“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”
This aphorism, attributed to U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, was referenced by Johns Creek City Manager Warren Hutmacher at a City Council meeting Sept. 24.
The question on the table was whether Johns Creek should follow in Roswell’s footsteps and create a city “rumors page” to debunk inaccurate information spread in the news or social media.
“I want to make sure that we really narrowly define it as something that is a fact that we can rely on, not just an opinion,” Hutmacher said.
Differentiating fact from fiction and from opinion is my full-time job, so take it from me, it’s easier said than done.
While I believe there is a universal truth out there, uncovering that truth is a messy, continuous process. Human perception and memory are flawed. It would be hard enough to uncover the truth if all misinformation were honest mistakes, and on top of that, the world is full of people who lie and twist information to suit their own agenda.
And then there’s the matter of opinions.
Pew Research recently did a study where they asked respondents to identify a statement as a fact or an opinion. Not whether it was true or false, just whether the statement could be factually proven or not. For example, a factual statement was “ISIS lost a significant portion of its territory in Iraq and Syria in 2017.” An opinion was “Democracy is the greatest form of government.”
Only 26 percent of respondents could correctly identify all the factual opinions, and 35 percent could correctly identify all of the opinions. People were, perhaps unsurprisingly, much more likely to consider something factual if it aligned with their political beliefs.
Perhaps that is why several members of the Johns Creek City Council opposed the creation a rumors page.
The proposal made by Hutmacher had a few stipulations:
The webpage would be managed by city staff independent of the council, so that no elected official could use the page to advance a political agenda.
The page would only address rumors that had become widespread.
The site would not identify the source of the rumor, so it could not be used as a tool to punish or shame media outlets that cover the city unfavorably.
The rumors page would link to corroborating city documents, such as zoning applications or city ordinances.
With these limitations, I would not oppose a rumors page. It would only be compiling information already on the city website in one convenient location.
However, I fully understand the opposing council members concerns that this could be a slippery slope, and I think each of those stipulations is essential. There could perhaps even be additional checks to ensure that everything on the webpage is a verifiable fact and is noteworthy enough to belong on the page.
One of the things they teach you when you earn a communication degree is the “Streisand effect,” named after Barbra Streisand, although she is far from the first to experience this phenomenon.
In 2003, a photographer made 12,000 photos of the California coastline to document erosion. One of the photos depicted Streisand’s Malibu home. Streisand sued the photographer and website that published the images for a violation of privacy. She lost her case, and the story of a celebrity initiating a $10 million lawsuit attracted far more attention than the coastal erosion project ever could.
Since then, the term Streisand effect has been used whenever a business or public figure has tried to suppress an unflattering story and inadvertently brought more attention to it.
A rumors page could have this kind of unattended consequence, drawing more attention to a claim few people knew of or believed.
In fact, Johns Creek has already seen an example of the Streisand effect. At the same Sept. 24 meeting, Mayor Mike Bodker made a statement about smears he has faced online.
Pedophile, cradle robber and communist are among the things Bodker has been called, language he said is libelous. Since Bodker’s public statement, these claims were repeated in the Johns Creek Herald and the Atlanta Journal Constitution and likely reached a far greater audience than the individual Facebook page they originated.
The city may pursue, abandon or reimagine the rumors page project, but this debate over facts and opinions, of fake news and online libel, isn’t going away. So we all need to learn to be critical of what we hear and read, and especially careful of what we share.