With a Grain of Salt and Investigative Ears | Empathetic Information Literacy Essay 1 by Olivia Mann

Corrigan’s Editorial Note: I designed and taught a first-year writing course on the theme of Fake News. I asked students to write four essays. The first grounded the course in an exploration of what truth is, why it matters, how to sort it out, and how to avoid being duped by those who would distort it. The second and third asked students to practice truth sorting, first together as a class and then independently, using a method I call Empathetic Information Literacy. My student Olivia Mann did excellent work throughout the whole course and then edited her writing afterward for it to appear here. This is the first of her four essays.

I want to tell you the story of Maranda Dynda. In class, we had the opportunity to read her story as a transcript from an archived NPR broadcast. The host, Shankar Vedantam, narrates the woman’s journey as a young mother. Maranda ended up opting for a home birth with a midwife who seemed friendly and trustworthy. However, this midwife would go on to implore Maranda to not vaccinate her children, a warning which led Maranda to a Facebook group that echoed the conviction. Because of the sense of comradery with these other mothers, Maranda trusted them and chose not to vaccinate her daughter. Any information she encountered that conflicted with this decision was discounted. Eventually, other conspiracy theories in the Facebook group caused Maranda to question her trust in them. Her subsequent research led her to change her mind and get her daughter vaccinated. In the broadcast, Maranda explains that it’s far too easy to confirm fears online with untrue facts. Vedantam points out that this story highlights how emotions can sometimes be more powerful than facts, causing misinformation to persist in the face of conflicting information. 

Fake news, demagoguery, and untruth are scary things. Maranda’s story quickly brings to light the ways in which small actions can turn into potentially dangerous situations. Those that spread false information are treading on a type of behavior that is only a few steps removed from that of cult leaders, or Earl Warren advocating for the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII. Good people convince themselves of wrong things or allow themselves to be persuaded. What is fake news? Fake news is untruth or misrepresented truth that has been presented and held up as truth. Fake news is an alternate view of reality, and it can lead to a lot of potentially disastrous consequences. For Maranda, it could have come at the cost of her daughter’s health or life. For Earl Warren, it created a tear in the social fabric of his country as a result of incredible injustice and harm done to so many. This is why I care about fake news, because although a lot of untruths that we see are small and insignificant, if we make untruth the norm then we are opening the door to far more catastrophic behavior. 

When I look at my religious tradition, I find that in our New Testament, Jesus tells his disciples that “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.”  (John 14:15-17) For Christians, like me, this statement elevates the concept of truth to not just a matter of accuracy but also of morality, because this Spirit of Truth  dwells both with and within me. I find a strong sense of conviction in the idea that I literally have truth dwelling inside me, especially when I take notice of what the passage says about the world; the world cannot receive, does not see, and does not know this Truth. For me, then, truth can become a mission and an obligation. 

This begs the question “What is truth”? Well, I wish truth was as simple as one answer or the other. I wish there was a guidebook somewhere that explained what was right and wrong in every possible situation ever, but we do not have that luxury. The truth is complicated and difficult to determine. What makes truth true? How do we come up with a standard for truth? I have an answer I have come to and decided to base my philosophy of truth around. In my philosophy, there are three main places from which human beings tend to draw truth. The first is their personal convictions and morals, the second is the viewpoints of others, and the third is from research and “facts”. Multiple layers of support from these elements give people good reason to suspect that they have come closer to the truth. 

Our morals can guide and point us in the correct direction, leading us down a journey of truth. However, as we saw with Maranda and Earl Warren,  morals and especially convictions can be skewed, incorrect, or tainted. We need our emotions, we need our gut feelings, and we need our most basic human sense of right and wrong. But when the truth is as complicated as it often is, our internal compass is not enough. It can lead us astray or leave us confused. It is the viewpoints of others that can open our eyes and direct us to sources. They could be wrong too, but listening to them opens pathways and options in our minds and hearts. However, if we only listen to the viewpoints that agree with us, or those from people who are like us, then we are no better off than we started. Staying locked into the mindset we have chosen is only going to do just that—lock us in. Being open to the possibility of being incorrect is a crucial part of being committed to truth. We cannot remain open to other possibilities if we only consume arguments that confirm what we already believe. The simplest way to do this, that I practice, is in choosing news stations. It would be easy to listen to media skewed in my direction, or even media that straddles a line down the middle and barely argues anything. But making a point to listen to media from the other side—with a grain of salt and investigative ears—is eye-opening, creating exploration and more diverse understanding.

Finally, facts and research—that exploration—can help us find what is “correct”. However, purely facts can sometimes bring little feeling, emotion, or morality. Because the truth is so complicated, there may be a “correct” answer on paper that doesn’t sit well with me in reality. Or, facts can be presented in a one-sided or misrepresented way. This brings me to my overall definition of how you decide what truth is true. Your personal morals give meaning to the frequent coldness of “facts,” while multiple perspectives balance your morals. Then, the perspectives can also balance the “facts” by more fully representing the many sides to a complex issue. But without those “facts,” we would forever be uncertain if we were being tricked, persuaded, or incorrect. Truth is often hard to swallow, opinions conflict, issues are complex, and there is usually no definitive answer. When all three of these components are working in harmony and tandem, we find ourselves much closer to the truth, both in terms of the search meaning something to us, and in terms of coming to a conclusion about the truth itself. 

