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. 

A few beautiful & challenging ideas from TEDSummit

We started with: “ideas don’t know borders, they’re for the whole world” Important opening talk at by , offering the hope we need

Thought provoking questions from Lesley Hazelton: “The quality of soul is not a tradable commodity.” “Could soul be a matter of being brave enough to be vulnerable?

On public art: “We could have finished sooner, but I think it took us three weeks because of all those tea breaks” on his piece in Egypt. When the piece was finished, he explains the reaction of the owner of one of the homes he painted: “he was really proud to see his house painted — he said it was a project of peace”

“if we have a generation that doesn’t know how to build a fort, we have a generation” that doesn’t care about nature — We have an excuse to make more time to play outside, thanks to Emma Marris.

Without that “radical humanism” we lose “the unnecessary, the intimacy, ugly, and the incomplete.”

Marwa Al-Sabouni is an architect living in Homs, Syria. She teaches, runs a bookshop & works other jobs, against backdrop of war. She is thinking about architecture, communities and the future of her country. She has not given up.

Julia Bacha is documenting female role models in non-violent movements around the world. “If we do not celebrate the leadership of women in conflicts/movements, we fail to show the spectrum of role models” 

Anti-terror measures created by governments needs to be balanced by robust & independent press, it is a necessary check on power, argues Rebecca MacKinnon

Alexander Betts reminded us: Dangerous times if “lies have equal status as truth and evidence.” We need to rebuild research into debate. But this is also an opportunity to revamp our arguments and begin new conversations. If Fear comes from limited information, let’s health together.

Zeynep Tufecki reflects on Turkey, the airport bombing, and her upcoming visit: “We are going to build tolerant societies and I feel that our joy is part of our power.”

Ione Wells, after she was attacked remembered “there are infinitely more good people in the world than bad.”

And Pico Iyer, reminding us how comfortable and honest it can be to say “I dont know,” and learning as we go.

Photo header credit: TEDx Global Forum at TEDSummit2016, June 25, 2016, Banff, Canada. Photo: Marla Aufmuth / TED

Finding my way to black market research

This was a talk that changed my life as a young adult. Misha Glenny is a journalist know for his work on criminal networks and organizations. I saw this talk and was hooked, shifting my research focus from immigration to black markets and organized crime. I purchased his book McMafia at TEDGlobal and devoured it.

I became fascinated with the different ways people organize and problem solve in the market, when they are either blocked from entering the traditional workforce, cannot build a business within the legal structure, or need to participate in black markets, rather than formal markets, for other reasons.

I gave a talk at the University session of TEDGlobal 2014 in Rio and Misha was in the audience. When I saw him later at the conference and he told me I had done a good job, it was like having a personal hero pat me on the back. (I gave a similar talk later that year at TEDxMunich)

I am constantly inspired by Misha’s research methods and writing style, and was so grateful to find his work at that point in my life. It helped me build my structure for study in University and beyond. That’s a powerful talk!

Books & Talks That Made Me Think: 2015

I’ve always loved books, but this year I’ve had the added pleasure of working on some of the talks coming through TED. Here are a few of the moments that I’ve been pushed the most in the last year:

Marie Curie and Her Daughters: The Private Lives of Science’s First Family: I just finished reading this profile of Marie Curie and her incredibly family. I had not fully appreciated the context of the scientific discoveries that Marie, Pierre, Irene and Frederic made during their research lives… especially with a backdrop like the Great Depression and two World Wars. It is incredible how much of their research is still relevant today and how much bullshit Marie Curie and Irene had to endure due to gender rules in France, barring women from important roles in the science community during this time period. I was inspired by the entire Curie family’s defense of pure research and commitment to continuing with their work, through sickness and war and financial trouble.

Monica Lewinsky talked about the Price of Shame at TED2015: This was one of the first talks I supported with research when I first joined TED. While most of my notes did not end up in the final copy, it kicked off a journey into research on clickbait economies (I jokingly refer to this research as studying “how internet trolls make money”) that I still think about now. She is phenomenally brave and reminds our larger communities that this is the time for kindness. I remember this responsibility when I decide what to consume on the internet.

Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century: I am still in process of reading this book, but it is so thoughtful and thought-provoking that when I finish each chapter, I have to take a pause to write pages of notes for continued research to dig into later. I’ve long wondered how Capitalism needs to change to adapt to new historical periods and contexts… how it would need to adapt to work outside the “West” (Hernando de Soto has some interesting thoughts about this). Piketty raises some very important questions about the nature of wealth and income, and how those who start with an advantage end with a serious advantage. This all feels particularly important after Larry Lessig’s campaign on Campaign Finance Reform…

Which also leads to Larry Lessig’s talk about Campaign Finance and American Democracy at TEDxMidAtlantic. Nothing is more chilling than sitting in a room and having someone brilliant on the stage present a case of corruption happening right around you… that you’ve grown so accustomed to accepting that you cannot see another way around it. It’s a moment of feeling helpless and restless and broken… but Lessig also makes you ready to rally for change. It was the first time since writing my thesis about corruption in Colombia’s government (and how cartels invest in political campaigns) that I felt ready to jump back into the mix. Let’s see some campaign finance reform, because the Citizens United case CANNOT be the end of American Democracy as we know it.

I saw Spotlight this week with my family, and after the initial deep despair it causes, knowing how long these child abuse cases were buried by the church in the city that I grew up in (among so many other cities) and how deeply this has damaged the lives of so many people (the movie cities 249 abusive priests and 1000+ victims that came forward after the article in the Boston Globe exposing the cover up of abusive priests in Boston in 2002 was published), I went home and subscribed to the Boston Globe, NPR, New York Times, and other papers tackling investigative reporting. It turns out, this phenomenon is not unique to the Catholic Church, but it happens in a handful of other communities, where “speaking against other members” is met with violence and silence. Without a steady support based, they cannot continue this type of research. I am proud to support investigative reporting, we need much more of it and the journalism industry as we know it is in real trouble financially. We cannot lose this quest for the truth as we are pushed further and further towards consumable media in the form of clickbait.

