Tag Archives: misinformation

Who To Believe?

I just encountered an article raising the very troubling possibility that–in the absence of clearly trustworthy and widely trusted sources of information, all of us, Right and Left alike, get played–purposely or not– by people pursuing partisan agendas.

As regular readers of this blog have probably surmised, I subscribe to a wide array of publications: newspapers, magazines, newsletters and the like, representing a pretty wide swath of political opinion/argumentation. Ever since Louis DeJoy was named Postmaster General, I have gotten regular “warnings” from a Democratic organization insisting that DeJoy is busily privatizing the Postal Service, and asserting that–among other nefarious things– he had interfered with delivery of election materials in order to help Trump. More recently,  those emails have been asking me to sign petitions “demanding” that Biden instruct his postal board appointees to fire DeJoy.

Those emails did raise a question: What was the holdup? Why was this Trumper still there?

Then I came across this lengthy  and apparently well-researched article from Time Magazine, titled “Louis DeJoy’s Surprising Second Act.” It included a fairly “deep dive” into several of those accusations.

DeJoy may be best known as the Trump-era GOP megadonor the left accused of meddling with mail-in voting to subvert the 2020 election. But by the time Schumer called him on that frigid winter night, DeJoy was on his way to convincing congressional Republicans—120 in the House and 29 in the Senate—to buy into a lengthy Democratic wish list of postal reforms. When President Joe Biden signed the landmark legislation into law two months later, it guaranteed a union-friendly version of six-day mail service and stabilized health coverage for the 650,000 USPS employees. “There’s no way we could have gotten [the] votes without Louis DeJoy,” says Jim Sauber, the chief of staff for the National Association of Letter Carriers at the time. “That’s for sure.”…

But to the astonishment of many in Washington, the man Democrats once denounced as a threat to American democracy has become one of their most important allies in government. Defying the far right, he delivered more than 500 million COVID-19 test kits to Americans in the winter of 2022. Crossing conservatives last December, he agreed to transition the Postal Service’s entire fleet to electric vehicles by 2026. DeJoy’s capstone collaboration with Democrats was the Postal Service Reform Act, which is arguably the most bipartisan piece of major legislation in the Biden era, drawing 10 more GOP Senate votes than the $1 trillion infrastructure bill.

According to the article, the postal unions and the Biden-appointed Democratic majority on the agency’s Board of Governors have bought into DeJoy’s plans, although members of Congress who don’t want to see rate increases continue to object.

DeJoy had been active in GOP politics for many years, and was certainly no “Never Trumper,” but he insists that Trump wasn’t involved in hiring him.

“I swear on my mother’s life, the President had nothing to do with it,” DeJoy says. “He didn’t know anything about it. I would never even think to tell him before I had a decision, because who knows what he could do with his tweets!”

The article is lengthy, and goes into detailed explanations of the various accusations about politically-motivated chicanery. You should read it yourself, and decide whether you find this far more nuanced reporting more convincing than the generalized accusations made in those periodic emails.

I am not posting this in an effort to convince readers one way or the other; my concerns are–once again–focused on the information environment we inhabit. I will readily admit that, given my own political orientation, I simply accepted the accuracy of the allegations contained in those emails. (In my own defense, until I came across the linked article, I hadn’t seen reason to doubt them.)

Any fair-minded observer of America’s current political scene will conclude that most misrepresentations come from the Right. There’s Fox “News,” the Big Lie, the various conspiracy theories, QAnon insanity, the all-out war on a “wokeness” its enemies can’t define...but those of us who are waging our own war against propaganda need to acknowledge that not everything that emerges from “our side” of the political spectrum is worthy of uncritical acceptance.

Until I have evidence that Time Magazine disseminates misinformation, I am inclined to trust its reporting, and revise my opinion of DeJoy. But the larger and far more troubling conclusion to be drawn from this clash of “alternative facts” is that it is increasingly difficult for Americans to know who and what to believe and who and what to discount.

Social cohesion requires trust. A fundamental problem of our times is that we don’t know who or what we can trust. No wonder conspiracy theories are so rampant.



