You Are What You Read…

Remember when nutritionists admonished us with the phrase “you are what you eat”? A recent report from Harvard’s Kennedy school has modernized it, warning that–in our era of pervasive propaganda and misinformation–we are what we read (or otherwise access).

The study explored the media consumption of participants, and the degree to which the unreliability of that media left them with inaccurate beliefs about COVID-19 and vaccination. The researchers found that “the average bias and reliability of participants’ media consumption are significant predictors of their perceptions of false claims about COVID-19 and vaccination.”

I know–your first thought was “duh.” Did we really need a study showing that people who depend on garbage media believe ridiculous things? Wouldn’t logic tell us that?

Still, what seems self-evident can often prove less than conclusive, so confirmation of that logic in a rigorous study is important. In addition, the study confirmed politically-relevant differences in media consumption and credulity between Republicans and Democrats.

Here’s their summary of the study:

  • We surveyed 3,276 U.S. adults, applying Ad Fontes Media’s (2023) ratings of media bias and reliability to measure these facets of participants’ preferred news sources. We also probed their perceptions of inaccurate claims about COVID-19 and vaccination.
  • We found participants who tend to vote for Democrats—on average—consume less biased and more reliable media than those who tend to vote for Republicans. We found these (left-leaning) participants’ media reliability moderates the relationship between their media’s bias and their degree of holding false beliefs about COVID-19 and vaccination.
  • Unlike left-leaning media consumers, right-leaning media consumers’ misinformed beliefs seem largely unaffected by their news sources’ degree of (un)reliability. 
  • This study introduces and investigates a novel means of measuring participants’ selected news sources: employing Ad Fontes’s (2023) media bias and media reliability ratings. It also suggests the topic of COVID-19, among many other scientific fields of recent decades, has fallen prey to the twin risks of a politicized science communication environment and accompanying group-identity-aligned stances so often operating in the polarized present. 

The researchers found that the news-seeking and news-avoiding behaviors of the participants confirmed “the longstanding concern that those who embrace—and subsequently seek out—misinformation, even if inadvertently, constitute a group at risk of endangering their own and others’ health.”

In a country sharply divided along partisan lines, the implications rather obviously go further.

As any student of history–especially the history of journalism–can attest, America has always produced biased sources of information. What is different now, thanks to the Internet and social media, is its ubiquity–and greatly increased political motivation to seek out confirmatory “information.”

Other studies tell us that people who want to believe X do not necessarily change their belief in X when confronted with evidence that X is inaccurate. The Harvard study found that anti-vaccine attitudes were “tenacious and challenging to counter, unyielding to evidence, and bolstered by persuasive anti-vaccine messaging—which is not difficult to find and immerse oneself in. In the COVID-19 context, several identity groups appear to have engaged in this immersion.”

Some research has suggested that confrontation with contrary facts can lead to what is called a “backfire effect,” causing people to double down and become even more stubborn in their original beliefs. (Facebook found, for example, that warning users that an article was false caused people to share that article even more.) Other research has suggested that fact-checking, if done properly, can often successfully correct misperceptions. But…

First, facts and scientific evidence are not the most powerful and easy way to encourage people to abandon false or inaccurate beliefs and perspectives. Second, people embrace fake news, misinformation and disinformation because of their beliefs, even if they can be proven wrong, exercising, in many cases, a demonstration of tribal loyalty. Third, engaging in a dialogue in a non-threatening manner to avoid defense mechanisms from activating with personal stories has a greater likelihood of success.

Even when encounters with the facts might actually cause a reconsideration, it turns out that the algorithms used by social media platforms increasingly shield users from information they might find uncongenial. Those “likes” we register act as guidelines used to feed us more of the posts we’ll “like,” and shield us from contrary perspectives or facts that might debunk our preferred prejudices.

And now, the deepfakes are coming.

On the one hand, several sites are available that evaluate the credibility of the sources we consult. On the other hand, no one can force people to visit those sites or believe their ratings.

it has never been easier to avoid uncongenial realities and evade critical thinking…..


The “Clean Hands” Posturers

As political campaigns proceed toward November, I become more and more terrified. It isn’t simply at the Presidential level–although the prospect of giving a stark raving lunatic access to the nuclear codes does, among other things, keep me up at night. Even a superficial acquaintance with the antics of the MAGA know-nothings in Congress and their peers in Red state legislatures is incredibly depressing.

November will tell the tale. Will sensible Americans reject the party of out-and-proud theocrats and culture warriors running for state and federal offices? Here in Indiana, the GOP–in thrall to the lunatic– is running candidates for state office who would have been unthinkable even to the right wing of the party just a few years ago.

It’s not just Beckwith.

