I wrote in a previous blog (Brave New World, which has recently been re-published as a short report) about some of the key challenges and opportunities that I think will face philanthropy in 2017 and beyond. One of the things I touched on there was that philanthropy could play a vital role in “standing up for facts and evidence”, and I want to develop that idea further in this post.
It increasingly appears that we live in an age in which the notions of truth and objective fact are under attack. The concept of fake news has come to the centre of political and cultural attention; to the extent that the UK House of Commons Culture, Media & Sport Select Committee has just announced an official inquiry into its detrimental effect on democracy. Likewise, the notion of “post-truth politics” has become part of our lexicon, driven largely by the seismic events of 2016 – most obviously the Brexit vote in the UK and the election of Donald Trump in the US. In both of these cases, a significant proportion of the post-event analysis trying to understand how such unexpected results could happen has centred on the way in which facts were used and abused during the campaigns prior to each.
When it comes to Brexit, many took issue with the claim made by the Leave camp that we send £350m every week to the EU, and that if we voted to leave the EU this could all be spent on the NHS instead. Critics pointed out that this figure ignored a £74m UK rebate, and also included a large amount of double counting, as some of the money comes back to the UK in the form of farming subsidies etc. But in the end, this didn’t actually seem to matter. Those who had inarguably made the claim (many even being photographed in front of a large red bus emblazoned with it) were able to deny it after the event or claim that they “never meant it to be taken literally”.
Something similar has happened in the US recently. The new US White House Press Secretary, Sean Spicer, used his first press conference to deliver a diatribe in which he claimed reports that attendance at the President’s inauguration had been significantly down on previous years were malicious and false, despite all available evidence supporting these reports. The President’s Senior Adviser, Kellyanne Conway, then took to the airwaves to defend Spicer, and made the now-immortal statement that he was not lying, but merely presenting “alternative facts”. Unsurprisingly, this immediately spawned a slew of internet memes, and has apparently also led to a sharp increase in sales of George Orwell’s dystopian classic 1984, in which a totalitarian government uses the distorted language of “Newspeak” to control the populace.
But the thing is that so far none of this seems to make any difference. And that is the real crux of the situation we find ourselves in: it doesn’t actually matter whether a statement is true or not, merely that it sounds sufficiently convincing to serve an immediate purpose, because it can subsequently be disavowed or discarded with pretty much no cost to the person who made the statement.
The US satirist Stephen Colbert coined the word “truthiness” back in 2005 to describe the quality of statements made in the course of an argument that the speaker claims to know intuitively “from the gut” or because it “feels right” without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts. But of course, whilst the word may be new, the concept has been around for a long time. For example, a classic example of truthiness can be found in the many statements made by US President Ronald Reagan during the Iran-Contra affair of the mid-1980s, where he denied that the US was supplying arms to the Iranians in return for the release of hostages. He was later forced to admit that “My heart and my best intentions still tell me that’s true, but the facts and evidence tell me it is not.”
Politicians and those in power telling lies, providing misinformation and being ‘economical with the truth’ are not new phenomena. However, it does seem as though there has been a step-change in their frequency and degree in recent years. Two clear factors have almost certainly contributed to this: the state of news journalism and the growing tendency for people to ensconce themselves in technology-enabled “filter bubbles”. And this gives us some clues as to what challenges a “post-truth” world will bring for philanthropy, as well as pointing the way to what philanthropists might be able to do about it.
It seems as though I end up talking about filter bubbles in almost everything I do at the moment. But the reason that the topic has become so a la mode is that it does go quite a long way towards explaining how society apparently came to be so divided without us really noticing. People have always created filter bubbles to some extent (after all, who would not rather spend time with people who share similar views and interests than with those whose opinions you might find at best irrelevant and at worst objectionable?) But the rapid development of technology that has seen the creation of the internet, mobile computing, social media and so on, has made it far easier to create more rigid bubbles, and to minimise contact with those outside the bubble more than ever before.
I have explored previously the idea that this could have a detrimental effect on philanthropy and the work of charities because it will reduce the awareness of needs and undermine the “proximity effect” of simply being near to those who require help, so people will not get the prompts to give that they currently do. But the proliferation of filter bubbles will affect charities and philanthropists in other ways too, due to the part they have played in the rise of misinformation and fake news.
The problem is that filter bubbles also act as echo chambers. Social media is a particular culprit here, because it provides a phenomenal framework for surrounding yourself with people who share your views and opinions, to the exclusion of others. And the longer time goes on, the more entrenched and extreme the views within the echo chamber tend to become, as people hear their own thoughts parroted back at them and strengthened.
