Misinformation and Democratic Politics

Jennifer L. Hochschild

Jennifer Hochschild is the Henry LaBarre Jayne Professor of Government at Harvard University, Professor of African and African American Studies, and Harvard College Professor.

Katherine Levine Einstein

Katherine Levine Einstein is an Assistant Professor at Boston University.

Examples of Americans’ political ignorance abound: in a 2008 survey, only half of U.S. adults could name all three branches of the federal government. As Ilya Somin points out, “the biggest issue in the important 2010 congressional election was the economy.  Yet two-thirds of the public did not realize that the economy had grown rather than shrunk during the previous year.”

Less well understood than political ignorance, and arguably even more problematic, is widely-shared misinformation (As Mark Twain, Satchel Paige, or Will Rogers is reported to have said, “It isn’t what we don’t know that gives us trouble, it’s what we know that ain’t so.”) In three Gallup polls between 2002 and 2015, respondents estimated that almost a quarter of Americans are gay or lesbian, whereas the actual proportion is roughly 5 percent. Is that overestimate associated with their views about gay marriage or gay rights? We do not really know, but it seems likely. The case of global warming shows similar misinformation, and has been sufficiently researched to provide good evidence on how misinformation relates to policy views.

A poll in 2014 from Yale University shows that only 48 percent of Americans believe that rising global temperatures are attributable to human activities. Only two-fifths even agree that there is a scientific consensus that global warming is indeed occurring. These misinformed individuals present a significant problem for the quality of democratic governance, because misinformation is typically associated with particular policy preferences. Thus misinformed citizens may well hold policy views that are not in their own interests or good for the country as a whole. Using Gallup Poll survey data from 2012, for example, we found that between one-third and one-half of misinformed survey respondents opposed various climate change initiatives, with some variation depending on the policy. Overall, up to a third of respondents in this poll were both misinformed and supported policy initiatives that accorded with that misinformation.

We can easily predict who will hold a given piece of wrong factual “knowledge” and correspondingly mistaken policy views by knowing their political partisanship. The case of global warming is again illustrative. The analysis here has two steps. First, in the 2012 poll, three-fourths of Republicans answered at least one of two factual questions about global warming incorrectly, compared with 44 percent of Democrats. This partisan difference remains when we control for income, education, age, ideology, gender, and race and ethnicity. Second, partisanship predicts opposition to climate change initiatives even among the misinformed: 71 percent of mistaken Republicans, compared with 28 percent of mistaken Democrats, opposed stronger enforcement of environmental regulations. This result also holds when controlling for demographics, and holds across six of the seven policy arenas explored in the survey.

Although the case of global warming shows more misinformation, and more use of misinformation, among Republicans than among Democrats, Republicans are not the only partisans to be misinformed. Consider childhood vaccinations: in some, though not all, circumstances Democrats are  especially likely to be mistaken about the purportedly dangerous effects of childhood vaccinations, and to act on that mistaken knowledge. The school districts with the highest levels of nonvaccination – Malibu, California; Boulder, Colorado; Ashland, Oregon—tend to be communities with many residents who see themselves as progressives.  Robert Kennedy Jr. recently went on what one science writer called an “anti-vaccine tour.”  Some evidence shows a higher likelihood of opposition to vaccination among mothers with “higher education, private insurance, and white race,” to quote one academic survey of 39,000 new mothers in Colorado. 

Finding strong correlations among partisanship, information, and policy preferences is hardly novel in political science. However, these interconnections matter politically in ways that have not before been fully explored, because they create strong incentives for politicians to discourage abandonment of misinformation in favor of correct knowledge. That is, citizens’ active use of misinformation creates an asymmetry among political activists.

Consider the use of misinformation from a politician’s vantage point. A potential voter who is misinformed but holds policy or political views that accord with his or her misinformation is in a very stable state. The person “knows” something important, uses this “knowledge,” and is connected with a political party and leaders who reinforce, or at least seldom contradict, this “knowledge.” Many of the person’s friends or members of the group with which he or she identifies probably concur with it also. Furthermore, inertia is powerful, so a change in political views is always less likely than persistence. To persuade this potential voter to reject false knowledge, change policy views, disagree with friends, perhaps abandon leaders or even a political party, requires an enormous amount of effort and resources – inevitably in short supply in a political campaign.

Thus leaders of one political party- e.g. Democrats in the case of global warming-have little incentive to try to persuade people holding and using factual misinformation to change their minds and behaviors. Conversely, leaders of the other political party - Republicans in the case of global warming--have a powerful incentive to keep individuals misinformed and active, or at least no reason to try very hard to inform them that they are wrong. As the political consultant Lee Atwater is supposed to have said, “Politics and facts don’t belong in the same room.” In short, politicians’ efforts to eliminate misinformation (unless it is about themselves) are usually much weaker than other politicians’ efforts to ensure that the misinformed vote in accord with their false knowledge.

This logic extends beyond the cases of global warming and vaccination. We have developed the evidence and arguments presented here more fully in a new book,  Do Facts Matter? Information and Misinformation in American Politics. The book uses a variety of cases -- the Affordable Care Act, Justice Clarence Thomas’ confirmation hearings, weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, President Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinski, the “birther” movement (the belief that President Obama was born outside the United States), and others-- to show how the failure to use correct information in the political arena, and especially the active use of political misinformation, is damaging in a wide range of contexts. Do Facts Matter?  also expands on the discussion of politicians’ incentives to foster, or at least not correct, voters’ active use of political misinformation.

The active use of political misinformation can even lead to deaths, in a way that “mere” political ignorance seldom does.  Enough parents’ failure to vaccinate children has arguably caused unnecessary deaths from measles; elected officials’ insistence that Iraq harbored weapons of mass destruction arguably led to a war in which hundreds of thousands were killed. More insidiously, the active use of misinformation can undermine democratic governance, as thinkers from Thomas Jefferson forward have insisted, by fostering poor policies and increasing voters’ mistrust of and cynicism about leaders. 

Luckily, there are some responses, which we explore in some detail in Do Facts Matter? The book discusses ways of dealing with misinformation, that  range from education (in classrooms, or even in blog posts), “nudges,” and fact checkers, through reliance on experts instead of citizens to make decisions, all the way to policy mandates. As Do Facts Matter? points out, none of these responses are fully effective and all are weak in the face of a stable, gratifying intersection among false information, corresponding policy views, connection with like-minded others, and reinforcing politicians. But at least they are worth trying. 

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