Lots of sensible Hoosiers will never learn of the outrageous positions held by Braun, Banks and Rokita, thanks to our current information environment. And some segment–small, but arguably important–will adopt what Tom Nichols has accurately dubbed the “Clean Hands” posture. These are the “holier than thou” voters who recognize that Trump is completely unfit for office and will not vote for him—yet will not vote to stop him.

Bill Barr comes to mind, as does Nikki Haley. Barr is a true believer, and Haley is a shallow opportunist, but both are pillars of courage next to Republicans such as Paul Ryan, Chris Christie, and John Bolton, the supposed guardians of the guardrails who have made the case against Trump but have also vowed not to vote for either Trump or Joe Biden. (Bolton has said that he will write in Dick Cheney.) Even former Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, a more moderate Republican now running for a Senate seat, has said that he will write in a “symbolic vote that states my dissatisfaction with where the party is.”

It isn’t simply these political insiders who are posturing about the “morality” of their votes. As Nichols notes,

I am aware of all the arguments people make in favor of protest votes, and about how no one should have to mark the box for a candidate they don’t like. In a normal political year, I might even buy some of them. If you genuinely think that Trump and Biden are exact political isomers of each other—symmetrical in their badness and differing only in style—then not voting for either of them makes sense at least in theory, because you are in effect saying that you don’t think anything will really change either way.

But anyone with even half a brain knows that–between Biden and Trump–there is zero equivalence.

Biden is a typical (and relatively moderate center-left) American president, and the Jimmy Clean Hands Republicans know that outside MAGA world, they would sound pusillanimous if they started mumbling about egg prices and diversity training programs while Trump is threatening to attack the Constitution, release insurrectionists from prison, and use the government to get revenge on his personal enemies.

In the end, the Clean Hands position encourages people to think that their vote really does not matter, other than as a solipsistic expression of personal dissatisfaction. It indulges the narcissistic fantasy that on Election Day, a town crier will say, “1 million votes for Biden, 1 million and one votes for Trump, and one admirable vote for Ronald Reagan. We all want to thank you for your deeply principled stand. And it’s not your fault that Trump won the state.”

As Nichols reminds us, the reality is that only one of these men will emerge with the codes to the U.S. nuclear arsenal. And he ends with a statement that every one of us ought to take seriously:

Personally, I vote as if my vote is the deciding ballot. I know it isn’t, of course, but it focuses my mind and makes me take the civic duty of voting seriously. People have given their lives for my right to stand in that booth, and when American democracy is facing a clear and existential threat, their sacrifice deserves something more than the selfish calculations of the Jimmy Clean Hands caucus.

No sane voter thinks that Jill Stein or JFK, Jr. is going to win the Presidency. A vote for one of the “spoiler” candidates is a mark of moral cowardice–a refusal to acknowledge that no candidate, of either party, is faultless–or even close– and that our duty as citizens is not to clutch our pearls and posture, but to choose between the alternatives genuinely on offer.

And anyone who thinks Joe Biden and Donald Trump are remotely close to equivalent ought to see a psychiatrist.


Misinformation And The Economy

I recently had coffee with one of the smartest political scientists I know. Given his knowledge and access to data, I hoped he’d provide me with comfort about our upcoming election. He did share his reasons for being cautiously optimistic, but he also shared his distress over the magnitude of disinformation and the credulity of far too many Americans. 

He then said something that set my hair on fire: “If Trump wins, it will be the last real election we have.” This time, he’ll be surrounded by fanatics who know what they’re doing.

We are barreling toward the most important election in my lifetime, and the “chattering classes’ are already making predictions, based largely on elements that have affected political choices in more traditional times. Primary among those is the state of the economy, so Joe Biden should be riding high. But he isn’t–thanks to  the overwhelming amount of misinformation emanating from Faux News and other propaganda sites. The propaganda has convinced large numbers of citizens that what they see with their own eyes isn’t representative of the larger society.

The Atlantic recently addressed this situation in an article titled “U.S. Economy Reaches Superstar Status. No, really.”

If the United States’ economy were an athlete, right now it would be peak LeBron James. If it were a pop star, it would be peak Taylor Swift. Four years ago, the pandemic temporarily brought much of the world economy to a halt. Since then, America’s economic performance has left other countries in the dust and even broken some of its own records. The growth rate is high, the unemployment rate is at historic lows, household wealth is surging, and wages are rising faster than costs, especially for the working class. There are many ways to define a good economy. America is in tremendous shape according to just about any of them.

The American public doesn’t feel that way—a dynamic that many people, including me, have recently tried to explain. But if, instead of asking how people feel about the economy, we ask how it’s objectively performing, we get a very different answer.

