Pushing back on alternative facts, one tweet at time. - MuseumNext

Pushing back on alternative facts, one tweet at time.

Mara Kurlandsky

On February 17, 2017, over 350 cultural organizations — museums, libraries, archives, science centers, and educational groups — asserted their role as champions of knowledge and facts to share thousands of posts on social media using the hashtag #DayofFacts. They shared truths about immigration, climate change, refugees, LGBT issues, freedom of the press, support for the arts, and much more; the kinds of facts that the new presidential administration, inaugurated on January 20, might deem “alternative.”

Cultural organizations, especially non-profits dependent on public donations, typically avoid politics and partisan messaging. But what happens when the very notion of “facts” becomes politicized? What happens when the values our institutions are based on — curiosity, pursuit of knowledge, access to information, respect for the value of primary sources, and a broader mission to serve a wide and diverse public — are undermined by those in power?

Alli Hartley, a D.C.-based museum educator and my co-organizer for #DayofFacts, came up with the original idea. We thought a collective, public response would send a powerful message to the public that our cultural institutions don’t intend to stop sharing truths, no matter how “political.” We also wanted to make clear that our institutions won’t be silent about spikes in bigotry and discrimination. You can read the full story about how #DayofFacts was born on the American Alliance of Museums Labs blog.

The following is a recap on the hashtag campaign’s successes and failures, an evaluation of its effectiveness, and a look at how cultural organizations can respond to current events in a volatile political climate. Ultimately, #DayofFacts exceeded our hopes and expectations for the organizations involved, but as a viral campaign we couldn’t control, it also sparked a lot of uninvited and ugly trolling. In the end though, we consider it a resounding success. #DayofFacts united hundreds of organizations and for many, renewed their commitment to core values. That solidarity and clarity of mission will be critical to challenging the continued assault on facts, and the budget battles to come.

The Day of the #DayofFacts
As an organized form of resistance against alternative facts, #DayofFacts quickly went viral on Twitter, and started trending by 9:30 a.m. EST; by 11 a.m. it was trending in multiple U.S. cities. It continued to trend all day, generating at least 50,000 tweets — it’s hard to say how many total, because the campaign broke the limit of our hashtag tracker by 4 p.m. By the end of the day, at least 350 organizations from 16 countries and 40 U.S. states had dropped knowledge into the social media stratosphere. You can see the full archive on Storify.

One of the most popular #DayofFacts posts, a video created by the Field Museum, was viewed 1.1 million times. #DayofFacts generated media coverage in the Chicago Sun-Times, the Washington Post, Hyperallergic, Quartz, the Huffington Post, Mashable, and even Univision, with titles like “Telling the truth is now a political act,” and “Libraries and museums team up for bold political statement: Facts are real.”

#DayofFacts posts were generally well received by the sharing institution’s online audiences. A sampling of Facebook reactions to the Field Museum video indicated their audience appreciated the statement, with some noting the political undertone:

– “One more reason why I love the Field Museum
– “Quick and easy lessons. Remember, scientific illiteracy is a public health hazard, and everything on these signs is backed by massive amount of legitimate scientific research”
– “And in the darkness of “alt-facts” and a repugnant president, the light shines through…”

Many people expressed gratitude for seeing institutions stand up for their values:

See many more positive Twitter comments here. Nearly 70% of survey respondents reported that their #DayofFacts posts received more engagement than usual, with none responding that their posts received engagement with negative sentiments. Many posts started valuable conversations online.

