Made-up news. Misinformation. Disinformation. Post-truth. And now, infodemic. Over the past several years, we’ve seen a rise in false news and information fueled by a changing media and technology landscape that has made it difficult for people to discern fact from fiction, truth from storyline.
The ripple effects have been profound on our society and culture: Pew Research Center surveys in 2019 found that 89% of Americans said they had often or sometimes come across made-up news and information. Because of that, almost 8 in 10 said they had independently checked facts; roughly 4 in 10 had lessened their overall news intake; and half said they had avoided talking with someone because they thought that person would bring made-up news into the conversation. Long-running surveys also confirmed that public confidence in the government and institutions had hit historic lows.
These findings had special meaning for those of us at The Pew Charitable Trusts, where, quite simply, facts matter. Data is at the core of our work to improve public policy and inform the public; we know that facts can make a difference and can even inspire. So we wanted to respond to these concerns in a meaningful way.
We studied what might work and focused on some key questions: What intrigues Americans today? What do they want to know and how do they want to receive information? And last but not least, can facts be both useful and fun?
We were encouraged by what we learned. Our research showed that people were interested in the idea of nonpartisan facts being shared more broadly, especially facts about America and Americans today—who we are and how we live. Surveys told us that people wanted facts that, in the words of one respondent, could “bring us together” by helping Americans become more informed about our country through statistics and data. Americans’ curiosity, motivation to learn, and patriotism came through loud and clear in the findings and helped validate our initial ideas that yes, facts can be engaging—and can continue to be a bridge to common understanding and greater trust of one another.
Based on these insights, we created Living Facts, an initiative to share facts about our country and its citizens. As our mission statement says, “Our goal is to inform and inspire.”
The name “Living Facts” sends the message that this information relates to what Americans believe, do, and think. It provides a snapshot of our nation as it continually grows and changes. And it underscores that each of us is essentially a living, breathing set of facts and beliefs that can help define and illuminate our communities and country.
We launched the project in March 2019—sharing facts, quizzes, articles, and videos through the Living Facts website (www.livingfacts.org) and via Twitter and Facebook. The initial response to the information was heartening: One social media follower posted that Living Facts was “the ultimate site for fact seekers” and another said, “It is dispiriting how loosely tied some policy debates are to basic facts that underpin their substance. I’m excited to see that my friends @pewtrusts are digging in to start to narrow those gaps with @livingfacts.”
To begin, we focused on four pillars—demographics, faith, money, and trends. Most of our initial facts came from the Pew Research Center, but we also included data from other nonpartisan and trusted organizations, including such federal agencies as the Census Bureau, the Department of Labor, and the Department of Defense.
Some of the facts are enlightening: Fifty-five percent of American adults say they pray at least once a day; 78% of Americans feel a deep sense of gratitude at least once a week; and 47% of U.S. adults say being outdoors and experiencing nature provides a “great deal” of meaning and fulfillment in their lives.
Some can be sobering: Twenty-six percent of Americans say they have no retirement savings or pension; 8.5% say they didn’t have health insurance at any time during 2018; and 1 in 10 Americans said in 2018 that they felt lonely all or most of the time.
Still other facts put a focus on what America will look like in the future as generations evolve: In 2018, 27 was the most common age in the U.S.; between 1965 and 2015, 55% of U.S. population growth came from new immigrants, their children, and their grandchildren; and in 2016, 53% of Millennials said that they had used a public library in the past year—more than any other adult generation.
In addition to sharing facts, we also developed a way to illuminate the other side of the story by creating the “flip side”—articles and other content about facts when there’s an interesting alternate perspective to share. For example, from 2007 to 2010, Generation X households lost 38% of their median net worth, but on the flip side, from 2010 to 2016, Gen X households’ median net worth saw a 115% gain. This type of information provides more context about changes in the United States over time that might not be readily apparent if we shared only one fact.
And we recently started sharing videos and other stories as part of our “50 Fascinating Facts” series featuring Americans from all segments of the country today—two older women who began living together as “boommates” to share expenses and company (fascinating fact No. 9 on the list: Thirty-two percent of women age 65 and up live alone, as of 2014); a man whose family has called Gulfport, Mississippi, home since the 1920s (fascinating fact No. 13: Forty-two percent of Americans live in or near the community where they grew up); and the Arapaho and Shoshone Indians of Wyoming, who took matters into their own hands to get digitally connected (fascinating fact No. 11: Fifty-eight percent of Americans living in rural areas say access to high-speed internet is a problem in their area).
The Living Facts database has now expanded to include stats about work, communities, and health. And in early July, we released new content related to American democracy, including facts about our country’s history curated from organizations such as the National Constitution Center and the National Archives, as well as information from the Pew Research Center about how Americans view our government, its institutions, the election, and our civic duties. During the 2020 election, we hope that this type of fact-based and nonpartisan information allows Americans to feel more connected to each other while learning engaging facts about our nation.
Beyond the election, we remain focused on the simple premise that facts can inspire people. When you know that 71% of Americans believe that it’s better to work with others than be self-reliant, or that about 6 out of 10 Americans say they feel some attachment to their local community, or that 53% of parents say their school-age children have done volunteer work, you gain new insights into America today. And by doing so, over time, facts can become a new, trusted common ground—one that motivates us to learn, connect, and understand.
Ann DeFabio Doyle is vice president of communications at The Pew Charitable Trusts.