The article points out that America’s current economic-growth rate is the envy of the world–that between the end of 2019 to the end of 2023, GDP grew by 8.2 percent, which was “nearly twice as fast as Canada’s, three times as fast as the European Union’s, and more than eight times as fast as the United Kingdom’s.” During the past year, others– some of them among the world’s largest– have fallen into recession, complete with mass layoffs and angry street protests. That included Germany and Japan.

The article analyzes people’s buying power over time. Since 1947, prices have increased by 1,400 percent. That sounds terrifying–except that incomes have increased by 2,400 percent over that same period. And thanks in no small measure to Biden’s focus on “growing the middle out,” several analysts have found that “from the end of 2019 to the end of 2023, the lowest-paid decile of workers saw their wages rise four times faster than middle-class workers and more than 10 times faster than the richest decile.”

 Wage gains at the bottom, they found, have been so steep that they have erased a full third of the rise in wage inequality between the poorest and richest workers over the previous 40 years. This finding holds even when you account for the fact that lower-income Americans tend to spend a higher proportion of their income on the items that have experienced the largest price increases in recent years, such as food and gas. “We haven’t seen a reduction in wage inequality like this since the 1940s,” Dube told me.

The unemployment rate has been at or below 4 percent for more than two years, the longest streak since the 1960s. 

The article has much more data–all positive–and its findings have recently been echoed by the World Bank, which says the U.S. economy is the envy of the world. As the linked story from the Washington Post reports,

While Americans’ unhappiness with high prices remains a key vulnerability for President Biden’s reelection bid, the World Bank now expects the U.S. economy to grow at an annual rate of 2.5 percent, nearly a full percentage point higher than it predicted in January. The United States is the only advanced economy growing significantly faster than the bank anticipated at the start of the year.

The excellent performance of the economy should lift Democratic prospects–but the propaganda war has been effective, especially with the low-information voters who (as still other studies confirm) are most likely to support Trump.

The only good news is that these low-information folks are also the least likely to vote. We can hope….


How Red is Indiana?

Wow…Just wow.

At the party’s convention on Saturday, Hoosier Republicans rebuffed their gubernatorial candidate’s choice of a lieutenant governor candidate in favor of an out-and-out, well-known Christian Nationalist–despite the fact that Braun, the gubernatorial candidate, had prevailed upon Trump to endorse his less-known-to-be looney choice.

The victory of Micah Beckwith exposed both the current rifts in the party and the degree to which the party faithful have succumbed to extremist culture war and Rightwing grievance.

The GOP’s choice led to yet another “schism”–this time, in my family. While all of us find Pastor Beckwith horrifying, we’re split on whether his selection really reflects the beliefs and bigotries of Indiana citizens. My youngest son thinks this extreme culture warrior is “in sync” with Hoosier voters; I believe his addition to an already terrifyingly extreme GOP ticket will hurt Republicans in November. (My son says he desperately wants to lose our bet on this issue, but he long ago lost faith in Indiana’s electorate.)

What do we know of Pastor Beckwith’s ideology?

We can begin with his statement that his choice by the delegates was “divinely inspired.” Presumably, he is confident that he is God’s choice…Indeed, Beckwith has been a constant voice for his rather unique views of “godliness.” He relishes the fight against “wokeness” and “woke indoctrination”–by which he means genuine education, efforts at inclusion or support for a social safety net–not to mention hysterical opposition to reproductive choice, women’s rights and–of course– church-state separation.

He also opposes freedom to read. Beckwith’s previous public service was as a member of the Hamilton East library board, where his efforts to censor hundreds of books generated a huge blowback from local citizens and triggered an eventual return to previous library policies.

I’m unsure how any of these extreme culture war preoccupations equip him for a position tasked with increasing tourism (!) and supporting agriculture…

Beckwith may be the most extreme example of the state GOP’s lurch to a very unAmerican far right, but he really does fit well with the rest of a state ticket on which Braun is arguably the least scary, which is really saying something. (He at least gives occasional nods toward sanity.) I have posted numerous times about Jim Banks--aka “Focus on the Family’s Man in Washington”–whose culture war positions include support for a national ban on abortion with zero exceptions, unremitting attacks on education, support for permitless carry (because that’s so “pro-life”…) and vicious assaults on trans children, among others.

I’ve posted even more frequently about Todd Rokita, the current occupant of the Attorney General’s office. Rokita has taken every possible opportunity to pander to the far Right of the Republican Party, most (in)famously in his vendetta against the doctor who performed an abortion on a ten-year-old rape victim, charging her with improprieties he knew to be false. He has subordinated his duties as AG to participation in national litigation brought by Rightwing AGs from other Red states, been chastised by the state’s Supreme Court (members of which were selected by Republican governors), and routinely acted in ways to embarrass not just Indiana, but the entire legal profession.

