In an era when misinformation is destroying the public discourse, our professional mission isn’t to amplify one specific truth over another, but to seek out facts, rigorously and tirelessly, with an attitude of radical openness.
by Kim Green
At Pursuit, we don’t publish many op-eds, nor do we, the editors, tend to share our personal opinions on issues—especially political ones. We might comment on investigative ethics or post our colleagues’ opinion pieces on deception detection or criminal defense work—in other words, articles on specific topics relevant to the investigative industry.
An essay on extremist ideologies and online misinformation might not, at first glance, seem to adhere to those standards. I’ll do my best to make a case for why I believe this topic is fundamental to what we do, as private investigators, law enforcement pros, and investigative journalists.
Information was supposed to set us free. To some, the Internet, with instant access to almost any notion ever conceived, promised a democratization of facts and ideas: show the world everything, and let the best idea win.
As we know by now, that is not what happened.
Instead, the loudest, angriest ideas on the Internet are winning. By “win,” I mean they spread the fastest and stir up the most outrage. Some of these ideas slink from the foulest corners of the virtual world and find a footing in our interconnected actual world.
Sometimes, they spur people to terrible acts. In October of 2018, the New York Times reported on a genocide in Myanmar against the nation’s Rohingya minority, incited by members of the military who posted anti-Muslim propaganda on Facebook. The social media platform has begun to grasp the dangers of viral misinformation in places where tensions already run high, and are acting to remove hate-filled false information that might actuate violence—a task akin to putting out wildfires in a forest made sere by heat and drought, and fanned by wind.
In March of 2019 (when I first posted this story), New Zealanders were reeling from a terrible tragedy, a monstrous act of violence, born of ideas spread online, broadcast to an Internet audience, and designed to foment discord among them.
The world paused for a moment as we took this in: Another zealot had cherry-picked a few “ideas” from the deepest, darkest Internet and found in them, somehow, a justification for mass murder. Ultimately, his target wasn’t only the Muslim community of Christchurch. His target was us. His stated aim was to sow chaos and stir up fights about diversity and immigration, gun policy, race and religion—to “incite violence, retaliation and further divide,” he wrote.
We uber-connected, hyper-informed modern humans—Homo Interneticus—have made it easy for him and others like him to succeed. We are living in the midst of a perfect media storm of circular cause-and-effect:
1. Sea changes in how the media survives financially have decimated local print outlets and favored large conglomerates with big online footprints.
2. This online media business model relies on clicks for revenue.
3. Social media sharing drives more clicks.
4. Oversimplified, speedy, and even false content that spurs outrage is more likely to be shared virally.
5. To stay in the black, media outlets are sorely tempted to post more clickbait.
6. Noting this trend, people lose faith in media and gravitate toward content that confirms their biases.
7. Misinformation gathers strength, as does outrage.
8. Goto #4 and repeat cycle.
These factors have compounded to turn the ravenous, multi-headed monster we call “media” into a vast, insensate outrage generator. But blaming “the media” is too simple; the media is not one thing, but many—from dedicated, objective reporters for whom journalism is a calling to cynical screaming heads and conspiracy theorists who profit handsomely from our outrage.
I believe that there’s as much great reporting out there now as there has ever been: I spend many hours a week reading exhaustively reported stories by relentless investigators like Pam Colloff, on the criminal justice beat, and Lawrence Wright, who has covered Al Qaeda, the Church of Scientology, and the coronavirus pandemic. Their reporting illuminates complex issues by presenting information they spend months or years gathering—interviewing people, digging through court records, FOIAing documents, and testing their own hypotheses. And before their articles and books are published, they must withstand the scrutiny of relentless fact-checkers and legal counsel whose job it is to ask, “How do you know this? Can you prove it? Show me.”
Great media exists, but it doesn’t easily go viral. Complexity doesn’t feed the outrage machine as effectively, so deeply reported stories often languish in relative obscurity. Too many people aren’t finding them, because they’re holed up in information ghettoes and subsisting on diets of confirmation-bias. They’ve lost the ability (or willingness) to tell the difference between information and garbage.