This philosophy makes sense when you realize the reasons people fall for fake news. Seeking the truth is more complex and difficult than a split-second of idly scrolling headlines on social media. Dr. Pennycook and Dr. Rand wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times in the beginning of this year called “Why Do People Fall for Fake News?” that highlights an important point to me. The authors believe that the main issue is “cognitive laziness”. Their example is that “people who think more analytically (those who are more likely to exercise their analytic skills and not just trust their “gut” response) are less superstitious, less likely to believe in conspiracy theories and less receptive to seemingly profound but actually empty assertions.” Their study “results strongly suggest that somehow cultivating or promoting our reasoning abilities should be part of the solution to the kinds of partisan misinformation that circulate on social media.” In short, we need to put effort into thinking more deeply. We have to get at the heart of the issue while keeping in mind the context.  

Sometimes in this process, we are tempted to trust, and tempted to use trust as a truth promoting or seeking strategy. I care a lot about people, and a majority of my close friends know that. Now, while I can’t say that they have never disagreed with me, I can say that they tend to respect my advice since they know it comes from a place of genuine caring. Going by that logic, one would want to say that the first step to seeking or promoting truth is relationship. You have to know the person, and if they respect you, even better. However, although this may be a pleasing way, a good way, and maybe the fastest, it cannot become the norm. Trust is a wonderful thing, and I would hope that my friends trust me enough to take my advice. But in terms of what type of behavior I think is best to practice in the pursuit of stopping yourself and others from believing untruth or “fake news,” I would like to suggest an alternative, since just because you trust someone, or because they are perhaps a good and trustworthy person, does not mean they are correct about every topic, nor informed with expertise on the matter at hand. 

I believe consequences can motivate a change of action. However, I also believe in the power of “why.” A child might obey “because I said so,” but it will not teach them why they shouldn’t perform the action long-term. We have to start with an explanation of why and end with a warning of what could happen. Often, these two end up being the same thing, but not always. Sometimes the why might be that it’s the morally right thing to do, but the consequence is jail or a fine. Other times the why could be because it is our duty, but the consequence is a morally disastrous outcome that negatively affects others. But no matter what, I think the why and the consequences should be presented and considered when the truth is being sought after. Perhaps Maranda could have been led to question her Facebook friends far earlier if she knew the potential consequences non-vaccination might have for her daughter.  

As we seek such an important thing as truth, I find it integral that we place as many tools in our belt as possible for the day-to-day journey. Additionally, a key first part of truth sorting is understanding the signs, symptoms, and strategies of truth distortion. I have learned about many of them: omitting key details, exaggeration, misrepresentation of the claim, questioning the other side’s motives, claiming a hoax, denial, silence, attacking truth seekers or the messenger, power, influence, bait and switch, conspiracy theories, destroying evidence, attacking character, standing idly by, bribing someone to stay quiet, selfish withholding of truth, ignoring facts, misplacing faith, repetition, hostility towards verification, ignorance, causing doubt, emotional appeals, the internet/social media, claiming certainty, discrediting or dismissing opposing information, not thinking for very long, spreading propaganda, rationalization, cognitive laziness, and fallacies. It is worth noting that “fallacies” is a whole separate list of distortion strategies. But many of the strategies I just listed are techniques, tools, and ways with which people spread untruth and fake news. We need to see them for what they are so we can learn to recognize them in our pursuit of truth. However, some of the distortions are things we as potential truth-seekers fall into. Those, we need to keep ourselves from practicing. Silence, denial, standing idly by, ignorance, the internet, dismissing opposing information, not thinking for very long, rationalization, and cognitive laziness are all examples of these kinds of distortion strategies. In Dr. Patricia Roberts-Miller’s book, Demagoguery and Democracy, “demagoguery” is highlighted as an overarching truth distorting strategy in the form of a mindset. “Demagoguery is the reduction of politics to in-group versus out-group, with the assumption and claim that the in-group is always and forever and in every way better than the out-group,” as she explains. 

As for our own tools, from what I have learned, here are all the little things that can add up to the big idea of truth-seeking strategy: pausing, not accepting opinions immediately, admitting/accepting uncertainty, non-binary thinking, asking questions, verifying evidence, utilizing influence, courage, empathy, reading beyond the headlines, refuting alternatives, understanding/showing consequences, timing, noticing repetition, believing that truth exists, wanting to know the truth, figuring things out for yourself, being open to a new reality, taking responsibility for what you communicate to others, critical thinking, research, objective perspective when needed, and cultivating reasoning abilities. 

 In our culture where demagoguery and similar mindsets have become the norm, it has become harder and harder to pursue the truth, stand for it, and even determine its meaning at all. Throughout our quest to pursue the truth, we need our hearts, our ears, and our minds all working in tandem to harmonize morals, viewpoints, and “facts” in such a way that we can begin to make sense of the complex. With this in mind, there is one more strategy I would like to mention. One of my other favorite quotes of Dr. Roberts-Miller’s from Demagoguery and Democracy is found in chapter seven. She says, “Demagoguery about them is undone by empathy. Generalizations about them are complicated, and sometimes shattered, by experiences with individual members of them, or even humanizing stories.” I think there is something incredibly powerful in the idea that empathy and human connection can promote the truth. Telling stories, making friends, talking about those friends, understanding people, these are all truth-sorting strategies that belong at the core of our mission to seek truth. To me, my philosophy on truth that I’ve come to lay out sounds like a way I can change the world—even if it is only my world—and that is incredibly empowering.  


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