Why the truth matters more than ever for campaigning

Ever wondered why some people – and media outlets – still peddle inaccurate and incorrect ‘facts’ about, say, refugees or international aid?

A new study from the US sheds interesting light on our relationship with factual reality when our political beliefs and allegiances come into play. It found that 1 in 7 Trump voters denied seemingly watertight evidence – in the form of two comparison photos – that more people attended Obama’s inauguration than Trump’s.

What’s happening here? What led significant numbers of people to deny clear-as-day facts?

And what does it tell us about campaigning in the ‘post-truth age’?

Distorting reality

Well, it turns out the reason clear evidence sometimes fails to persuade people has to do with ’expressive responding’. In other words, we may deconstruct the facts in a way that supports our position. Facts are subjected to our own distorting ‘echo chambers’, sealed off from reality.

So whether we choose to believe or disregard verifiable facts about a particular issue may sometimes depend less on proof and evidence, and more on how we feel about that issue.

It’s a bit like when Manchester United’s supporters say their football team is the best – even though they’re 6th in the league this year!

What does it mean? That truth doesn’t matter? That we’re in a post-factual reality?

Well, no. As the excellent recent ‘Nothing but the truth’ programme on BBC Radio 4 shows, this whole phenomenon isn’t new. It’s how our brains work. If we’re emotionally invested in a particular issue, we may be inclined to distort and deconstruct facts in the way that suits our world view. Only now, in our highly polarised societies, those internal echo chambers tend to have freer rein to falsify evidence and facts.

Where do we go from here?

What should we take from this as campaigners and advocates?

Well, first of all, finding the truth and confirming the facts are critical – not least because you and I are also subject to echo chambers. Otherwise, how can we be sure the reality we believe in is real and factual?

The same goes for organisations. We need to make sure our positions are based on strong evidence and supported by irrefutable facts.

But here’s the interesting twist: evidence alone won’t be enough to persuade people.

Emotions and identity are key to disrupt people’s echo chambers. So our tactics to seek to persuade people may also need to connect with their emotions and imagination.

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