Lies, Damn Lies, and Democracy
Robert Y. Shapiro, Columbia University
Manipulation and deception by political leaders have occurred throughout U.S. history, particularly in national security and foreign policy. Only recently have we see, the blatant public lying by leaders, which poses a visible threat to democracy. This paper reviews the kinds of manipulation, deception, and direct lies that have occurred in modern American politics. Addressing both empirical and normative concerns, it emphasizes that misperceptions of facts and lying threaten "democratic competence" at the level of the mass public and political leadership. This has occurred due to political polarization but it would exist, though at a lower decibel level, even if Donald Trump were not president. The "folk theory" is undermined in the greatest way by this. But the possibility of manipulation and deception has been an ever present and a greater threat to American democracy when outright lying is less apparent. To what extent has this threat increased? Are existing countervailing forces -- especially elite competition and institutions, including the press - sufficient to combat this threat, as they arguably have been in the past, as had been suggested by the works of Page and Shapiro and Zaller (albeit twenty-five years ago).
Information Disorder: Definitions and Processes
H. D., Harvard University
There are three types of information disorder depending on the falsehood of the of the information and the intention of its agents to cause harm : Mis-, dis-, and malinformation. It also has three elements (agent, message, interpreter) and three phases (Creation, (re)production, and distribution). Two aspects of social media contribute to this increased threat: Firstly, disinformation can be cheaply amplified through committed volunteers, paid agents or bots. Secondly, information sources are becoming increasingly social, and therefore much more visual, emotional, and performative. To think about solutions, we need to understand communication as something beyond just a transmission of messages. People's consumption of news and information is, first and foremost, a way to reaffirm their affinity with a larger dramatic narrative about the world and their place in it, and transcends facts and figures. We should consider the specific motivations of different types of 'Agents', the characteristics of different types of 'Messages' and the factors impacting how people 'Interpret' those messages. We also need to recognise how messages and the motivations about them can shift and transform as other agents re-produce and disseminate these messages.
Stereotypes in Post-Truth Politics: Enhancing Political and Group Divisions
Donald P. Haider-Markel and Mark R. Joslyn, University of Kansas
Our attention on post-truth politics is focused on stereotypes, both positive and negative. Stereotypes are often long-standing and may have some basis in fact, but are often demonstrably false. Stereotypes are often used to portray one's own group in a positive light, while also portraying members of out-groups in a negative light. In addition, in a politically divided society we should expect that the tendency to use stereotypes should be common, if not on the increase. At the individual level, we might also expect that the more strongly that an individual identifies with a group, the more likely she will be to attribute positive stereotypes to her group, and negative stereotypes to members of out groups. Our project explores these expectations through analysis of original data compiled from recent surveys of American adults. We examine stereotypes across partisan groups and gun-owners versus nongun- owners. Our results support the expectation that stereotyping has become more common, and is most severe among those with strong group identification. We suggest that stereotypes are reinforcing group divisions, and stymieing political and policy debate.
Denialism or Conspiricism? The Causes and Consequences of Rejecting Authoritative Accounts
Joseph Uscinski, University of Miami
Social-psychologists and political scientists have attributed both the denial of authoritative accounts and the acceptance of conspiracy theories to underlying conspiracy thinking. However, the extant literature conflates the tendency to deny authoritative accounts with the tendency to believe in conspiracy theories, even though these are substantively different phenomena. For instance, one may deny manmade global warming or the safety of genetically modified food without accepting any specific conspiracy theories. Using nationally representative survey data, we show that to one extent or another, people harbor both a tendency to accept conspiracy theories and to deny official accounts. While these tendencies are correlated, they are distinct and account for the denial of authoritative accounts and acceptance of conspiracy theories in predictable ways. We show that the tendency toward denialism leads people to reject the consensuses on climate change and gm foods, and to disbelieve politicians and mainstream news. The underlying tendency toward conspiracy thinking leads people to believe in Kennedy assassination, 9/11, and Zika conspiracy theories and also to be more accepting of violence and other behaviors. These findings have implications for scholars attempting to overcome the prevalence of misinformation and for those attempting to understand and guide human behaviors.
