Is “Speaking Your Truth” the New Alternative Facts?
Their many differences aside, both trends speak to a willingness to put personal experience over hard fact.
Oprah Winfrey has made a career out of compassionate listening; indeed, encouraging a guest to deliver “your truth” is her trademark. In a recent interview, for example, Winfrey invited Meghan Markle to do so, and Markle delivered two hours of fireworks about her truth of life in the British royal family.
But there’s a problem here, which writer Conor Friedersdorf highlighted in The Atlantic three years ago: “Your truth” is not “the truth.” In an age of disinformation, the distinction matters. In fact, “your truth” may illustrate the same kind of phenomenon on the American left that “alternative facts” captures on the right. Although these terms are different in many ways, both foreground personal beliefs ahead of indisputable fact. And in doing so, they open the door to disinformation.
“How do you feel about the palace hearing you speak your truth today?” Winfrey asked Markle. The actress-turned-duchess responded that she couldn’t remain silent about her life in the United Kingdom any more before recounting her difficulties. Everyone has memories of things we’ve done to others and things others have done to us, but until recently, we called them precisely that: our memories. By framing recollection as “my truth” though, one presents one’s own account—potentially biased or misremembered—as the official record.
For example, here’s Markle’s account of her surprise wedding three days before the ceremony watched by people around the world: “I was thinking about it [getting down to basics]—even at our wedding, you know, three days before our wedding, we got married.”
Markle: No one knows that. But we called the archbishop, and we just said, ‘Look, this thing, this spectacle is for the world, but we want our union between us.’”
Markle’s story of the additional wedding (among many other revelations) caused a sensation because the same couple can’t get officially married twice before getting divorced in between. That couldn’t have happened within three days, so was the wedding ceremony watched by millions actually a scam? In truth, it later emerged, the garden ceremony was simply a blessing. Markle clearly felt it was a wedding. It was her truth. But in the facts-based world, it was not.
This small—and ultimately trivial—example still illustrates the difference between perception and fact. And in many cases, that distinction matters a lot. Back on Winfrey’s couch in 2007, actress Jenny McCarthy declared that her “mommy instinct” told her that her son’s autism had been caused by vaccines (a claim scientific research has debunked). She admitted getting lots of criticism from “the neuroscience world,” she later told PBS Frontline, but she had found her truth through Google. “To me,” she said, “Google is one of the most incredible breakthroughs that we have today.”
Anti-vaccine sentiment has caused enormous harm. In 2019, the United States experienced a measles outbreak fueled by anti-vaccine sentiment. This year, one-third of U.S. military personnel have refused the COVID-19 jab, while a Pew Research Center poll this month found that 69 percent of Americans plan to get vaccinated—meaning 31 percent don’t. Even though the continued spread of the coronavirus could cause great harm to society, abstaining seems completely logical to the refuseniks, who may have found misinformation online about dangers related to the COVID-19 vaccine. That is their truth.
This isn’t so different from the far-right side of the U.S. political spectrum, where thousands of people support an “alternative fact” that former U.S. President Donald Trump won the 2020 presidential election. And as the world saw on Jan. 6, when pro-Trump rioters overtook the U.S. Capitol, the difference between “alternative facts” and “real facts” matters a great deal.
Residents of liberal democracies have different interests, different backgrounds, and different opinions. Precisely because they live in liberal democracies, their governments can’t force them to hold any particular opinion—or not. But for these countries to thrive, or at the very least be governable, they need discourse to be facts-based. A person wins an election or not. Vaccines against diseases ranging from polio and measles to COVID-19 are developed and distributed around the country and indeed the world after having undergone rigorous tests. This works if a critical mass takes the position that although they have not personally inspected the voting machines or studied the components of the vaccine, they trust the information put forward constitutes the truth.
Historically and today, authoritarian regimes try to force their citizens to believe in alternative facts, but it doesn’t work in the long run.
In Belarus, citizens know that Alexander Lukashenko couldn’t possibly have won 80 percent of the votes in last year’s presidential election, which he claims is the case. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “truth” may believe that NATO is acting aggressively by having troops in the Baltic states, but NATO credibly says its measures are entirely defensive. Further back, in Warsaw Pact countries such as East Germany, regimes went to extreme lengths to convince the world that their elections were free and fair—and with massive voter participation to boot—but they gave no access to impartial observers. In liberal democracies, if a politician does the same, it is up to the public to hold him or her to account. Accuracy and transparency are, in fact, liberal countries’ greatest strengths vis-a-vis authoritarian rivals. But those are harder to come by when both sides of the political spectrum can appeal to their own truths.
To be sure, establishing the real facts isn’t easy, and in a liberal democracy, citizens have the right to challenge experts. But the real problem is when enough people decide they’re not even interested in seeking the truth, preferring their own ideas about how the world works instead. That opens countless opportunities for adversaries. In what I call the “tech convenience trap,” people’s extreme and growing dependence on digitally based services means that disruptions to them—whether caused by hostile states, proxy groups, incompetence, or human error—can wreak havoc. In the “truth convenience trap,” the relaxed treatment of the truth provides ever more opportunities for adversaries to plant their disinformation seeds. What may have felt fine a decade ago—engaging in sundry gossip or forwarding bits of information without first verifying them—poses a national security challenge today.
Markle and Winfrey are clearly not Putin. Winfrey’s intention in encouraging her guests to speak “their truth” is to help them and her viewers feel better about themselves in a complex world. Putin, by contrast, wants to sow discord in the same complex world. The Jan. 6 rioters may have had no opinion about either, but they did act on the belief that their own “facts” were better than the experts’. “My truth” may be benign in comparison, but if we want to clean up disinformation and limit the damage it does to our societies, we need to look at every one of its incarnations.