Disinformation Works

By Sean Carroll | January 20, 2008 4:02 pm

An interesting post by Chris Hayes on what goes through the minds of undecided voters. One telling excerpt:

Undecided voters aren’t as rational as you think. Members of the political class may disparage undecided voters, but we at least tend to impute to them a basic rationality. We’re giving them too much credit. I met voters who told me they were voting for Bush, but who named their most important issue as the environment. One man told me he voted for Bush in 2000 because he thought that with Cheney, an oilman, on the ticket, the administration would finally be able to make us independent from foreign oil. A colleague spoke to a voter who had been a big Howard Dean fan, but had switched to supporting Bush after Dean lost the nomination. After half an hour in the man’s house, she still couldn’t make sense of his decision. Then there was the woman who called our office a few weeks before the election to tell us that though she had signed up to volunteer for Kerry she had now decided to back Bush. Why? Because the president supported stem cell research. The office became quiet as we all stopped what we were doing to listen to one of our fellow organizers try, nobly, to disabuse her of this notion. Despite having the facts on her side, the organizer didn’t have much luck.

I remember back in the ’90’s talking to a woman who was between jobs at the time, and consequently without health insurance of any sort. She was worried about her situation, but took some solace in the fact that “at least Hillary’s plan never got passed.” Say what you will about the original Clinton health care proposal, I don’t think that “gives uninsured people even less insurance” would be a valid criticism.

The lesson I would draw from these stories is not to pat ourselves on the back for being well-informed while the unwashed masses are so clueless. It’s that we have built a system where people who don’t pay that much attention to politics are easy targets for disinformation. Why would anyone believe that Bush was the candidate to back if you support stem cell research? Well, because he and his supporters are happy to tell you that he supports stem cell research. It might not be “true” in any reasonable sense, but if you are generally predisposed to favor Republicans and you’re not following the details, it’s easy enough to believe. And there’s nothing especially partisan about the strategy; Democrats will obviously try to speak of themselves as being on the right side of every issue as well.

It’s an old story, but I blame the media. A few decades ago when a small number of TV/radio/newspaper outlets were the source of almost all information about politics and governance, one could make the argument that presenting some information and not passing judgment was the right thing to do. (One could also make the argument that such a strategy is simply impossible, but that’s not for right now.) In a world with thousands of such sources, the best thing that the largest news outlets could do is to not simply present all sides dispassionately, but make it clear who is right (factually speaking) and who is wrong. When someone claims that cutting taxes always increases revenue, let us know what the evidence is. In a world where information of some sort is everywhere, the important service is not to simply provide more, it’s to separate the wheat from the chaff.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Politics
  • TomR

    Sad and scary.

    More and more, I wonder if Western Civilization’s 500-year experiment with rationality is coming to an end.

    Oh well, at least that investment I made in learning Chinese looks like it might pay off.

  • Nonnormalizable

    I like the idea very much, but I worry that people might interpret such things not as “Ah, the candidate is lying,” but rather, “Ah, the paper is ideologically against the candidate—they’re all crooks anyway.”

    Still likely to be better than the status quo as I see it.

  • Moshe

    Sean, I think that every media outlet that will decide on rational analysis, including such notions as the factual truth, will find itself very quickly on one side of the political spectrum, and therefore easily denounced as the unbalanced liberal media. This is because unlike what wrote, it is simply untrue that both parties are equally guilty in manipulating the facts. They are all doing it, but not nearly to the same extent.

    I personally blame the impulse of being “balanced”, there are some viewpoints (political, scientific, …) out there that are sufficiently unsupported by the facts to render them outright invalid, but this somehow is a very difficult thing to say, especially in public, especially to people who are not paying attention, without losing credibility.

  • TomR

    Moshe, those are great points. It’s so frustrating to see it generally accepted that we’re in the mist of “partisan gridlock” when most of the problem (IMHO) lies with one side, or to hear institutions dedicated to objective analysis derided as “liberal media.”

    It seems that for most of the last 10 or so years, the mainstream media has been so terrified of being called liberal that they feel some need to give lies equal time with truth. Or maybe it’s just that viewers/subscribers/advertisers prefer to hear about some alternative universe that’s a little less challenging than the real one.

    And, of course, the U.S. right wing is amazingly skilled at working the media process in their favor. Kinda ironic: the right was so vocally opposed to the “relativeization of truth” that was an academic fad in the 90’s, but they’re by far the ones who have benefited the most from it.