Misinformation Matters

A good friend of ours, originally from Canada, left his faculty position in Indianapolis and moved to Ottawa to assume a position as President and CEO of the Council of Canadian Academies, or CCA.

Knowing my preoccupation with media and misinformation, he has shared some intriguing research from an expert panel appointed by the CCA. That research delved into the effects of misinformation on science and health, going beyond the typical hand-wringing over the extent of misinformation and its potential harms, and looking instead at the nature and extent of quantifiable damage done by widespread dissemination of patently wrong information.

As a news release explained

Considerable and mounting evidence shows that misinformation has led to illness and death from unsafe interventions and products, vaccine preventable diseases, and a lack of adherence to public health measures, with the most vulnerable populations bearing the greatest burden. The Expert Panel on the Socioeconomic Impacts of Science and Health Misinformation estimates that misinformation cost the Canadian healthcare system at least $300 million during nine months of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021.

While combatting misinformation is a complex and long-term challenge, the report details several measures that have shown promise. Ensuring that accurate health and science information is widely accessible and is communicated honestly, understandably, and by trusted messengers can help insulate people from misinformation. Identifying, labelling, and debunking misinformation can also be effective, as are measures that better equip individuals to sort through the increasingly complex information environment, particularly the promotion of critical thinking and media and science literacy in school curricula.

You can access the entire report here.Some of the findings struck me as particularly significant, especially the description of when, why and how people come to accept what the panel calls “misinformation” and I would probably label conspiracy theories and lies.

Misinformation is designed to appeal to emotion and–as the report notes–intended to exploit our “cognitive shortcuts.” We are all susceptible to it, especially in times of crisis.

Science and health misinformation damages our community well-being through otherwise preventable illnesses, deaths, and economic losses, and our social well-being through polarization and the erosion of public trust. These harms often fall most heavily on the most vulnerable.

The research found a number of outcomes directly attributable to the spread and acceptance of misinformation; they included: Illness, poisoning, and death from unsafe health interventions and products; Illness and death from communicable and vaccine-preventable diseases; money wasted on disproven products and services; susceptibility to further and potentially more insidious forms of misinformation; increased healthcare and societal costs; and Inaction on or delay of public policy responses.

Misinformation contributes to a lack of adherence to public health measures and to vaccine hesitancy, which can result in vaccine-preventable disease outbreaks, increased healthcare costs, and elevated risk to the health and well-being of vulnerable populations. Misinformation also amplifies social divisions, which have resulted in overt conflict and violence, often directed at racialized communities. Furthermore, the consequences of science and health misinformation are not borne equally — for instance, negative health impacts during the COVID-19 pandemic have been found to disproportionately affect the well-being of racialized and other underserved communities, exacerbating existing inequalities.

Where possible, panel members put numbers to these generalized descriptions, estimating that widely circulated misinformation about COVID-19 had cost the Canadian healthcare system “at least $300 million in hospital and ICU visits between March 1 and November 30, 2021.” That number did not include the costs of outpatient medication, physician compensation, or long COVID.

And for obvious reasons, the panel was unable to estimate what it called “broader societal costs.” Those included such difficult-to-quantify effects as “delayed elective surgeries, social unrest, moral injury to healthcare workers, and the uneven distribution of harms borne by communities.”

The negative consequences of misinformation are–obviously–not confined to citizens of Canada. In the absence of credible, trustworthy information that is widely trusted and accepted, it proliferates. In the U.S., political data confirms the harm: the MAGA folks who rejected vaccination (evidently believing it to be some sort of nefarious liberal plot) died of COVID in far larger numbers than the independents and Democrats who trusted the science.

The question is: what can be done to counter the confusion and reduce the damage sowed by purveyors of propaganda and inaccurate information? One answer is clearly education, especially science education.  (That conclusion supports concerns over the metastasizing  voucher programs that are sending students to private, predominantly religious schools–many of which have been found to teach creationism in lieu of science).

When citizens don’t inhabit the same evidence-based reality, both individual and social health are compromised–sometimes fatally.


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.


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!)