Decaying Truth

The Trump campaign’s legal fight contesting the 2020 presidential election reveals an ugly reality about politics and public life in America. The end goal seems to be to sow division and confusion, delegitimizing President-elect Biden in the same way that President Trump feels he was delegitimized by President Obama, the Obama administration, Speaker of the House Pelosi and other prominent Democrats during his transition and his presidency.

We’ve become a nation of conspiracy theories and wild, baseless attacks. The Republicans portray the Democrats as proponents of massive voter fraud and Dominion voting machines that change votes due to ties to Latin American dictators. The Democrats never stopped babbling about Russian collusion and comparing the Trump administration to the Third Reich.

The inaccuracy and falseness of these narratives didn’t stop their pushers. It encouraged them.

As President Obama mentioned in a BBC interview last week, all of this rhetoric demonstrates how truth decay has advanced significantly in the past couple of decades.

What is ‘truth decay’, the phenomenon that promotes these conspiracy theories and wild, baseless attacks?

Two years ago, Senior Political Scientist Jennifer Kavanaugh and Chief Executive Michael D. Rich of the thinktank RAND Corporation wrote “Truth Decay: An Initial Exploration of the Diminishing Role of Facts and Analysis in American Public Life.” The authors define truth decay as having four points:

1. Increasing disagreement about facts and analytical interpretations of fact and data

2. Blurring of the line between opinion and fact

3. The increasing relative volume, and resulting influence, of opinion and personal experience over fact

4. Declining trust in formerly respected sources of factual information

Pew Research did an interesting study in 2018 relating to #1 and #2. Director of Journalism Research Amy Mitchell, Senior Researchers Jeffrey Gottfried and Michael Barthel and Research Analyst Nami Sumida asked respondents to classify 10 statements as fact or opinion. The quiz is still available, so I encourage you to try it!

There’s a lot of data and nuance to the study, but the essential conclusions are these:

“The politically aware, digitally savvy and those more trusting of the news media fare better; Republicans and Democrats both influenced by political appeal of statements…more likely to think news statements are factual when they appeal to their side- even if they are opinions.”

Here’s an example:

“The factual statement ‘President Barack Obama was born in the United States’- one that may be perceived as more congenial to the political left and less so to the political right. Nearly nine-in-ten Democrats (89%) correctly identified it as a factual statement, compared with 63% of Republicans. On the other hand, almost four in ten Democrats (37%) incorrectly classified the left-appealing opinion statement ‘Increasing the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour is essential for the health of the U.S. economy’ as factual, compared with about half as many Republicans (17%).”

In regards to #3, relying on opinion and personal experience over fact, let’s look at vaccines. More Gallup research reveals that support for them has declined by 10% from 2001 to 2020, 10% of Americans believe they cause autism and 46% are unsure if they do or not. There’s no medical basis for vaccines causing autism.

#4 reveals its ugly head. Why a blurring of fact and opinion? Once the gatekeepers of factual information are no longer trusted, the floodgates are open to truth decay. Let’s examine Gallup’s “Confidence In Institutions” survey data. In recent history, the public has lost significant confidence in several institutions which should, theoretically, conduct themselves almost entirely on fact, rather than opinion.

From 1993 to 2020, those possessing a great deal or quite a bit of trust in television news dropped from 46% to 18%. From 1973 to 2020, the same metric applied to newspapers declined from 39% to 24%. This parallels research in which Gallup couples newspapers, TV and radio as ‘mass media’, finding that since the 1970s, trust has declined from 68% to 72% in the 1970s, dropping to 40% this year. When you break that 40% down, 31% have quite a bit of trust in mass media, and only 9% have a great deal.

Of course, those forms of media are in many ways outdated, having to compete with the exploding online news. While trust in online news has risen from 25% to 40% since 1998, a majority of respondents still don’t trust it.

Wow. It certainly isn’t all about trust with Americans and their news sources.

It’s not hard to see why. With greater access, comes greater abuse. If you’re a reporter for a traditional media operation, there’s a chain of command you usually have to go through, including an editor. That’s not the case with the Wild West of online media-with a simple click, you can publish whatever you want.

Take this blog. I do my best to fact check my own work and welcome corrections, but that’s my own honor system. I am my own editor. If I publish something inaccurate, misleading or false, there’s little stopping me aside from public pressure or decline in views. As we’ve seen with conspiracy theories and wild, baseless arguments employed by partisans, that can strengthen rather that weaken the proponents and their claims.

Regardless of your political persuasion, you can agree that there’s some degree of truth decay going on in this country, and RAND’s definition is a solid one.

How do we stop it? Stay tuned for my suggestions, shortly!

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Patrick McCorkle

I am a young professional with keen interests in politics, history, foreign languages and the arts.