Selective Exposure to Misinformation: Evidence from the Consumption of Fake News During the 2016 U.S. Presidential Campaign
Andrew Guess, Princeton University, Brendan Nyhan, Dartmouth College and Jason Reifler, University of Exeter
Though some warnings about online "echo chambers" have been hyperbolic, tendencies toward selective exposure to politically congenial content are likely to extend to misinformation and to be exacerbated by social media platforms. We test this prediction using data on the factually dubious articles known as "fake news." Using unique data combining survey responses with individual-level web traffic histories, we estimate that approximately 1 in 4 Americans visited a fake news website from October 7-November 14, 2016. Trump supporters visited the most fake news websites, which were overwhelmingly pro-Trump. However, fake news consumption was heavily concentrated among a small group - almost 6 in 10 visits to fake news websites came from the 10% of people with the most conservative online information diets. We also find that Facebook was a key vector of exposure to fake news and that fact-checks of fake news almost never reached its consumers.
Misinformation and the Currency of Democratic Citizenship: A Retrospective
Jennifer Jerit, Stony Brook University
Misinformation occurs when people hold incorrect factual beliefs and do so confidently. The problem, initially conceptualized by Kuklinski et al. (2000), still plagues the U.S. political system and is exceedingly difficult to correct. In my presentation, I assess the empirical literature on misinformation and consider what scholars have learned since the publication of that early study. In particular, I will highlight the accumulated wisdom regarding the causes of misinformation (e.g., the direction of causality between beliefs and preferences, the relationship between inaccuracy and confidence).
The New Battlegrounds over Facts in Democracy
Cary Funk and Scott Keeter, Pew Research Center
There are pressing concerns today over whether our democracy can continue to function amid repeated disputes over basic facts that undergird elections and government policy across all arenas from public health to energy and environmental protections to economic development and national security. We draw from studies by the Pew Research Center to show the growth of political polarization among the American public over the past two decades and the implications these divides hold for public discourse and everyday interactions among the citizenry. Debates over facts and information are often linked with declining trust in government and other major institutions. But we show mounting evidence that public trust in facts and the institutions connected with those facts is fractured. The public is more likely to develop its own lens about the trustworthiness of facts and information than it is to bring a uniformly skeptical point of view. The battles over truth connected with science issues offer an array of examples showing the ways in which group identity can influence how facts color opinions and beliefs about climate issues and the rise of "individualized world views" as people grapple with issues surrounding the safety and benefits of conventional medical treatments and the health effects of food. Digital technology tools have created new venues for the flow of information, making the public less dependent on institutional authorities for facts and information. We show how social media and digital technology tools connected with the gig economy appear to reinforce more individually curated world views shaping opinions.
What Ordinary Survey Data Can (and Cannot) Tell us About Partisans' Views of "The Facts"
Alan S. Gerber and Gregory A. Huber, Yale University
Partisanship seems to affect factual beliefs about politics. For example, Republicans are more likely than Democrats to say that the deficit rose during the Clinton administration; Democrats are more likely to say that inflation rose under Reagan. What remains unclear is whether such patterns reflect differing beliefs among partisans or instead reflect a desire to praise one party or criticize another. To shed light on this question, we present a model of survey response in the presence of partisan cheerleading and payments for correct and "don't know" responses. We design two experiments based on the model's implications. The experiments show that small payments for correct and "don't know" answers sharply diminish the gap between Democrats and Republicans in responses to "partisan" factual questions. Our conclusion is that the apparent gulf in factual beliefs between members of different parties may be more illusory than real. The experiments also bolster and extend a major finding about political knowledge in America: we show (as others have) that Americans know little about politics, but we also show that they often recognize their own lack of knowledge.
The Roots of False Beliefs: Political Rumors in America from 2010-2017
Adam J. Berinsky, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
I will describe how misinformation can take hold in the public mind - and why it is so difficult to correct falsehoods. I will discuss the psychological foundations of false beliefs and describe research (by myself and others) that lays out why a simple presentation of facts is not sufficient to convince the average American to reject statements that have little foundation in the truth. I will then describe the communication strategies that can be most effectively employed to discredit false information - and the ones that will likely fail.
The Relationship between Losing an Election and Conspiracy Theory Endorsement
Joanne Miller, University of Minnesota
As the 2016 US presidential election demonstrated, conspiracy beliefs are undoubtedly politically and socially significant. Using pre-post 2016 election panel data (CCES), our recent research provided evidence in support of the "conspiracy theories (CTs) are for political losers" hypothesis. Specifically, we have shown that Democrats [Republicans] scored higher [lower] on an index of general conspiratorial thinking after the election of the Republican, Donald Trump, compared to before. The current paper extends these analyses by using the CCES data to examine the impact of the election outcome on Democrats' (political "losers") and Republicans' (political "winners") belief in specific (ideologically tinged) CTs (e.g. the US government knew about the 9/11 attacks before they happened; Barack Obama was not born in the US). To rule out the possibility that our findings thus far are due to the idiosyncrasies of specific CTs, we report additional tests of the "conspiracies are for losers" hypothesis using data collected in the fall of 2017 in which we hold the specifics of a set of CTs constant and manipulate the partisan identity of the perpetrators. We discuss the implications of our work for theories about the causes of CT endorsement.
