the emotional tone of communities, their fears and concerns, and their hopes, create a power vacuum for leadership that we see frequently filled in the informal economy or in informal community organizations. I thought back to a lesson from TEDxMidAtlantic in October, where Bioethicist Jeffrey Kahn argued that Bans operate similarly to existing without rules at all. He uses examples from current bans in the US around Stem Cell research and specific procedures that prevent mitochondrial disease from being passed from mother to baby using another mother’s mitochondria. Without rules on acceptable use and discussion, people just seek out methods in the informal economy or the black market to fill their needs, whether that means traveling to a different country or meeting someone off record and, at times, without sufficient medical support or advice.

Turns out, we already know it’s better for business to be sensitive to our teammates’ concerns and be nice. In fact, it’s coming up more and more often. So, why has this shift in team work and collaborative thinking not shifted to politics or debate?

We ask to see leaders who are human and who can speak to our fears, not mercenaries that will act silently in their own interest, overload us with numbers and data we don’t have the capacity to respond to, and then tell us we deserve to suffer. I think we can all relate to a moment or several when facts are not helpful on their own in mitigating some of our fears.

The way I can contribute now and after the election tomorrow, as a fact checker and a researcher, is to listen and bring light to the stories that wont be told if we allow traditional power structures to dictate how we record history. If nothing else, 2016 is a year where business as usual was not enough. We need to listen and record the fears at their roots, talk about where we are as communities, and find a way to heal together. I’ll be running around with a notebook in the back to make sure these stories aren’t lost… and then when we have ALL THE FACTS, we thrive in a fact based system.

Artwork by Safwat Saleem. This is his TED Talk that I still think about daily, especially as I conduct research.