Fighting Fake News With Truth Pledges: How Behavioral Science Can Strengthen Democracies

Foreword

At TDL, our role is to translate science. This article is part of a series on cutting edge research that has the potential to create positive social impact. While the research is inherently specific, we believe that the insights gleaned from each piece in this series are relevant to behavioral science practitioners in many different fields. As a socially conscious applied research firm, we are always looking for ways to translate science into impact. If you would like to chat with us about a potential collaboration, feel free to contact us.

Introduction

Fake news is a pernicious and pervasive phenomenon that has damaged many democracies globally. Take for example social media users in Michigan, who shared nearly as many fake news pieces as professional news pieces in the lead up to the 2016 US presidential election, according to researchers at the Oxford Internet Institute. As a socially-conscious applied research firm, TDL is interested in using technology, design-thinking, and the leading insights from the field of applied behavioral science to promote not just stronger democracies, but better outcomes in a wide variety of public sectors.

To further this interest, The Decision Lab reached out to Dr. Gleb Tsipursky to learn more about his work on a study involving pro-truth pledges as a means of fighting fake news, and the future direction of similar areas of research in applied behavioral science.

Dr. Tsipursky is a behavioral economist, cognitive neuroscientist, and a bestselling author of several books on decision-making and cognitive biases in business leadership.

In this study, Dr. Tsipursky and his colleagues examined the impacts of a pro-truth pledge on 12 behaviors that correlate with an orientation toward truthfulness. The purpose of this research was to evaluate if the pledge is an effective way of limiting the spread of misinformation, and if it enables citizens to exert pressure on politicians, media, and other public figures by creating new incentives for telling the truth.

A full version of the study is available here: https://link.springer.com/article/10.5210%2Fbsi.v27i0.9127

Interview

Julian: How would you describe the focus of your research?

Dr. Tsipursky: We have witnessed an alarming deterioration of truth in democratic political systems and public discourse around the globe that gravely damages democracies. 

My research focuses on pragmatic and immediately-applicable tools we can use to reverse the tide of misinformation and post-truth politics. These tools do so in three ways: First, they empower citizens to recognize and resist political deceptions. Second, they give citizens effective techniques to fight digital misinformation on social media and elsewhere. Third, they enable citizens to exert pressure on politicians, media, and other public figures by coordinating together to create new incentives for telling the truth and penalties for lying.

Julian: How would you explain your research question to the general public?

Dr. Tsipursky: In this paper, my colleagues and I evaluated a specific tool, the Pro-Truth Pledge (PTP), which combines behavioral science research with crowd-sourcing to help fight misinformation. The PTP asks signers – private citizens and public figures alike – to commit to 12 behaviors that have been shown to be correlated with an orientation toward truthfulness. 

For public figures, the PTP offers rewards in the form of positive reputation and accountability through crowd-sourced evaluation. For private citizens, it offers the reward of joining a community and helping launch a movement to uphold truth, fight deception, and hold both private citizens and especially public figures accountable. The paper specifically evaluated whether those who took the pledge actually changed their behavior to be more truthful on social media.

Julian: What did you think you would find with this study?

Dr. Tsipursky: We know from extensive previous research that pledge mechanisms — especially those with voluntary buy-in by pledgers — have been successful in changing behavior. For example, whether you approve of them or not, chastity pledges have changed people’s behavior. So do college honor codes. 

We also know that whether someone deceives or not is dependent on a number of factors, such as: 

  • Defining clear parameters of what constitutes truth-oriented behavior; 
  • Belonging to a community of truth-oriented individuals;
  • Getting positive reputational and social status rewards from truth-oriented behaviors that bear costs and/or feel uncomfortable, such as admitting one’s mistakes;
  • Associating positive emotions and values with truthfulness. 

Finally, we know that politicians who are warned that they will be held accountable for truthfulness are less likely to lie.

The PTP addresses all of these elements, as it is a pledge mechanism that involves a commitment to clearly defined truth-oriented behaviors. Those who pledge have the opportunity to join a community of fellow pledgers on social media and in real-world meetups, which provides positive reputational and social status rewards from truth-oriented behaviors, and helps associate positive emotions and values with truthfulness.

Thus, we thought we would find that those who took the pledge indeed changed their behaviors. 

Julian: What process did you follow with this study?

Dr. Tsipursky: In the peer-reviewed article in Behavior and Social Issues cited above, we focused on evaluating the sharing of pledge-takers on Facebook by researchers who observed the behavior of study participants. 

To address the Hawthorne effect, which describes when a study participants’ behavior is altered due to them being aware that they’re being studied, we focused on their past behavior by approaching those who took the pledge several months ago and asking them to participate in the study. 

We examined the first 10 news-relevant posts one month after study participants took the pledge and graded the quality of the information shared, including the links, to determine how closely their posts matched the behaviors of the pledge. 

Then, we looked at the first 10 news-relevant posts 11 months before they took the pledge and rated those (the timing was chosen to address any seasonal differences in sharing). 

We also ran another peer-reviewed study, published in Journal of Social and Political Psychology, using a different methodology, namely having participants self-report on the quality of their Facebook sharing. That way, we could compare self-reported behavior change to behavior change evaluated by external observers.

Julian: What did you end up finding out?

Dr. Tsipursky: Both studies found large, statistically significant improvement in pledge-takers’ adherence to the 12 behaviors of the pledge, such as fewer posts containing misinformation and the inclusion of more sources. For example, in the Behavior and Social Issues study, each post was coded by researchers according to quality, from 1 of lowest level of alignment with the PTP, to 5 of highest alignment. The average PTP alignment before taking the pledge was 2.49, and after taking the pledge was 3.65, as you can see from the graph below.

That means it’s not simply a matter of the pledge selecting honest people — such that honest people take the pledge and dishonest ones do not. It means that those who take the pledge actually change their behavior to be more truthful, regardless of their previous levels of truthfulness on social media.

Julian: How do you think this is relevant to an applied setting in business or public policy?

Dr. Tsipursky: These two studies provide compelling evidence that people improve the honesty of their behavior on Facebook when they hear about and sign the pledge. These findings imply that the PTP has the potential to protect our democracy from the tide of lies. 

Whether it will succeed depends on how many people go to ProTruthPledge.org to sign the pledge, spread the word, lobby public figures to sign it, and monitor those who do. 

Given that over 10,000 people took the pledge, including over 900 politicians of all sorts (such as 4 Members of the US Congress and over 50 state legislators), the early results look promising. 

Julian: What are some exciting directions for future research that stem from your studies?

Dr. Tsipursky: The two studies show that pledge-takers behave more truthfully on Facebook for at least a month after taking the PTP. Future research should test the maintenance of the effects in the long term. 

We also do not know whether presenting the PTP in a semi-voluntary context, such as when students are presented with an honor code with an implicit expectation that they sign it in order to attend the college of their choice, will maintain the impact of the PTP, though a random-assignment study could illuminate this information. 

Further research is also necessary, specifically on public figures such as politicians, media figures, business leaders, and others who took the pledge, as it might function differently for them than for private citizens. Those who want to learn more about the broader research behind the Pro-Truth Pledge and the Pro-Truth movement are welcome to read my newest book on this topic, Pro Truth: A Pragmatic Plan to Put Truth Back Into Politics (Changemakers Book, 2020).

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