To tell the difference, it isn’t enough to analyze the content itself, or the conclusions it draws; the difference is really about process: How does the reporter approach her work? Is her mind open to accepting that her hypothesis might be wrong? Does she background check sources and triple-check facts? Does she give “the villain” of her story the benefit of the doubt, and sincerely try to see his point of view? David McCraw said it well in his recent NYTimes op-ed: “Think Like a Libel Lawyer”:
“I am all about the villains in many pieces — the doctor who botched the surgery, the insurance company that shafted its customers… I try to look for the counternarrative that they could (and their lawyers will) build from the same set of facts. It’s a counterintuitive form of reading. It’s looking for the innocent explanation or the possibility that what appears to all the rest of the world to be nefarious may in fact just be a mistake made in good faith…
“For a libel lawyer, a little sympathy for the villain is almost an occupational requirement. And maybe it wouldn’t be a bad idea for all of us in the tribalized ‘pick your side and stay on it’ era we are living in.”
“Sympathy for the villain” isn’t a bad way to describe an investigator’s mission: gathering facts for your client, with a mind open enough to imagine the other side of the argument you’ve been hired to defend. Whether you record a person’s lawn-care activities on behalf of an insurance company or interview witnesses in a criminal case, the best investigators collect information without picking a side. And they’re open to the possibility that what they see may not tell the whole story.
Information is neutral; it’s how we wield it that determines whether it illuminates or obfuscates a larger truth. For evidence of that, sit in on a trial and watch a DA and defense attorney battle it out, armed with parallel sets of facts that are rearranged to tell two very different stories.
The Truth is a slippery thing, and it seems especially so now, when many people have so thoroughly lost the ability to listen to other points of view. That’s what I love about the investigative professions: They give us an excuse to visit another person’s life and listen with sincere curiosity. It’s like traveling: you upend your assumptions and learn new worlds. And in some ways, I prefer the person I become as an interviewer to the person I am day-to-day. When I sit down with someone and ask questions, I feel the judgmental me sloughing off like an old skin. The ironic smirk falls away. For an hour or two, I step outside of myself and inhabit that person’s point of view as completely as I can. My biases soften, their lines blur.
In my work, the outcome of the “investigation” is a radio or magazine story. I synthesize what I’ve learned and try to explain the truth of someone’s life as I understand it. For investigators, the outcome is a body of information presented to an attorney or an insurance company, for them to interpret as they see fit.
In both cases, as investigator Eli Rosenblatt said in our first ever Pursuit podcast: “We don’t have a particular allegiance to particular parties in cases. We have an allegiance to the facts.”
I believe that most investigators in this community hold themselves to a high standard of objectivity and fair-mindedness. I learn a lot from the collective wisdom of this group, in tweets, comment threads, and the articles you write for us. Occasionally, I see Facebook comments that sadden me, comments that don’t meet this standard. I generally don’t engage with those, although I do hide comments containing contemptuous, obscene, or overt polemical language — because I refuse to amplify it.
From my end, I do my best to fact-check stories and vet writers, and also to repost other media articles with some care. I don’t always do a perfect job of this. But I do take seriously my responsibility to share information that, at the very least, is not deceptive, outright false (excepting satire, of course), or harmful.
Hal (the executive editor) and I do not want Pursuit to be a cog in the outrage machine. We value free speech as an absolute. But we also have the right to choose what media we consume, what voices we amplify, and what tone we set with our publication.
In the end, we choose curiosity over certainty, and deliberative information sharing over addictive clickbait. We have no interest in contempt or polemics, even if it might help our bottom line. If we’ve failed in this mission at times, we apologize and promise to do better.
Most important, we vow to set a tone that’s worth emulating—a tone I’d describe it as voraciously inquisitive and lightly skeptical, laced with acerbic wit and radical openness.
In short, this publication’s philosophy is embodied in its title: Pursuit—a statement not of preferring one specific truth over another, but of the rigorous, tireless process of seeking it out. We invite you to join us in that philosophy of work—and of life.