– “We saw a huge jump in the amount of engagement on our page from #DayofFacts. We focused our posts on immigration to our area and on many posts saw people sharing their own family stories about immigrating to the United States.” — W.K. Gordon Center for Industrial History of Texas

– “We had an overwhelmingly positive response to our involvement, and saw engagement from a couple of our fellow Chicago institutions, too. It was a great experience and we saw tremendous engagement.” — Chicago Academy of Sciences

– “Our #DayofFacts posts really resonated with people. We saw huge spikes in both engagement and followers during the day and after.” — Newberry Library

– “Sharing tweets about our previous shows and events for #DayofFacts, a number of our followers replied that they remembered and really enjoyed particular shows from our past programming. We also got a huge response…for announcing that all of our shows for 2017 will feature women.” — Wexner Center for the Arts

#DayofFacts participants came from many subject areas. Libraries and science museums were strong participants for obvious reasons, but there was a good balance, especially since Alli and I come from art museums and started our outreach efforts there. Many participants never even interacted with us, with fully a quarter of survey respondents saying they found the campaign through word of mouth.

There were negative reactions though. The truth is that by our best estimates, somewhere around 2,000 of the tens of thousands of #DayofFacts posts were actually related to the intent of the campaign. Once the hashtag went viral, it was quickly co-opted and used to share the exact kind of unverified facts we were aiming to fight. I won’t share any of those specific tweets, but a look at the #DayofFacts word cloud will give you sense.

Many people also expressed dismay at the idea that a day of facts would even be necessary.

Evaluating Success
There were legitimate concerns expressed by colleagues in advance of the campaign that felt that this was not an appropriate response to the political situation, or that it could even cause harm to our institutions by triggering funding cuts and loss of public confidence. Alli and I took these concerns very seriously, and we had our doubts too. At the same time, there weren’t many other suggestions for action beyond individual organizations issuing statements, particularly in response to the “Muslim Ban” and threats to funding. There is also new evidence suggesting that cultural organizations that don’t respond to the world around them risk losing visitors, whereas those that do respond in a mission-relevant way see a boost in reputation.

Alli and I felt strongly that a statement was warranted. Our personal feeling was that museums and other cultural organizations should assume the extreme funding cuts would come, and to prepare in advance. What right would we have to ask the public for help later if we were silent about the ways the administration’s policies were hurting our visitors?

There were also criticisms raised that museums in particular have a pretty spotty record when it comes to social justice, and have never actually been neutral institutions. Many also questioned whether a focus on facts might be problematic, given that museums should provide multiple interpretations to history. We agree wholeheartedly and discussed these issues and our approach in another AAM Labs blog post.

So can #DayofFacts still be considered a success? I say yes. Here are the original goals for the campaign:

According to emails we received and responses to our survey, #DayofFacts was deeply meaningful for many of its participants, who said they received positive feedback from their audiences and felt a sense of empowerment about being able to respond to current events in a mission-appropriate and constructive way. Many also expressed a sense of solidarity with other institutions, or feeling encouraged by seeing what their colleagues were sharing.

– “Thank you for organizing the event; it helped me push our institution to become more relevant in the stories we tell.” — W.K. Gordon Center

– “This initiative seemed very effective in underscoring our museum’s commitment to inclusiveness and integrity…The positive tone and emphasis on building public trust in our ability to provide “factual, timely, and relevant” content made it easier to participate without fear.” — Noguchi Museum

– “Through DayofFacts we were able to connect with organizations that we normally have no contact with, even some outside of our state.” — Michigan History Center

– “We previously participated in #ClimateFacts and patrons have commended us on “speaking the truth” and not being “silent.” — San Francisco Public Library

– “It was a positive and affirming way to network and show solidarity with museums and other organizations.”— Job Carr Cabin Museum

– “The event empowered my colleagues and me to take a stand for information and facts during a time when we wanted to do something but weren’t quite sure what to do.” — Gustavus Adolphus College Library

– “This was, for us, a great exercise in truth and fact-telling as we move forward in re-interpreting our complex past as a historic house museum and former country estate.” — Reynolda House Museum of American Art

– “Thank you for organizing so our collective voices could rise up and be heard. What an impact we made together.” — Riverside Art Museum

Other encouraging statistics? #DayofFacts participants were not only located in major urban areas or parts of the country considered “blue.” #DayofFacts participants also formed an international group. The vast majority were from the United States, but about 1/5 of participants were non-U.S. institutions, suggesting there is a global solidarity among educational organizations, and a shared desire to elevate the importance of facts, research, media literacy, and tolerance.

