If the January 6 hearings don’t change people’s minds, nothing will.

At the Global Fact International Fact Checkers Conference I attended in Oslo earlier this month, there were workshops on digital forensics, lectures on media literacy, even sessions on hateful social media of the type that sometimes caters to fact-checkers for a living – and there are plenty of such people. Fact-checking is now a sophisticated, high-tech profession, with members all over the world – Colombia, Canada, South Africa, Taiwan. What they can do with tiny bits of evidence is almost unsettling. Fact-checking websites and fact-checking columnists can tell you how to identify a video that’s been manipulated, how to spot a fake social media account, how to geotag an atrocity just by looking at a single photo that has surfaced online. .

But despite all this knowledge, fact checkers can’t always get people to believe them. It’s not their fault. As writer Jonathan Rauch wrote last year in his seminal book, The constitution of knowledge, the production of verified information, as well as the public’s confidence in this information, is a complex social process that relies on a wide range of institutions, including grand juries and inspectors general, as well as independent operations of verification facts and peer reviews. academic journals. In many countries, and especially in the United States, this complex social process has collapsed, in part because of deliberate and targeted political attacks on precisely these institutions. And it’s no wonder: for so-called authoritarians, destroying organizations dedicated to finding out what really happened is an obvious part of the road to power. If leaders can convince people not to believe anything at all, they can substitute the false narratives that justify their own unlimited power.

In modern America, the best example of this phenomenon is the 35% of Americans surveyed— one-third of the country and two-thirds of the Republican Party — who don’t know who won the 2020 election. As pollster and analyst Sarah Longwell explained, their doubts don’t stem from their misunderstanding of the specific vote tally, but of the context in which they live. since 2016, they have come to treat anyone who sees the absurdity of the many election conspiracy theories with suspicion. (Hugo Chávez manipulated the voting machines years after his death; Italian defense contractors altered the result via the Internet.) They just feel doubt. Not only do facts and fact checkers not change the minds of skeptics; they harden their opinions. As one Arizona woman told Longwell, “I think what convinced me most that the election was rigged was how vehemently they said it wasn’t the case.”

But if the facts alone don’t make anyone reconsider his January 6 vision, a deeper, more thoughtful, and nuanced effort to tell the story might, at least in theory. Rauch, Longwell and the larger community of fact-checkers who think about reaching that skeptical 35% have often argued that shouting about the objective truth will never work and that what is needed instead is to build trust. The designers of the January 6 committee hearings took this argument to heart. Essentially, they created a giant fact-checking project designed not just to write an accurate account of what happened before the attack on the Capitol, but to convince people to believe it. It is not about establishing whether a detail revealed by a witness is true or false, but rather about telling a larger story, using a wide range of perspectives, delivered in an optimal way to create trust.

To that end, hearings not only offer a single point or argument that can be challenged, but rather seek to integrate all the different facts into a cohesive narrative. It is an evolving story, a puzzle assembled using different pieces. The story doesn’t begin when Trump lost the election, but when people he knew well — his daughter Ivanka, his adviser Jared Kushner and Attorney General Bill Barr being the most notable — told him he had lost. . Having established this truth, the committee then showed how, despite being told he had lost, Trump still sought to steal the election. Each phase leads to the next, and all are linked by a single narrator: Representative Liz Cheney, the committee’s Republican vice chair, provides a single, authoritative voice that unifies the different parts of the story.

Equally important is the fact that this story is offered in a format that people can understand. Yes, these hearings unfold a bit like a Netflix series. They have land. It has twists and surprises – for example, the unexpected appearance of Cassidy Hutchinson, the executive assistant to White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, who was in several rooms where things were happening on January 6. ‘Episodes’ sometimes end in cliffhangers – for example, Cheney yesterday hinted that subsequent hearings could reveal attempts to intimidate witnesses. Each set of audiences is short, delivering the story in small chunks that people can absorb and then discuss before moving on. Snippets of the story are sometimes leaked on social media in advance, in order to catch the public’s attention. Themes from one hearing repeat themselves in subsequent hearings — for example, the many people around Trump who asked for forgiveness, knowing they had broken the law.

These techniques have drawn some mockery, but the mockers are wrong. For most Americans, the format of a typical congressional hearing is hard to watch and harder to understand. The rules, made for a pre-television era, are absurd. The order in which things happen doesn’t build the story or add tension. Politicians who interview witnesses may or may not be good at getting information. These formats might have worked 50 years ago, for an audience that was physically in the room and had more time and attention. They don’t work now. Instead, making audiences seem less foreign and more like other TV shows Americans watch is a way to build trust between speakers and audiences.

All of this hardware comes on platforms that Americans actually use. It has always been possible to watch congressional hearings on C-SPAN, although few people do. The hearings of January 6 are available, on the other hand, on Youtube, Facebookand Twitter pages. Short collections of highlights assembled by TikTok users have garnered millions of views.

But while the pace of the January 6 hearings is different from what more recent congressional committees have set up, the physical location is the same. This fact-checking operation does not take place anywhere; it takes place in the halls of Congress, with American flags, with familiar settings, with landscapes that we know from the past. The formality with which each audience begins and ends is also an important element in encouraging viewers to trust what they see.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, this story is told almost entirely by Republicans. Cheney may not be popular in her own party, but no one can deny that she is a Republican, from a famous Republican family, whose interests cannot be described by anyone as purely partisan. The most important witnesses are Republicans close to Trump. The testimony of Trump’s children, Trump’s lawyers, and Trump’s cabinet cannot be considered a left-wing fever dream. Trump’s lawyers are effective because they are Trump’s lawyers. Cassidy Hutchinson, despite her youth and lack of fame, made a deep impression with her testimony partly because she followed a long line of more famous Republicans, and partly because she was clearly a Republican insider herself. . It gives more weight to his words.

Will those for whom Hutchinson’s testimony has been so carefully crafted even listen? Will any of the 35% change position? At least some of the early signs are positive: Some outlets the 35% are likely to watch, including Fox News, are ready to show and discuss ratings. A survey company has already shown that three in five Americans have heard of the investigation and that majorities support the investigation and oppose the actions of Trump supporters who stormed into the Capitol.

But what really matters, in the longer term, is whether the other two out of five eventually learn about the audiences and decide to watch them, and whether the one in five Americans surveyed who believe Trump’s coup was justified are changing their minds. The committee is making the most elaborate, careful and nuanced attempt to reach these Americans that anyone has ever devised. The presentation will be studied, and copied, for a long time.

Apart from everything else, it seeks to restore a common framework for generating knowledge, i.e. a network of people and institutions and fact-checking mechanisms whose overall story should withstand even the attempts to cast doubt on either witness. Should, of course, is the key word here. The Trump family and Trump supporters will indeed try to dissect the committee’s work, break the narrative, criticize a line in someone’s testimony, portray the entire effort as biased or unfair. They’ve already smeared Hutchinson, and won’t stop there. But if the committee’s guess is correct, it won’t be one person’s testimony that counts — not Ivanka Trump’s, not Hutchinson’s — but rather the combined weight of dozens of witnesses. These accounts will at least make it difficult for anyone to defend Trump’s behavior that day and in the days that followed. Those who are not convinced by this testimony will never be.

Comments are closed.