The Consequences of "Truth Decay"
Jennifer Kavanagh, RAND Corporation
Over the past two decades, national political and civil discourse in the United States has been characterized by "Truth Decay"-defined as a diminishing reliance on facts and data in policy debates and decision-making. The consequences of Truth Decay are tangible, severe, and have direct impacts on individual livelihood and well-being. I discuss four consequences of Truth Decay, emphasizing their implications for economic progress, national security, and the vitality of democratic institutions in the United States. First, the erosion of civil discourse has created obstacles to meaningful discussions across identity group lines, resulting in a fragmented society and undermining the policymaking process. Second, political paralysis has led to stalemate at the Federal level, causing government shutdowns and other delays that impose high economic and reputational costs. Third, increasing disengagement among the American citizenry has reduced political interest and participation, thus challenging a foundational principle of democracy and further weakening U.S. institutions. Finally, Truth Decay leads to uncertainty in national policy-uncertainty that causes economic costs in the form of deferred investments, complicates individual decision-making, and affects U.S. relationships with allies and adversaries. A better understanding of these consequences may inform the development of targeted responses to combat Truth Decay.
Factual Disputes, Social Media, and Socio-Professional Disdain
Morgan Marietta, University of Massachusetts, Lowell, and David C. Barker, American University
Factual disputes have become a defining characteristic of contemporary American politics, but scholarly understanding of their social and political consequences is still limited. In survey experiments designed to mimic a Twitter feed, we examine how people react to political statements they consider factually inaccurate. We observe that such tweets invite intense social and professional disdain. This disdain is most reliably observed among liberals, who tend to perceive facts with greater certainty than do conservatives. Collectively, these results suggest that dueling fact perceptions do not just manifest polarization; they may nurture it as well, with social media serving as an important vehicle. They also point to a new kind of ideological asymmetry, grounded in heightened intellectual assurance on the Left.
Post-Truth Politics and Growing Distrust of the Local Press
Danny Hayes, George Washington University and Jennifer L. Lawless, American University
One aspect of the "post-truth" landscape is the significant polarization in attitudes toward the news media. Since 2016, Republicans have become much more hostile toward the press and Democrats have grown more supportive. But both public debate and academic research have focused exclusively on the national media. Our (4-slide!) presentation will demonstrate that attitudes toward the local media are changing as well. Drawing on an original, nationally representative survey from fall 2017, we expect to find that Americans' views of local news outlets now also diverge along partisan lines, with distrust particularly prevalent among Trump voters. Attacks on "fake news," in other words, affect the way Americans think about not just prominent national media outlets, but also the local news organizations that serve as citizens' main source of information about city and state politics.
Combatting the Anti-Muslim Rhetoric of the 2016 Presidential Campaign: An Experimental Investigation of the Impact of Corrective News
Kim Fridkin and Jillian Courey, Arizona State University
In this paper, we develop an online survey experiment to examine how corrective news can influence people's views about Muslims and Syrian refugees, as well as more general views about how to fight terrorism. In our study, we vary the ideological source of the news (i.e., Fox News, MSNBC, Reuters), while keeping the news content identical across conditions. We find evidence that people who retained more corrective information from the news article were more likely to have positive feelings about American Muslims and Syrian refugees and were more likely to support policy allowing Syrian refugees entry into the United States. In addition, we find that people who read the article attributed to Fox News have less tolerant attitudes towards Muslims and less progressive attitudes towards policies related to Muslims and Syrian refugees. We argue that the disfluency experienced by readers of the Fox News article lead people to develop less positive views of Muslims and Muslim-related policies. This study illustrates the potential power and limits of the news media to counter the anti-Muslim rhetoric pervading the political landscape.
Motivated Reasoning and Dueling Fact Perceptions: Ideological Symmetry or Asymmetry?
