US anger and divisiveness blamed on ‘Truth Decay’
Governing is impossible when opinion and anecdote obscure fact and analysis. Punditry and opinion-based news have replaced hard-news journalism
What is it like to live in the United States today? Let’s take a look at the happenings of the past two weeks. On June 20 actor Peter Fonda encouraged Americans to “rip Barron Trump – a 12-year-old boy who may be autistic – from his mother’s arms and put him in a cage with pedophiles.”
Fonda’s exhortation followed a press conference in which President Donald Trump compared Hispanic women and children illegally crossing the border to “insects.”
Cheered on by other celebrities including Nancy Sinatra, Fonda then called White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders “a c**t” and urged his social media following to take to the streets in protest.
The following day demonstrators yelling “shame, shame, shame” drove Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kristjen Nielsen from a Washington restaurant and then gathered outside her home to shout obscenities. Nielsen’s voluntary retreat was quickly followed by the forced expulsion mid-appetizer of Sanders by a Virginia restaurant owner who deemed her insufficiently supportive of LGBTQ rights.
With tensions bubbling, California Congressman Maxine Waters spiced the pot with more invective by suggesting: “If you see anybody from that (Trump) cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station, you get out and push back on them. And you tell them they’re not welcome anymore, anywhere.”
Asked two days later in a television interview if she really was advocating harassing Trump Administration officials, the South Los Angeles Democrat said “the president deserves a bit of profanity,” adding “the people are going to turn on them, they are going to protest, they are going to absolutely harass them.”
Nobody expects measured debate from Donald Trump, who responds to criticism with boorish insults. But the president’s sophomoric eruptions are less threatening to public behavior than the recent tweet of former CIA Director Michael Hayden, who posted a photo of Auschwitz in response to family separations along the Mexican border.
What is happening in America is often described as the erosion of civil discourse, but the effects of the country’s polarization go far beyond the demise of polite conversation. Neither in Red America nor the States of Resistance is it possible to calmly discuss public policy. Disagreement over facts appears to be greater than ever.
Opinions are over-whelming facts in the media and Americans are placing less faith in institutions that were once trusted sources of information. This shift away from facts and data in political debate and policy decisions weakens key institutions and diminishes public trust in science, health and financial policy.
California’s Rand Corporation, a research organization that develops solutions to public policy challenges, says America is suffering from “Truth Decay,” a phenomenon, says Rand in a 326-page report, that is caused in part by the rise in social media, which dramatically increases the volume and speed of information flow, as well as the relative volume of opinion over fact.
“Federal agencies, Congress and even state and local executive and legislative bodies also play a role by not keeping promises or spinning facts to the point of fiction,” writes Rand CEO Michael D. Rich, who along with political scientist Jennifer Kavanagh authored the report. Foreign actors, say the authors, also blur the line between opinion and fact by disseminating false information.
Truth Decay has serious real-world consequences. Recent attacks on vaccines are almost entirely based on false information, Rand insists. In a 2015 Gallup survey, 54% of respondents said it was important for children to be vaccinated, down from 64% in 2001. Some parents’ refusal to vaccinate their children has prompted new outbreaks of previously eradicated diseases like measles.
Another example of the rise of false information is the declining confidence in food containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Despite scientific consensus that GMOs are safe for human consumption, public attitudes on the topic are increasingly divided. A 2015 survey found that 11% of the scientists in the American Association for the Advancement of Science believed that GMOs are unsafe for human consumption. But a Pew Research poll conducted at the same time found that 57% of Americans regarded GMOs as unsafe.
Two of the most passionate issues roiling America are immigration and crime. Based on anecdotal information and political rhetoric, a majority of Americans believe serious crime is soaring because of illegal immigration, which depresses the economy and taxes scarce welfare resources. Repeated studies by numerous government agencies show that neither assumption is true.
Rand says that much of the false information comes from media organizations that rely on punditry and opinion-based news rather than hard-news journalism. Punditry proliferates because it is relatively inexpensive to produce and allows content to be tailored to specific audiences. Unfortunately, “such programming contributes to a blurring of the line between opinion and fact and thus contributes to Truth Decay.”
Stanford University’s Shanto Iyengar, a professor of political science and communication, says political party preference has become a litmus test for values and character in modern America. “Democrats and Republicans view their opponents as hypocritical, selfish and close-minded, and are unwilling to socialize with them, or even partner with them in different types of activities,” he says.
Declining trust in government and a lack of honest debate results in a polarized population susceptible to fake news that lives in states growing less moderate by the month.
Not all of Stanford’s political scientists agree with Iyengar. Says Morris Fiorina, a Hoover Institution author of “Unstable Majorities: Polarization, Party Sorting and Political Stalemate”: “Rather than flock to one party or the other, Americans increasingly refuse to pledge allegiance to either. Today, more than 40% of the public claims to be independent.”
Others note that a rejection of the two-party system that has served America well for more than two centuries is hardly a good thing.
One thing you will not find at Stanford is any condemnation of social media. Perhaps this is because much of the internet was created by Stanford graduates and Silicon Valley is a major source of alumni donations.
“In fact, polarization has increased the most among groups that use social media the least,” says Stanford economist Matthew Gentzkow, ignoring the fact that social media’s millennials mainly are the people rejecting the two-party system.