  • http://mendicantbug.com Jason Adams

    Woah, woah, woah! Present the facts? But whose facts do we present? Various wingnuts have plenty of “facts” to back the position that global warming does not exist. You just have to ignore other facts. Compiling a list of all the facts for and against would still be highly controversial and completely overwhelming and confusing to the average voter.

    I agree it’s the media’s fault, but I also don’t think they will ever bother to fix it. Discerning the truth is tough and often disputed, especially when it comes to something as complicated as a tax plan that is supposed to motivate spending. (Presumably, that is how tax income will increase, people spend more, spurring the economy, resulting in more income to be taxed, etc, right?)

    I think another part of the problem is the fact that we buy this crap. We listen to talking heads spouting rhetoric about change and how life will be better when we blah blah. We fall for the empty words and no one is ever held accountable. Oh, and always the other party is to blame.

  • Pseudolethe

    Who cares if some voters have trouble expressing their preferences with their votes? The people who agree with candidate X but vote for candidate Y will be balanced by the people who agree with Y and vote for X. This sort of thing only matters if there’s a systemic asymmetry, which in the absence of hard data is just a restatement of your priors.

    Of course, supporters of each party are more inclined to think supporters of the other party will act stupidly, so it makes sense that this particular anxiety shows up every election year.

  • http://www.thechocolatefish.blogspot.com Yvette

    Some people will always act like idiots. Live with this.

    (No really, I just think a better question is if people are acting more as idiots now than they were, say, 20 years ago!)

  • Farhat

    Obviously, or they wouldn’t use so much of it.

  • TomR

    Psuedolethe–pretty sure there’s good evidence that voters tend to agree with Democrats on issues but vote for Republican candidates. I submit that this constitutes the hard data of systemic asymmetry you’re looking for.

    I’ve worked a few campaigns, and usually hear this is usually explained as either “issues aren’t what really matter–people vote on personal attributes, and later back-form their issue justifications” or “Republicans have better funded, better run campaigns.”

  • Pingback: Cold, Cold Weather, Hot Politics « blueollie()

  • Lawrence B. Crowell

    I agree that the media is generally the problem. The evolution vs Creationism (or ID) debate is case in point. The media presents this on their puerile news broadcasts as if there is some real debate or issue. Of course there is no such thing, for anyone who tracks AAAS or NAS can see. What issue over this might exist is with education policy. The Discovery Institute is promoting a “teach the controversy” agenda (a new form of their “wedge”) as a way of keeping creationist persiflage alive and well.

    A similar issue of course exists with global warming, or what might be better called global climate perturbation. This of course gets closer to the heart of the problem. Huge financial interests have come into play to attempt to blunt real coverage of this issue, and the usual suspects should come to mind the oil companies, auto industries, Peabody Coal and so forth. Then all you have to do is look at the corporate ownership of the main media outlets, the advertizing revenue link and it then becomes no surprise that we have this problem. It gets particularly bad with FOX, where still nearly 50% of viewers think Iraq was behind 9/11 or that there were WMD in Iraq and the rest. In this decade there has been a particularly septic convergence of money, corporate, political and religious interests — and our media has been particularly malodorous as it has obsequeously followed the money trail.

    Politicians and political parties need to be changed with some regularity, just like babies need diaper changes — and for much the same reasons. Politics and power seems to attract bad people, or psychopaths, and it is up to us to keep the pot stirred so that these types don’t put permanent roots in the political soil.

    Lawrence B. Crowell

  • http://backreaction.blogspot.com/ B

    Regarding disinformation and the media, don’t underestimate the increasing importance of information found (or unfound) on the internet. See e.g. my recent post The Spirits that we Called about the influence of search engines on our information filtering. (And for my pessimism about where we go if we don’t manage to organize availability and communication of information in a useful way, see On the Edge.)

  • http://www.metcaffeination.net thm

    Whether or not you agree with his theory of metaphor, I think the most important thing that George Lakoff brought to the progressive table is this:
    the notion that people will give up irrational beliefs when presented with solid evidence is itself an irrational belief, unsupported by the evidence.

  • Lawrence B. Crowell

    I love the Lakoff quote. The truest thing I’ve read all day.

    What is important is to keep the federal government from promoting mendacities. There have been some pressure on this front with global warming, HIV & condoms, and the “abstinence only” education. The media is of course corporate or “private,” even if a corporation is about as private as a medieval fiefdom, and putting pressure on them to stop broadcasting falsehoods or nonsense is a difficult thicket.

    Lawrence B. Crowell

  • Chris W.

    I run all of my campaigns as if people were watching television with the sound turned down.
    — Karl Rove

    See this Google search.

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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