The barrier to entry for getting stories disseminated is also extremely low: whereas someone would have really had to go out of their way to share a news story back when everyone was reliant on newspapers, it takes little or no effort to share something on Facebook or Twitter. This suggests that our relationship with stories on social media is quite different, and that willingness to share should not be equated with agreement with the story or a belief that it is true (in fact, one study found that 59% of links shared on social media haven’t even been clicked, so people are sharing without even reading for themselves).
The problem is that at scale, people’s willingness to pass stories around does give them a credibility that they may well not deserve. As the Washington Post argued in a story about the study mentioned above, “these sort of blind peer-to-peer shares are really important in determining what news gets circulated and what just fades off the public radar. So your thoughtless retweets, and those of your friends, are actually shaping our shared political and cultural agendas.” Added to that is the fact that once a “fact” has been stated, it is quite likely to get cited and quoted by other sources of “news”, which then creates an impression that the fact has been corroborated and enhances the unwarranted sense of legitimacy.
The danger for charities and philanthropists is twofold. First; they must be aware that they are themselves at risk of getting trapped in filter bubbles. This could undermine their effectiveness by cutting them off from people and communities that they should be reaching out too. It could also make them more susceptible to becoming unwittingly involved in propagating falsehoods. And secondly; the broader rise of misinformation and fake news, and the effect it has on undermining the notion of objective fact, could prove immensely harmful to efforts to achieve social progress through campaigning and advocacy based on evidence and expert opinion.
The Post-Truth threat to charity advocacy and campaigning
We are increasingly told that we are in a “post-truth” world, in which facts and evidence count for less than emotion and rhetoric. And this should terrify philanthropists and charities. So many of the great milestones of social progress that have been achieved with the support of philanthropy have involved challenging received wisdom, disrupting the status quo, bringing issues into the mainstream, and changing public opinion. A vital tool in doing all of this is to present hard facts and data on the issues in order to demonstrate their extent and the damage that they cause. But if those in power and those on the other side of the argument are now simply able to dismiss any evidence that doesn’t support their world-view, or claim that they have equally valid “alternative facts”, then the ability to press for change through these means will be hugely eroded.
We can see already in the US the impact that this is having on environmental issues. The new administration contains many senior figures whose view of man-made climate change is sceptical to say the least. And they have brought this to bear in government, by removing the page on climate change from the official White House website, and even reportedly ordering the removal of the pages on climate change from the Environmental Defence Agency website.
The US Badlands National Park in South Dakota then garnered international headlines for defying this new government position by tweeting out a series of facts about climate change from its official account. As a result, the White House stepped in and temporarily demanded the suspension of the account, and Badlands later issued a statement saying that the tweets had been sent by a former employee who was not authorised to use the account. The heartening bit of this story for anyone who isn’t a big fan of government repression of scientific fact is that an “army” of “rogue” government agency Twitter accounts suddenly sprang up to challenge the new administration’s seemingly anti-science agenda.
There are obviously worrying warning signs here for environmental organisations that the years ahead could prove tough. But the concern should be much wider than that for charities: if the government of the most powerful nation on earth is able to ignore or deny the truth of an issue on which there is an overwhelming body of scientific evidence and consensus, then what hope is there for more marginal issues that run counter to current political opinion or will?
That is why charities and their supporters must push back against the notion that facts and expertise can be devalued, as it will damage their ability to deliver their core missions and as a result will cause harm to those who rely on their work.
Philanthropy and journalism
One thing the events of the last year have clearly demonstrated is the continuing importance of impartial, investigative, professional journalism in an age where facts are an increasingly scarce commodity. And philanthropy could have a vital role to play in securing the future of the fourth estate as a bulwark against attempts by those in power to use misinformation and obfuscation to control the populace.
Journalism has been struggling with an existential crisis for some time now (as anyone who has spent any time in the last decade or so in a room with two or more journalists can probably attest from listening to their conversation). The traditional model of advertising-supported print newspapers has struggled to adapt to a new internet age. People are now accustomed to getting things for free, so trying to get them to distinguish between proper journalism and the vast array of other sources of information of wildly variable quality, and to value the former has proved difficult. Various models have been tried, including internet paywalls, membership subscriptions and re-imagination as social media hubs, but whilst some of these have proved successful in individual cases, none has truly solved the underlying problems.
That is where philanthropy comes in. If maintaining viable outlets for proper news-gathering, fact-checking and investigation is a social good (and I would argue that it clearly is; now more than ever before), then supporting journalism on a philanthropic basis should be a legitimate strategy. This has been mooted as an idea for a few years now: the Philanthropy Roundtable did an interesting special edition on philanthropic support for journalism in 2014, and the Chronicle of Philanthropy carried a comment piece last year arguing for the value of philanthropic support for investigative reporting of the kind seen in the movie Spotlight.
