What does “winning” a political discussion in 2016 look like?

I’ll tell you now, it doesn’t have a grand ending.

What does it look like?

It looks like a conversation where you are uncomfortable because you need to state your values and your “truths” in ways you’ve taken for granted for a long time. You are uncomfortable because while these truths have guided your life and run in parallel to your decisions forever, you now have to say WHY and HOW they are true… possibly encountering that moment where you might have been wrong, or even just a little off, for a long time.

You are uncomfortable because you have to grapple with the externalities of decisions and systems that we all have to ignore from time to time to continue being optimistic about the future and to argue things will improve because we’re learning as we go. But there are externalities to every decision and we have to take responsibility for our decisions, right?

It looks like watching someone else grapple with this discomfort, both of you constantly fighting moments where you can see that switch that allows you to listen and be uncomfortable, or turn it off and stop listening, congratulate yourself for “being right.”

The uncomfortable is an important place for you both to play, and here you can empathize with each other. Maybe it’s a moment where you can both be wrong in different ways and come out with a better formulated argument and a backbone to your decisions that mean you are willing to acknowledge the externalities of your decisions head on.

What did it feel like for me last week?

I think I “won.” I say this because I had a goal: address the fake news problem with someone close to me. The conversation went terribly at first. I introduced the Washington Post piece investigating a fake news site. The response was: I try to read both sides of every argument. This completely deflected from the central issue, which was that this person was arguing with citations from fake news websites regularly. I had to explain why some news sources were “good” and others were “bad.” I also had to grapple with my daily philosophical meltdown of “what is truth?” The other person had to grapple with the fact that maybe their well intended research was faulty and they had been caught doing bad research. It was uncomfortable for both of us.

I was trying to do my job as a professional fact checker to right my corner of the universe and be helpful, but it seemed like it backfired and the gulf between us grew.

I left this conversation feeling defeated, but a few days later I noticed this person fact checking and tagging fake news sites in the comments on their friends’ Facebook pages… the same sites they’d been citing in arguments against me the week before. Maybe this was a quiet moment of “victory.” I smiled to myself, acknowledged what was taking place, and kept scrolling. I think we both grew from it.

Maybe then this mission into the “uncomfortable” was worth it. And now it’s time to try it again… maybe with harder issues. But I acknowledge that if I want to go there, I also need to be better prepared to be wrong and uncomfortable.

(Image credit: Barry Silver)

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):
RUSH LIMBAUGH
THE FACT THAT THENEWYORKTIMES AND THEWASHINGTONPOST AND USATODAY AND ALL THESE OTHER PAPERS AND NETWORKS NOW HAVE FACT-CHECKERS IS FOR ONE REASON. IT ALLOWS THEM TO FOOL YOU. THE IDEA THAT IT IS A FACT-CHECK STORY IS DESIGNED TO SAY TO YOU THAT IT IS OBJECTIVE AND ANALYTICALLY FAIR. AND ALL IT IS IS A VEHICLE FOR THEM TO DO OPINION JOURNALISM UNDER THE GUISE OF FAIRNESS, WHICH, IF YOU FALL FOR IT, GIVES IT EVEN MORE POWER.

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.