At the Global Fact international fact-checkers’ conference I attended in Oslo earlier this month, there were workshops on digital investigation, lectures on media literacy, even sessions devoted to hateful social media of the kind that sometimes gets directed at people who check facts for a living—and there are now many such people. Fact-checking is now a sophisticated, high-tech profession, with members in places all over the world—Colombia, Canada, South Africa, Taiwan. What they can do with tiny scraps of evidence is almost unsettling. Fact-checking websites and fact-checking columnists can tell you how to identify a video that has been manipulated, how to spot a fake social media account, how to geolocate an atrocity just by examining a single photograph that has appeared online.
But despite all of this knowledge, fact-checkers can’t always get people to believe them. This isn’t their fault. As the writer Jonathan Rauch wrote last year in his prescient book The Constitution of Knowledge the production of verified information, as well as of public trust in that information, is a complex social process that relies on a huge range of institutions, from grand juries and inspectors general, to independent fact-checking operations and peer-reviewed academic journals. In many countries, and most dramatically in the United States, that complex social process has broken down, in part because of deliberate, targeted political assaults on precisely those institutions. And no wonder: For would-be authoritarians, the destruction of organizations dedicated to finding out what actually happened is an obvious part of the path to power. If leaders can convince people not to believe anything at all, then they can substitute the false narratives that justify their own limitless power.
In modern America, the best example of this phenomenon is the 35 percent of surveyed Americans—one third of the country, and two thirds of the Republican Party—who aren’t sure who won the 2020 election. As the pollster and analyst Sarah Longwell has explained, their doubts come not from their misunderstanding of specific vote counts, but from the context that they live in. Surrounded by social-media influencers and authority figures who have repeatedly attacked the veracity of the electoral process since 2016, they have come to treat with suspicion anyone who points out the absurdity of the many electoral conspiracy theories out there (Hugo Chavez manipulated the voting machines years after his death; Italian defense contractors altered the result via the internet). They simply feel doubt. Not only do facts and fact-checkers not change doubters’ minds, they harden their views. As a woman from Arizona told Longwell, “I think what convinced me more that the election was fixed was how vehemently they have said it wasn’t.”
But if facts alone won’t make anyone reconsider their view of January 6, a deeper, more thoughtful, more nuanced effort to tell the story might—at least in theory. Rauch, Longwell, and the large community of fact-checkers who think about reaching that skeptical 35 percent have often argued that shouting about the objective truth will never work and that what is needed instead is the construction of trust. The designers of the January 6 committee’s hearings have taken that argument to heart. In essence, they have created a giant fact-checking project designed not only to write an accurate account of what happened in the run-up to the Capitol attack, but to convince people to believe it. The point is not to establish whether some detail that one witness reveals is true or false, but rather to tell a larger story, using a wide range of perspectives, delivered in a manner optimally designed to create trust.
Towards that end, the hearings offer not just a single point or argument that can be disputed, but instead seek to embed all of the different facts into a coherent narrative. This is an evolving story, a puzzle being put together using a range of different pieces. The story begins not just when Trump lost the election, but when people whom he knew well—his daughter Ivanka, his adviser Jared Kushner, and Attorney General Bill Barr being the most notable—told him that he had lost. Having established that truth, the committee went on to show how, despite having been told that he had lost, Trump sought to steal the election anyway. Each phase leads to the next, and all of them are bound together 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 narrative is being offered in a format that people can understand. Yes, these hearings are being run much like a Netflix series. They have a plot. It has twists and surprises—for example, the unexpected appearance of Cassidy Hutchinson, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows’s executive assistant, who happened to be in several rooms where things were happening on January 6. “Episodes” sometimes end with cliffhangers—for example Cheney’s hints Tuesday that later hearings may reveal attempts to intimidate witnesses. Each set of hearings is short, offering the story in bite-sized chunks that people can absorb and then discuss before moving on. Bits of the story are sometimes leaked in advance on social media, in order to get the audience’s attention. Themes from one hearing recur in later hearings—for example, the many people around Trump who sought pardons, knowing that they had broken the law.
These techniques have elicited 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 nonsensical. The order in which things happen does not build the story or add tension. The politicians quizzing the witnesses might or might not be good at eliciting information. These formats might have worked 50 years ago, for audiences who were physically in the room and had more time and attention. They don’t work now. Instead, making the hearings seem less alien, and more like other television that Americans watch, is a way of building trust between the speakers and the audience.
All of this material is being delivered on platforms that Americans actually use. It’s always been possible to watch congressional hearings on C-Span, though not many people do. The January 6 hearings are available, by contrast, on dedicated YouTube, Facebook and Twitter pages. Short highlight collections assembled by TikTok users have garnered millions of views.
But although the pacing of the January 6 hearings is different from what most recent congressional committees have put together, the physical location is the same. This fact-checking operation isn’t being held just anywhere; it is taking place in the halls of Congress, with American flags, with familiar backdrops, with scenery that we know from the past. The formality with which each hearing begins and ends is also an important part of encouraging viewers to trust what they are seeing.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, this story is being told almost entirely by Republicans. Cheney might not be popular in her own party, but nobody 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 wished away as something from a left-wing fever dream. Trump’s lawyers are effective because they are Trump’s lawyers. Cassidy Hutchinson, despite her youth and lack of celebrity, made a deep impression with her testimony partly because she followed in a long line of more famous Republicans, and partly because she was clearly a Republican insider herself. That gives her words more weight.
Will those for whom Hutchinson’s testimony was so carefully designed even listen? Will any of the 35 percent change their position? At least a few of the early signs are positive: Some media outlets that the 35 percent are likely to watch, including Fox News, are willing to show and discuss the hearings. One polling company has already shown that three in five Americans have heard about the investigation and that majorities support the investigation and oppose the actions of Trump supporters who broke into the Capitol.
But what really matters, in the longer term, is whether the remaining two in five eventually learn about the hearings and decide to watch them, and whether the one in five surveyed Americans who believe that Trump’s coup d’état was justified change their minds. The committee is making the most elaborate, careful and nuanced attempt to reach those Americans that anyone has yet designed. The presentation will be studied, and copied, for a long time.
Aside from everything else, it seeks to restore a common framework for generating knowledge—that is, a network of people and institutions and fact-checking mechanisms whose overall story should resist even the attempts to cast doubt on one or another witness. Should, of course, is the operative word here. The Trump family, and Trump’s supporters, will indeed try to pick apart the committee’s work, to break up the narrative, to criticize one line in someone’s testimony, to describe the whole effort as biased or unfair. They have already smeared Hutchinson, and won’t stop there. But if the committee’s guess is right, it won’t be a single person’s testimony that matters—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 on that day, and in the days that followed. Those who aren’t convinced by this testimony never will be.
Anne Applebaum is a staff writer for The Atlantic and a Pulitzer-prize winning historian. She is also a Senior Fellow at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and the Agora Institute, where she co-directs Arena, a program on disinformation and 21st century propaganda.