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How Nonprofits Can Thrive In a Post-Fact World

By on December 8, 2016



If a fact exists in a forest and no one is there to believe it, is it still true?

You’ve probably heard by now that we’re living in a “post-fact” world. As a communications professional in the social sector, where accurate information and effective communication can improve and sometimes save people’s lives, I am deeply concerned.

This post-fact existence didn’t start with the 2016 political campaigns. In 2011, we were warned to beware of filter bubbles, in which search engines, rather than functioning like impartial encyclopedias, instead deliver fact, fiction, and falsehoods with equal standing and confirm our biases in advance—sometimes with unsettling results. In 2010, the term post-truth politics was coined. And in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, published in 1949, misinformation is so pervasive that two plus two equals five.

Despite these warnings, truth in the digital era is threatened by an array of factors:

  • The Internet decentralized communication, allowing individuals to operate like media organizations, but without editorial boards and fact-checkers.
  • The volume of information available presents an overwhelming task for anyone trying to find factual needles in a haystack of opinions. This is compounded by a growing inability to tell the difference. A recent study at the Stanford Graduate School of Education found that more than 80 percent of middle school students could not distinguish between journalism and advertising.
  • Social media amplifies misinformation. An assistant professor of communications at Elon University in North Carolina mapped the connections between fake news sites and found that “When you look at it in 3D, it actually looks like a virus. And Facebook was just one of the hosts for the virus that helps it spread faster.” [1]
  • Our digital tools enable us to fabricate evidence. We can create and find ample “proof” to support our beliefs, regardless of their alignment with reality. I use Photoshop like it’s my third arm, and I know how convincing—and easy to make—altered images can be. And a newly developed software program is being called “the Photoshop of audio.” In a few years’ time, we might not even be able to believe what we’ve heard, much less what we’ve seen.

We all now have differing opinions not only about how to interpret facts, but about whether those facts are in fact facts.

So where does that leave foundations and nonprofits?

If people question the existence of problems at the heart of many organizations’ missions (like systemic racism and climate change, for instance), then how can we collaborate to solve those problems? If there is a growing lack of trust in education, healthcare, government, media, and science institutions, then how can we convince people that those institutions are worth supporting?

Luckily, there are a couple of things working in our favor:

The public trusts us.

According to a recent bipartisan survey, 78 percent of Americans—especially youth—think that the government should collaborate more with foundations and nonprofits to solve problems. An overwhelming majority, 85 percent, think that the social sector should be able to communicate with policymakers under the same rules that apply to corporations. The survey also found that people responded most strongly to messages highlighting social sector organizations’ local connections and work with communities on the ground.

Nearly one in ten people in the U.S. is employed by a nonprofit organization [2], not including the many volunteers who support them. And while trust in other institutions is declining, people look to foundations and nonprofits for solutions because of our deep roots in communities. We have an opportunity to lead with confidence, knowing that our network is wide and strong.

Facts are real.

Two plus two still equals four. Our medical treatments, energy grids, financial markets, digital devices, and even body chemistry would not function without adherence to a fact-based reality. And neither should the social sector.

Foundations and nonprofits seek practice- and evidence-based strategies for change. We rely on accurate data and strive to authentically engage community members, sharing true stories about their lived experiences. We have a culture of learning and transparency, in which we share lessons learned about what’s worked and what hasn’t. We are humble, curious, and ask questions before prescribing answers.

These values may also be reasons why our organizations are so trusted in the first place. To ensure that we honor and maintain that trust, social sector organizations and change agents can:

  • Create an editorial board, formal or informal. It could be just one other person who’s willing to fact-check, provide feedback on your logic, or question your sources. This is helpful whether you’re writing an in-depth report, a blog post, or a tweet on a controversial topic.
  • Reduce information overload by asking whether what you’re about to share has a purpose. Is it informative or helpful? Does what you’ve written respect others’ time by being concise and relevant?
  • Avoid re-posting or linking to false information. Fake news rises to the top of search engine and social network algorithms because it is shared so often. Instead, ignore it and post a true assessment of an issue without mentioning or correcting the falsehood, which may just reinforce it.

These commitments add time to the communications process, but they are vital to the sustainability of our work and the achievement of our missions. To thrive in a post-fact world, we must stand by our values and, above all, by the truth.

 

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/dec/04/google-democracy-truth-internet-search-facebook

[2] https://www.independentsector.org/uploads/UnitedCharity/united-for-charity-report.pdf

Sarah Moore

Sarah Moore |

Communications and Marketing Manager

Artist, designer, and traveler advocating for compassion and coherence.

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