Palak Shah’s talk at the Personal Democracy Forum was about protecting contract laborers and adapting labor structures to meet new demands on the work force this year. It was stirring and offers us a clear opportunities to protect workers in this new age of the Sharing Economy. I know I thought a lot about conditions she described while deciding how and when to use apps like Handy and AirBnb, among others. My roommate and I went so far as to only use Handy to meet workers that we could hire later (except we paid the worker directly instead of waiting for the worker to take only the small percentage offered to them by Handy). I send this to everyone I know who wants to talk about the Labor Question.

The Art of Communication was a book I stumbled across while taking a weekend to wander alone through Soho and collect myself. I had a really tough summer trying to navigate a break up and make sense of my grandfather’s fight with cancer/how my family was reacting to it. I needed to be alone and re-center myself… and when I found this book, I learned to find more space in my heart for compassion towards myself and the people around me. The writing is gentle and kind… perfect when you need the verbal equivalent of a hug.

Esther Perel’s Rethinking Infidelity… a talk for anyone who has ever loved at TED2015 was another moment that helped me find more compassion in my heart… towards myself. She talks about the issues we run into in modern marriage and pressure on relationships, but when I listen to it I also heard about the permission many of us refuse to grant ourselves to accept that we will change and want different things and should explore who we are. It was a moment where I fully committed to writing “my own rules.” It has also made me a better, more communicative and direct partner because I know what I need to protect in myself and where I want to, and need to grow. This was a real gift.

Patti’s Smith’s The M Train is a journey through time and travel with one of my favorite writers. She inspired some of the structure in the guidebook I built for my boyfriend this christmas. I loved exploring her experiences through her writing, and see what it meant to her to spend time alone. I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be truly comfortable and alone. This, for me, linked back to the conversations I was having about defining my own rule book. I have always admired how unapologetically herself she is.

Finally, I learned a lot from the 27 writers who wrote for the Eccentric Guide to New York that I built this fall. It was fun to see how friends had carved out their own spaces in the city and catch glimpses of them finding themselves. I loved seeing the city through other people’s eyes. Sometimes I forget how magical it is to live here, and I had the opportunity to put this together for someone who was just exploring the city for his first year here offered me a new way to explore my environment.

Designing Memories: The Data Collection Stage

Holy Shit, this is hard.

Normally, my research offers me a clinical lens to consider some of the problems that trouble me most deeply. From this angle, the art of the interview is meant to capture memories of someone close to me. It’s about accepting the passage of time and how we age and the weight that our bodies carry… I am asking the questions that I’ve always been afraid to ask.

I’ve had to pace myself on the questions and background write ups for the Extended Eulogies work because every time I let myself delve into the content, to feel the questions and anticipate the answers, to gauge how the interview will likely flow, and where I want to go with it… I cry. Because unlike my usual work with survey design… this is about designing memories around my grandfather.

The categories broke into Memory, Love, Family, Life’s Questions, Work and Creative Outlets. Each one with a its own set of questions and moments I want to uncover and preserve.

I am using the StoryCorps app that is part of the 2015 TED Prize. It makes it easy to build short survey blocks and record the conversation directly into an easy to upload format.

A handful of the interviews and questions I've organized for Monday
A handful of the interviews and questions I’ve organized for Monday

As I modified my notes into a short set of questions for each theme. We’ll get to 7-10 open ended questions in 40 minutes. This is a very new research format for me, since I am usually trying to capture missing information, not the pulse of someone’s thoughts and the ways that they organize and feel through their memories. I think this requires much more open-ended-ness and a willingness to be fully present to encourage the conversation to flow in the directions it can go.

In total, there will be 7 themes that we discuss. I am beginning with more concrete memories: Work & Family… and then moving into the abstract. What does Self Care mean to you? What are some of “Life’s Questions” worth asking?

We will work together for all of Monday August 31, 2015 to produce these interviews. Wish us luck! We’re both excited.

I found this RadioLab episode about memory… what we remember and what we forget. They are joined by the late Oliver Sacks, and it felt like it was an appropriate addition to this conversation. 

Love of the Fact Check

People who know me well are not surprised when I tell them that I enjoy fact checking.

People who don’t know me very well look some combination of shocked, horrified, or judgmental when I tell them that I enjoy fact checking.

What they are missing is that fact checking is not about proving people wrong — I don’t like having to flag notes or facts and then follow up for a “can I see your data set” conversation. It’s not about making anyone look bad or asking them to do more work and more research… it’s about ensuring that what is produced is the best piece we can build together.

For me, the fact check is like being a sleuth. I need to figure out what kinds of questions the initial data collectors were asking and whether or not the data is being interpreted accurately when it’s allowed to roam free and be interpreted by other people outside the initial collection team. This is sort of like sniffing out the initial environment of the “scene of the crime” where the data was collected.

Then I get to check out the arguments the opponents or other groups are making and see where there are interpretation issues. Sometimes data sets are very consistent.. sometimes it’s an entirely different story.

I get to look up conversations between brilliant thinkers and try to track down the initial inception point of a thought or idea that became a major piece of intellectual capital.

I get to have really cool conversations about strengthening arguments and narratives with facts. I LOVE this part. I want to make my speakers be the best they can be, because the talk should be able to stand on its own at the point that it’s given… and years later or when its viewed online by people in other contexts.

I hope next time people wont be so horrified when I tell them that I love fact checking. I know I always appreciate the feedback on my own work.