There are also signs that it is happening in practice: the Amazon founder Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post back in 2013, and many at the time noted that it didn’t really make sense as a purely commercial decision. Subsequently, however, the Post has been turned from a loss-making operation into a profitable one so the line between philanthropy and investment has become more blurred. In any case, the newspaper has emerged already as one of the key critics of President Trump’s use of misinformation, so it seems reasonable to infer that Bezos does see his ownership of the paper as part of some overall philanthropic, cultural or social mission, even if the exact balance of public and private interest is not totally clear.
Perhaps an even more clear-cut example of what the future might hold is the fact that non-profit news organisations in the US, such as ProPublica and the Center for Public Integrity, are seeing a big surge in donations. At the same time, some commercial newspapers are also seeing a big increase in support: the New York Times, for example saw a growth in subscriptions in the wake of the Trump election that was ten times higher than the same period the previous year. This clearly reflects a belief that the paper, along with others like the aforementioned Washington Post, will play an important role in holding the new administration to account. And the new US President seems to share this opinion, although he seems somewhat less than sanguine about it, as he already taken to Twitter to decry both the Times and the Post as “fake news” and claiming that they are “failing”.
It will be interesting to see where this trend goes. Here in the UK, the Guardian decided last year to start asking people to support it through donations on the basis that they valued the importance of its work. Editor Kath Viner also wrote an impassioned (and interesting) piece exploring many of the issues I have touched on here about the role of technology in subverting the notion of truth, in which she made the case for the Guardian’s continued existence as a valid focus for philanthropic giving.
Philanthropy’s relationship with journalism is not a new phenomenon (like so many other things!) The British Victorian philanthropist John Passmore Edwards (1823-1911)
(who I profiled in my book Public Good by Private Means), was a publisher by trade who gave large amounts of money to develop the network of libraries in the UK. He also owned The Echo, which aimed to be a newspaper for the working classes, and was another reflection of his belief in the value of education as a means of empowerment and advancement. He didn’t, it has to be said, really adhere to any notion of editorial independence, and instead openly used the publication to push his own beliefs on issues such as education, pacifism and temperance.
Likewise, George Cadbury (1839-1922) was a major philanthropist who used all the means at his disposal to further his goals, and this included taking over
ownership of the Liberal newspaper the Daily News, which he used to promote his own views on the need for old-age pensions, the expansion of small-holdings and the evils of sweated labour. He gave an intriguing statement of why he came to believe that supporting journalism was one of the most effective forms of philanthropy when he said:
“I had a profound conviction that money spent on charities was of infinitely less value than money spent in trying to arouse my fellow countrymen to the necessity for measures to ameliorate the condition of the poor, forsaken, and downtrodden masses which can be done most effectively by a great newspaper.”
(Quoted in Owen, D. (1964) English Philanthropy 1660-1960. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. )
Of course, both of these historical examples are ones in which philanthropists used their ownership of newspapers to campaign on specific issues, whereas what we are really interested in is philanthropists supporting the practice and principle of objective journalism. The examples do highlight one of the dangers of philanthropists getting involved in supporting journalism, though: it is very easy for opponents to claim that any media outlet that receives philanthropic support is being influenced by an individual or handful of individuals and thus represents an attempt to use philanthropy to “subvert democracy”. Recently we saw Donald Trump level precisely this accusation at Jeff Bezos whilst on the campaign trail, over his ownership of the Washington Post.
The philanthropy scholar Bruce Sievers argues in his though-provoking book Civil Society, Philanthropy and the Fate of the Commons that supporting the role of an independent media as part of the system of checks and balances within a democracy is one of the best ways that philanthropy can ensure a healthy civil society. He argues (and this is back in 2010), that:
“In the current climate in the United States, [strengthening the fundamental structures of civil society] means a renewed emphasis on the agenda that enhances civil society’s commitment to the common good and that strengthens the media’s ability to serve its public function.”
What should be clear is that the rise of fake news and the attempts to devalue facts, evidence and expertise mean that this is no longer just a theoretical nicety, but a practical necessity. Philanthropists and charities must be prepared to stand firm and resist the “post-truth” narrative. In part they can do this by ensuring that they promote the importance of data-gathering, fact-checking and accuracy in their own work, but they can also actively resist efforts to devalue evidence and expert opinion in public discourse and policy-making; or even look to support independent, objective journalism as a public good.