#DayofFacts participants by U.S. state (left) and country (right). Thanks for the love, New Zealand.

#DayofFacts generated a wealth of new content in addition to building on the critical work that many museums and cultural institutions are already doing. It might be “political” now to join together publicly to talk about immigration or refugee issues, but these conversations are already taking place — #DayofFacts was just another way to assert their importance. In addition to high profile actions like the MoMA rehang in response to the Muslim ban, or the Davis Museum’s Art-less initiative, many #DayofFacts participants have recently held or are planning to hold public programming related to many of the themes of the campaign:

– Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site, which recently rewrote its mission statement to remove the word “neutral,” holds an ongoing discussion series about crime, justice, and the American prison system.

– The Montreal Holocaust Museum, addition to year-round programming about genocide and human rights, recently screened a BBC documentary made by refugees (Exodus: Our Journey to Europe) and held a discussion with an expert journalist on the situation in Iraq, and a representative from UNHCR.

– Chicago Academy of Sciences is about to open a second climate change exhibit, and will host a panel about enviromental threats to Lake Michigan.

– Hayward Area Historical Society will host a panel in May of five locally based practicing Muslims to discuss what it means to be Muslim in America, Islamophobia, the challenges of ISIS, and how to be better neighbors and friends within their community.

– The Wexner Center for the Arts says, “Our organization is always concerned about current political and social topics and try to base our programming around creating conversation for these issues…we’ll continue to do that in the future and probably even more so given the political climate and also the success among our followers of initiatives such as this.

– American Alliance of Museums says, “We are always promoting museums as safe, honest spaces. We’ll be hosting Museums Advocacy Day, ongoing work around the value of museums and what they do.

– Both the Cleveland Museum of Natural History and the Field Museum say they will be participating in their local March for Science.

These are only a few examples, and that’s without even mentioning the many professionals that Alli and I have been inspired by that are leading important, self-reflective work about social justice in the museum space.

What comes next?
A glance at some of the upcoming museum conferences reveals themes of diversity and inclusion, taking action, even revolution. The New York Times’s recent annual special section on museums is devoted almost entirely to challenges faced by cultural organizations in our current political reality.

It’s worth recalling that #DayofFacts took place a month before the President released a budget blueprint calling for the elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services — effectively a direct assault on the sustainability of many of the country’s cultural institutions.

Whether we as professionals like it or not, we’re in uncharted territory. It’s not enough to “remain neutral,” (though of course nothing ever is), and we risk alienating our constituents by seeming out-of-touch or purposefully silent. Now is the time for cultural organizations to pause and re-connect to their missions, and to have the courage to stand up for those missions when they come under attack. There is a real chance that truly harmful funding cuts are coming, and the administration’s disdain for freedom of the press, science, and education will continue.

Do I think we should have another #DayofFacts? No, a) it was exhausting, and b) each institution will need to decide for themselves where they will draw their lines. But it’s obvious now that there is a real desire for action, and #DayofFacts proved that it’s both safe and empowering to assert your values publicly, especially when joined by your colleagues.

Alli and I don’t purport to have the answers for what this will look like going forward, but we know we’re in good company. I genuinely welcome your thoughts and feelings about the #DayofFacts, and what you see for cultural organizations in the future.

And if you’re a #musesocial person looking for more detailed information about the campaign and how we did it, I’m happy to chat more. Find me on Twitter @mkurlandsky.

Feel free to peruse the complete Storify of #DayofFacts and explore the original #DayofFacts mission statement and resources.

Disclaimer: I work for the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C. NMWA participated in the campaign, but was not involved in the planning; #DayofFacts was a personal project.