David C. Barker, American University, Morgan Marietta, University of Massachusetts, Lowell, Kim Nalder and Danielle Joesten-Martin
An expanse of scholarship documents the rigidity of the Right, which suggests that Republicans may be asymmetrically inclined toward perceiving the world through ideologically-tinted lenses. However, education and intellectual sophistication tend to enhance motivated reasoning, and those things are now strongly associated with Democratic partisanship in a way that was not true when much of the rigidity literature was published. Using observational and experimental data, we test competing hypotheses relating to partisan asymmetry and factual polarization. We find that Democrats and Republicans are symmetrically inclined to project their priors onto their perceptions and resist correction by a credible source, but that Democrats are disproportionately inclined toward certainty (even when it is unwarranted) and to express contempt toward those who see the world differently.
Can Facts Change Attitudes about Fiscal Policy?
John Sides, George Washington University
The details of fiscal policy are often difficult for Americans to learn and debates about fiscal policy can long on rhetoric and short on facts. In a series of survey experiments, I investigate the impact of different factual information and rhetorical arguments on attitudes about fiscal policy - ranging from the Simpson-Bowles plan to the recent GOP tax bill.
Does Exposure to Scientific Evidence Promote "Evidence-based" Policymaking?
Nathan Lee, Stanford University
A common charge against policymakers today is that they fail to incorporate scientific knowledge into policy decision-making. Consequently, many have called on scientists to put more effort into communicating their findings directly to policymakers. However, there is very little systematic evidence about the effectiveness of this approach. Using a novel online sample of elected officials from across the United States, I examine the effectiveness of sending a brief message summarizing the evidence concerning two different public health debates (needle exchanges and genetically modified foods). I find that this approach is ineffective and-in the case of needle exchanges-can even backfire. I argue this approach fails because it attempts to address the wrong problem: most policymakers whose policy preferences appear to disregard the scientific evidence nonetheless hold accurate beliefs about the scientific evidence itself. Consequently, greater exposure to the evidence by itself is unlikely to promote "evidence-based'' policymaking.
Misinformed in an Unequal World: How Accurate Information about Inequality and Personal Income Affects Public Support for Redistributive Policies
Cheryl Boudreau, University of California, Davis
There has been an unprecedented increase in income inequality in the United States. Governments can address rising inequality through redistributive tax and spending policies, but doing so requires public support. Unfortunately, research suggests that citizens might not hold accurate beliefs about income inequality or recognize the personal benefits of policies designed to mitigate it. Such misinformation can undermine efforts to reduce income inequality. Our study uses survey experiments to assess whether and when correcting misinformation about income inequality and/or citizens' economic self-interest will influence public support for redistributive policies. We show that citizens are indeed wildly misinformed about income inequality, as well as their own position in the income distribution. They believe that income inequality is lower than it actually is, and both rich and poor citizens alike believe their incomes fall in the middle of the distribution. Our experimental results show that providing information that corrects these misperceptions helps citizens to express opinions that are more consistent with their economic self-interest and/or preferences for less inequality, even when doing so is at odds with their party's position. These results identify conditions under which correcting misinformation about income inequality and citizens' economic self-interest will influence support for redistributive policies.
How Reflection Improves Reasoning about Politics
Vin Arceneaux, Temple University
People tend to reason about political through the lens of their partisan identity, but this tendency is not absolute. People are capable of overriding their gut reactions through reflection. The capacity to be reflective, however, varies across individuals and context. Specifically, individuals differ in the forcefulness of their partisan intuitions resulting from the strength of their affective attachments to parties, as well as the degree to which they are willing to engage in the cognitively taxing process of evaluating those intuitions. The balance of these forces - the strength of intuitions and the willingness to second guess one's self - determines the extent to which individuals update their assessments of political parties and elected officials in a rational manner.
Fact-Checking the 2016 Presidential Election & the Role of Selective Exposure
Amanda Wintersieck, University of Tennessee-Chatanooga
Do fact-checks influence individuals' attitudes and evaluations of political candidates and campaign messages during presidential elections? Using original experiments conducted during the 2016 presidential election campaign, I find (consistent with previous studies) that while the content of fact-check messages influence respondent's assessments of candidates' speeches, the source of the fact-check is inconsequential. However, in conditions where respondents were allowed to choose the source of the fact-check, partisans were much more likely to select fact-check sources that are congruent with their ideological leanings (e.g., Democrats chose the MSNBC fact-check and Republicans chose FOX the fact-check). These findings add to our body of knowledge about fact-checking by providing experimental evidence of the influence of fact-checking during presidential elections. These findings demonstrate that while fact-checking is effective, partisans are selectively exposing themselves to fact-checking sources that are likely to present "facts" that fit their partisans preconceived notions and belief systems.