Tag Archives: misinformation

Can Digital Democracy Ever Work?

Is there really something fundamentally different between digital/social media and the traditional press? The Brookings Institution thinks so, positing that the recent Brexit vote in England arguably represents “the first major casualty of the ascent of digital democracy over representative democracy.”

Many technology optimists have assumed that globalization would lead to the democratization of information and decision-making, and also greater cosmopolitanism. Citizens would be better informed, less likely to be silenced, and able to communicate their views more effectively to their leaders. They would also have greater empathy and understanding of other peoples the more they lived next to them, visited their countries, read their news, communicated, and did business with them. Or so the thinking went.

It is hard to dispute the authors’ contention that this world of enhanced democratic decision-making has failed to materialize.

Instead, digital democracy — the ability to receive information in almost real time through mass media and to make one’s voice heard through social media — has contributed to polarization, gridlock, dissatisfaction and misinformation.

In our “post-fact world,” thanks to social media and the internet, a lie (or–as the article notes– “better yet a half-lie) if told enough times becomes truth.”

A third result of digital democracy…is the political echo chamber. Social media, rather than creating connections with people who possess differing views and ideologies, tends to reinforce prejudices. As the psychologist Nicholas DiFonzo has noted, “Americans across the political spectrum tend to trust the news media (and ‘facts’ provided by the media) less than their own social group.” This makes it easier for views and rumours to circulate and intensify within like-minded groups. Similar digital gerrymandering was evident in the EU Referendum in Britain and the polarization is palpable in the Indian online political space.

Finally, instant information has increased the theatricality of politics. With public statements and positions by governments, political parties and individual leaders now broadcast to constituents in real time, compromise, a necessary basis of good governance, has become more difficult. When portrayed as a betrayal of core beliefs, compromise often amounts to political suicide. Political grandstanding also contributes to legislative gridlock, with elected representatives often resorting to walkoutssit-ins, or insults — all manufactured for maximum viral effect — instead of trying to reach solutions behind closed doors. Even as ease of travel allows legislators to spend more time in their constituencies, making them more sensitized to their constituents’ concerns, less gets done at the national or supranational level. It is a trend that, once again, applies equally to the United StatesEurope, and India.

The unintended consequences of digital democracy — misinformation and discontent, polarization and gridlock — mean that the boundary between politician and troll is blurring. The tone of democratic politics increasingly reflects that of anonymous online discourse: nasty, brutish, and short. And successful politicians are increasingly those who are able to take advantage of the resulting sentiments. Exploiting divisions, appealing to base instincts, making outlandish claims, resorting to falsehoods, and pooh-poohing details and expertise.

“Exploiting divisions, appealing to base instincts, making outlandish claims, resorting to falsehoods, and pooh-poohing details and expertise”…  certainly describes Donald Trump.

When I was a new lawyer, the partner for whom I was doing most of my work had a saying: “There’s only one legal question, and that’s what do we do?”

If it is difficult to argue with the Brookings critique of digital democracy–and it is–his question becomes not just pertinent, but critical. What do we do?

What can we do?

The Age of Propaganda?

The Program on International Policy Attitudes is a respected source for international opinion research. In the wake of the 2010 U.S. elections, it conducted a survey of voters, first looking to see those voters’ perceptions of how much misinformation was “out there,” and second, to determine just how misinformed voters actually were.

Unsurprisingly,

The poll found strong evidence that voters were substantially misinformed on many of the key issues of the campaign. Such misinformation was correlated with how people voted and their exposure to various news sources.

The website links to the questionnaire and the results, which are well worth reading, but here are some of the most consequential inaccuracies:

  • Though the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) concluded that the stimulus legislation has saved or created 2.0-5.2 million jobs, only 8% of voters thought most economists who had studied it concluded that the stimulus legislation had created or saved several million jobs. Most (68%) believed that economists estimate that it only created or saved a few jobs and 20% even believed that it resulted in job losses.
  • Though the CBO concluded that the health reform law would reduce the budget deficit, 53% of voters thought most economists have concluded that health reform will increase the deficit.
  • Though the Department of Commerce says that the US economy began to recover from recession in the third quarter of 2009 and has continued to grow since then, only 44% of voters thought the economy is starting to recover, while 55% thought the economy is still getting worse.
  • Though the National Academy of Sciences has concluded that climate change is occurring, 45% of voters thought most scientists think climate change is not occurring (12%) or that scientists are evenly divided (33%).

Incredibly, 86% of respondents thought taxes had gone up since 2009, although they’d actually gone down. Such is the power of propaganda.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to note the source of most of this misinformation. While there are certainly no truth-telling heros among cable news sources,

Those who watched Fox News almost daily were significantly more likely than those who never watched it to believe that most economists estimate the stimulus caused job losses (8 points more likely), most economists have estimated the health care law will worsen the deficit (31 points), the economy is getting worse (26 points), most scientists do not agree that climate change is occurring (30 points), the stimulus legislation did not include any tax cuts (14 points), their own income taxes have gone up (14 points), the auto bailout only occurred under Obama (13 points), when TARP came up for a vote most Republicans opposed it (12 points) and that it is not clear that Obama was born in the United States (31 points).

The effect was also not simply a function of partisan bias, as people who voted Democratic and watched Fox News were also more likely to have such misinformation than those who did not watch it–though by a lesser margin than those who voted Republican.

In a country with freedom of speech, the only way to counter propaganda is with credible information,  persistent rebuttals of intentional misinformation, and an unflagging effort to make people understand when the emperor is naked.

We all need to participate in that effort–debunking Fox, certainly, but also being sure we aren’t giving a pass to sources that may be telling us what we want to hear.

 

Chickens and Eggs

Chris Mooney has written several books about science–or more accurately, the rejection of science by conservative Republicans. His most recent book is The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science and Reality.

While Mooney has an obvious political perspective, his analysis of the role of media–and specifically, Fox News, is interesting.

Mooney reviews a number of peer-reviewed studies looking at the connection between political misinformation and media preferences–public information surveys that ask citizens about their beliefs on factual issues and their media habits. It won’t come as a revelation that people who depend exclusively or primarily on Fox News are far and away the most misinformed. The more interesting question, however, is whether Fox creates a particular mind-set, or whether people with that mind-set seek out Fox and similar sources.

Is Fox the chicken or the egg?

Mooney cites a 1957 seminal book by Leon Festinger, A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. That book predicted that people who are highly committed to a belief would try to avoid encountering claims that challenge that belief. Rather, they would seek out “information” that confirmed their preconceptions.

This was well before the internet facilitated the construction of such information “bubbles.”

Festinger called his prediction theory “selective exposure.” Today, we more often refer to it as “self-selection.”

A recent meta-analysis of 67 studies by a University of Alabama psychologist found that people overall were nearly twice as likely to “consume ideologically congenial information than to consume ideologically inconvenient information”–and that the most “highly committed” people were far more likely to do so.

According to the research, people most likely to be among this “highly committed” category are right-wing authoritarian personalities.

So while we do have examples that Fox News “makes shit up”–a practice that distinguishes the network from networks like MSNBC that “spin” facts to favor a political perspective but generally refrain from manufacturing them–the chicken and egg question remains.

Are people who get all their information from Fox being indoctrinated, or do they watch Fox because they are looking for confirmation of their pre-existing ideological commitments?

Of course, no matter what the answer to that question, there’s another: if Fox–and Rush, and Drudge, etc.–didn’t exist, would America still be so polarized? Or did our polarization lead to the creation of Fox, Drudge, et al?

Chicken? Egg? I report–you decide! (Sorry–couldn’t resist!)