This slate of candidates makes outgoing conservative Republican Governor Holcomb look leftwing by comparison.

So–here we are. As I have previously noted, in November, Indiana voters will choose between a statewide slate of three talented and accomplished women whose credentials are appropriate for the jobs they seek, and whose positions on the issues are mainstream and sensible, and a collection of out-and-proud MAGA misogynists and theocrats. This won’t be an election in which differences are minor. Unlike so many elections in Indiana, it also won’t be an election affected by gerrymandering–even Hoosier Republicans can’t gerrymander a statewide race.

If you agree that most Indiana citizens reject the Neanderthal positions of these misogynist theocrats, you should send McCormick, McCrae and the eventual Democratic AG candidate a few dollars each–giving them the wherewithal to inform Indiana’s voters that Braun, Beckwith, Banks and Rokita are nothing like Indiana’s traditional Republicans.

As my students might have put it– these are scary dudes, and Indiana’s voting public needs to understand just how scary they are.

These four men all reject America’s constitutional values, and I  refuse to believe they reflect the values of Hoosier voters. Despite my son’s contrary views, I am convinced that these “Christian warriors” will only win if the Democrats lack the resources to expose them for what they are: the Christian Taliban.


An Excellent idea

As I’ve consistently pointed out, those of us who are concerned–okay, frantic–about the state of democracy in contemporary America need to do more than share our gloom with others on social media. We need advice about specific steps that would help ameliorate the situation.

Recently, I offered two sets of specifics: one, by Jennifer Rubin, enumerated what journalists ought to be doing (although logic tells me that most established media outlets will ignore those recommendations, it’s important that citizens recognize deviations from best practices). The other was my own attempt to suggest steps each of us can take.

Today’s post focuses on advice to educational institutions–especially universities, although it might be possible to adapt the recommended program for high school seniors. I came across it in a column by E.J. Dionne, who tells us about a program at a “small, distinguished college that has provided a model that other universities should study and adapt.”

Since 2008, Occidental College in Los Angeles has offered students a chance to join a “Campaign Semester,” in which they dedicate themselves to a political campaign of their choice in presidential and midterm years. Students spend 10 weeks working their hearts out in the field and then the rest of the semester reflecting on what they learned and engaging in the academic study of elections.

The program is the creation of Peter Dreier, an Occidental professor for more than 30 years who spent much of his pre-academic life in federal, state and local politics. Along with professor Regina Freer, Dreier supervises students’ independent study projects and runs the seminar they join after their return to campus.
Its origin owes a lot to former president Barack Obama, who attended Occidental before transferring to Columbia University. Obama’s 2008 campaign inspired a lot of young people, especially Oxy’s students, many of whom approached Dreier to learn how they might work on the campaign.

Dreier suggested they take a semester off, as he did to work on Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 presidential effort, but quickly discovered that parents and many students were committed to a four-year college schedule. Campaign Semester was born out of a desire to square this circle.

The program allows students to work for either party, but they have to get involved in a contested race–one where the campaign itself will matter and especially one in which students will have to engage citizens with views very different from their own.

The process, Dreier said, requires learning “the skills that it takes to talk to people that you don’t agree with and persuading them.” Paradoxically, perhaps, partisan campaigns might have a better shot than universities at teaching the need to reach beyond comfort zones.

Dionne quoted one student who participated in the program’s first class and had volunteered for Obama’s 2008 campaign, calling her “a starring example of the program’s impact.” That student is now a state representative in Minnesota. “The nuances of policy can be learned in the classroom,” she said, “but the heart of politics — building a shared vision for improving people’s lives — can only be learned out in the field.”

As someone who spent 20+ years teaching university students about policy, I can echo this sentiment. Even in classrooms with students who have different political opinions, forging “shared visions” rarely occurs. Students can be taught to be civil and courteous about their differences, they can be introduced to the considerable technical concerns that policymakers face (and about which they are too often clueless), but those lessons take place in an environment far removed from the day-to- day realities of a political campaign, where getting your candidate’s message out requires a campaign plan geared to the constituency, the recruitment of volunteers, and funding sufficient to allow communication with voters.

Furthermore, much as it pains me to admit, most elections aren’t won or lost on the basis of policy disputes. (Thanks to the Supreme Court and the Dobbs decision, the upcoming election may well be the exception that proves that rule, but only because of the enormous negative effect of that decision). Some combination of a candidate’s persona–charisma, openness, even looks–will play a significant role. These days, partisan passions and grievances matter even more. Unfortunately, American elections aren’t academic debates in which logic and realistic self-interest compel a voter’s support.

Those realities about the democratic process simply cannot be communicated in a college classroom. Internships with campaigns can help, but relatively few students participate in such internships.

Dionne is right–Occidental’s program should be widely replicated.