What Is Truthiness?
Stephen Colbert coined the word “truthiness” on the pilot episode of his former satirical show, The Colbert Report. Fifteen years later, truthiness influences more news consumption and fake news sharing than ever.
Something has truthiness if it creates the gut feeling that it’s true, regardless of facts, evidence, reason, or critical thinking to the contrary. “When you feel it in your gut,” Colbert said, “you know it must be right.”
I’ve heard many people cite “truthiness” when justifying why they shared something (that should have been) obviously false.
They didn’t really believe the substance of the meme or article, they said. They just thought it captured the essence of the person, group, or events in question.
Nancy Pelosi, the Bible, and The Babylon Bee
One person, for instance, shared on Facebook an article from the satirical site The Babylon Bee that photoshopped Nancy Pelosi ripping the bible in half rather than Trump’s 2020 State of the Union address.
I commented that it was a satirical article and a photoshopped picture. The poster wrote back, ”I believe it represents her views.”
In reality, Nancy Pelosi is a devout Catholic. There are plenty of valid reasons to dislike her and her views, but her ripping up a bible or disrespecting religion isn’t one of them.
However, the truth, the reality, of the article, image, and person mattered less than the truthiness, the emotion, produced. This is why people share and believe fake news.
When ideas confirm what we already want to believe, then they feel just right in the gut.
When something feels just right, we accept it without thinking about it.
The longer we accept it, the more familiar it becomes. Familiarity creates the "illusion of truth effect." The more we hear or repeat a falsehood, the more we believe it.
(By the way, this is why we should listen to scientists. They're not perfect. They can be biased and make mistakes. But the scientific method and peer review mitigate human bias.)
After accepting something, we share it on social media to get the validation of Likes, Shares, Retweets, and so on. Other people see truthiness, too, and the fake news spreads like wildfire and the illusion of truth effect does its work.
The people who create the memes, Facebook posts, and articles that have truthiness know exactly how they will affect their target audiences. They’ve developed their strategies through rigorous trial-and-error, testing what works and what doesn’t.
There are many companies, business people, and others who prey on the desire for truthiness to make a buck. Their purpose is not to inform but to go viral and make money through your clicks. They don’t care about accuracy, fairness, balance, or actual truth.
Obama's "Shadow Government"
Often, truthiness comes from confirming people's antipathy toward those they disagree with.
Consider an article attributed to the late Charles Krauthammer that has been circulating online since 2017. It alleges that Barack Obama formed a "shadow government" with the purpose of opposing President Trump.
There's just one problem. It wasn’t written by Krauthammer. Bill Wilson confirmed to Snopes that he wrote the piece for his website The Daily Jot. In an email to USA TODAY, Wilson again confirmed that the Krauthammer attribution was a “fabrication.”
Moreover, the Obama-led group “Organizing for Action” alleged to be a shadow government opposing Trump was formed in 2013, long before Trump, and now focuses on anti-gerrymandering work, not Trump.
But let’s say Obama, or anyone, created a group to oppose Trump. That’s political activism, not a shadow government, and citizens have that right in our democracy.
A little thought reveals the piece’s flaws. A quick Google search confirms its falsehoods. It’s a textbook example of fake news. So why has it circulated since 2017?
Because it “feels right” by confirming negative ideas about Obama and Dems. We must think critically, especially about rhetoric that “feels right” by confirming antipathy toward Obama or Trump, Dems or Republicans, or whatever or whomever.
When something feels just right, we need to be extra careful to slow down, think, and question.
We must be especially careful when something confirms hostile or extreme feelings about those with whom we disagree. Odds are, someone’s trying to mislead you for their own purposes.
To be well-informed, to form good judgments, we must rely more on our heads than our guts.
Eric Sentell teaches writing and rhetoric. He is the author of How to Write an Essay like an Equation and Become Your Own Fact-Checker.
Learn more about his work, sign up for a newsletter, and get free excerpts at www.EricSentell.com.