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Ohio State experts explore the challenge of a post-truth world

Dialogue series examines what it means to be an informed citizen

A concerning lack of trust in leaders and institutions helped spark a riot at the Capitol last month. Now experts at The Ohio State University are exploring the roots of that distrust.

“One of the most important roles in the federal government is gathering reliable data for the country,” President Kristina M. Johnson said last week as she introduced the latest Education for Citizenship dialogue series event. “Yet, we have lived through a period when even data has become politicized. How can we build a happier and more just society when we can’t agree on the basic facts?”

To help better understand that challenge, Nicole Kraft, associate professor of communication, moderated the discussion titled “Navigating the Post-Truth World.” Panelists included R. Kelly Garrett, professor in the School of Communication; David Landsbergen, associate professor and graduate studies chair in the John Glenn College of Public Affairs; and Davon Norris, a doctoral candidate in sociology focused on research involving credit, predictive scoring and inequality.

Kraft asked the panel to explain what “post-truth” means to them. Garrett said it describes situations in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion or personal belief.

“I’m not yet convinced that this is because people have given up or devalue facts, or that they’ve decided that how they feel about reality is more important than what the facts say,” Garrett said.

Norris noted the post-truth era poses challenges to traditional institutions as gatekeepers of facts and information.

“We treat facts as if they’re objectively manifest, but that’s often not the case. And information and truth, or whatever that means, is often refracted through important institutions of power and control,” he said.

Picking up on Norris’ suggestion that diverse communities interpret information differently, Kraft said that what is perceived as truth can be influenced by who is providing it.

“The past experience of those diverse communities is going to allow them to receive truth in different ways depending on the context and the source,” she said.

Citizens have a greater ability to question misleading information because data and information are more readily available to the public than in the past, Norris said – meaning information from leaders or institutions that would be taken as fact because of their stature as sources is now more likely to be subjected to challenges.

Garrett said one way to combat falsehoods and inaccuracy is to push back against it, citing research indicating that when people challenged false or misleading social media posts, the engagement around those posts declined or ceased altogether.

“So being respectful, bringing evidence to bear and taking on conversations with people who you might disagree with can be very useful,” he said.

The panelists agreed Ohio State can play a role as an arbiter of empirical truth and as an educator of citizens who could go out into the world and argue for truth and accuracy.

“So my pitch is that Ohio State really could be that place, could play an important role and be a forum where people can gather to talk about facts, how facts become important and we develop the critical skills in being able to do that,” Landsbergen said. “Because right now we don’t have a place to do that.”

The Education for Citizenship Initiative aims to inspire the university community to engage deeply, with integrity and respect, when expressing ideas and beliefs, be it in word or action. The initiative reflects the university motto, “education for citizenship,” and the mission to develop informed citizens who are able to integrate what they’ve learned in the classroom into their community.

Details are available on the Education for Citizenship Initiative website along with resources for respectful and productive dialogue.

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