When I was in elementary school in the 1970s, my parents loved to watch a news analysis TV show called the MacNeil/Lehrer Report. I thought it was one of the most boring experiences on Earth.  I just didn’t understand how people could take five minutes to answer the simplest question, like, “Should we expect gas prices to continue to rise this summer?” Either gas prices would rise or they wouldn’t. It was a simple question, I complained to my parents, so why couldn’t the people on the TV just give a simple answer – “yes” or “no” – and move on?

This January, NBC journalist Chuck Todd voiced a similar frustration. On Jan. 22, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer had declared that “This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration – period – both in person and around the globe.” When Todd challenged President Trump’s spokesperson Kellyanne Conway on this point, a new catchphrase was born:

Todd: You did not answer the question of why the president asked the White House press secretary to come out in front of the podium for the first time and utter a falsehood? Why did he do that? It undermines the credibility of the entire White House press office on day one.

Conway: No, it doesn’t. Don’t be so overly dramatic about it, Chuck. What you’re saying is a falsehood. And they’re giving Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts to that. But the point remains …

Todd: Wait a minute. Alternative facts? Alternative facts? Four of the five facts he uttered, the one thing he got right was Zeke Miller. Four of the five facts he uttered were just not true. Look, alternative facts are not facts. They’re falsehoods.

Quickly, the term “alternative fact” became synonymous in political discussion with “falsehood,” or as Portland Press Herald columnist Bill Nemitz put it, a downright lie.

Falsehood? Lie? I’m not sure that’s fair.

Critics of Spicer and Conway have pointed to National Park Service pictures to document very clearly that the size of the crowd assembled on the National Mall for Donald Trump’s inauguration was smaller than the size of the crowds assembled for Barack Obama’s 2009 and 2013 inaugurations. If crowd size is the basis for assessing the “largest audience to ever witness an inauguration,” then what Spicer asserted and Conway defended is not true.

But there is an alternative explanation. Notice that Spicer’s statement doesn’t limit itself to those “in person” in the DC crowd but also refers to those “around the globe,” watching and listening not only on TV but also “around the globe.” Internet use has quickly accelerated in recent years, and according to Akamai Technologies online, viewing of the Trump inauguration broke records.

Columnist Doug Collie declares of the issue, “A fact is a fact; there are no alternatives.” But when we disagree with the standard for measuring a fact, alternatives do exist.

If I could reach back and talk to my childhood self, I’d explain that’s why serious conversations rarely end with a simple “yes” or “no.”

James Cook has been a professor of social science at the University of Maine at Augusta since 2011. Dr. Cook’s primary areas of interest in research and teaching are political organizations, social networks, and social media, specifically applying social network theory to social media in the Maine State Legislature.

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