Earlier this month, rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol and fought with Capitol Police officers, resulting in one officer’s death and numerous injuries, in an attempt to stop Congress from certifying what they were convinced was a “rigged” presidential election. These individuals risked their lives and the lives of others, as well as significant jail time and loss of employment, based on their ironclad certainty that Donald Trump received more votes than Joe Biden in states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Georgia, and Arizona.
Where did this assuredness come from? None of these individuals witnessed direct evidence of the scale of voter fraud they alleged. They did not open up the voting machines, and none of the Election Day security-camera videos circulating proved that tens of thousands of fictional Biden votes had been created. Rather, they took on faith what others had told them—mainly President Trump, Rudy Giuliani, Sidney Powell, and Lin Wood—in unproven assertions in speeches and vague allegations in lawsuits that were laughed out of court. But to the rioters, this narrative confirmed their own beliefs that they represented the American majority being undermined by a sinister plot.
We rightfully express horror at a mob acting in such a way—but we should also stop to consider how nearly all political engagement is based not on what we actually know, but what we think we know because someone we trust said so.
For example, in my own field of economic policy, millions of people pontificate on social media—or to some poor relative or co-worker—about all the ways in which Washington’s budget and tax priorities are outrageous. Many of them regularly insult, degrade, and abuse anyone who sees these issues differently. Any disagreement is illegitimate. All the facts are on their side.
But where did they get their information? The vast majority of us have never examined primary sources from the Congressional Budget Office, Office of Management and Budget, or Bureau of Labor Statistics—which are widely seen as the credible, “official” government data. Instead, we often remember (or misremember) what some politician, journalist, author, or television personality once told us. How do we know that the providers of our information don’t have their own agenda, slant, or warped way of reading the world? We take it on faith. Especially if these people are part of our own political tribe.
Thus, in terms of understanding government, many of us are slaves to whatever our favorite politician, journalist, author, or speaker have told us. Verifying their claims is complicated and time-consuming, so we become beholden to what they want us to think and believe. That angry debate between yourself and that “uninformed idiot” on social media may really just be a fight between National Review and The Nation, with each of you parroting the side you read and trust. These online fights often devolve into each side furiously pasting Google search results at each other, often, without assessing their credibility or perhaps even reading them.
Misinformation is everywhere. Former Labor secretary Robert Reich writes that half our tax dollars go to defense (15 percent, according to OMB). President Trump rants that $4 billion in foreign aid to bad governments took all the stimulus money that could have otherwise funded $2,000 relief checks ($4 billion divided by 330 million Americans is $12 per person, not $2,000). Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez asserted that the Pentagon recently lost $21 trillion to waste—a figure which exceeds all cumulative defense spending in American history. Each of these claims circulated far and wide across social media, sometimes hundreds of thousands of times. And yet even a cursory familiarity with the federal budget, available in convenient tables and reports, exposes each of these claims as spectacularly false.
The dirty little secret is that most politicians are not policy experts, and many don’t even read their staff briefing papers. Most political and policy journalists lack significant academic expertise in the fields they cover, and they have their own conscious or subconscious biases. Even most opinion columnists and cable TV personalities have neither the expertise nor the incentive to report accurate information. With a few excellent exceptions, most politicians and journalists seem intimidated by even basic math and will repeat false or misleading data and statistics without verifying them or understanding the methodology.
Yet much of what they tell us is unquestionably taken as truth, particularly if it fits our preferred political narratives.
For example, dozens of newspapers and publications recently wrote articles endorsing a think tank “study” claiming that billionaire wealth had soared by $584 billion during the first few months of the pandemic. The study was essentially fraudulent: its calculations excluded the initial 28 percent stock market drop caused by the pandemic and counted only the subsequent rebound in its wealth estimates. Yet nearly all of the respected reporters who wrote articles endorsing the study showed no signs that they noticed the fraudulent methodology. These articles were then shared hundreds of thousands of times on social media, becoming part of the conventional wisdom about the 2020 economy. It fit a popular narrative, so few reporters bothered to fact-check it.
The incentives in politics and media favor propaganda over facts. Original research is complicated, and the results are often ambiguous. The easier path to widespread popularity (article placement, TV appearances, Twitter retweets) is to come up with some false but too-good-to-check bombshell factoid or statistic that precisely confirms the biases of a target audience. Because it fits the popular narrative, the false fact will be amplified by other reporters and opinion leaders until it becomes conventional wisdom. The few skeptical fact-checkers have little chance of holding back this tsunami of misinformation. It is cited everywhere, so it must be true. A research fellow once promised me more than a dozen sources for a controversial statistic he was hyping. In reality, he had a dozen blogs all linking the statistic back to one another, with no clear origin point. Conventional wisdom is often a house of cards.
Verification has nearly disappeared. Partisan columnists, late-night talk shows, and even top news programs often broadcast or tweet “gotcha” videos so heavily edited as to be fraudulent. And yet they are circulated with no due diligence by top reporters and opinion leaders. Remember the Covington kids?
Partisanship creates blind spots. Several prominent newspaper opinion pages and political websites are known in policy circles for spending weeks fact-checking every sentence of op-ed submissions that argue against the in-house editorial slant, while giving barely a cursory fact-check to op-eds that confirm their general policy views. Even “trustworthy” columnists often slant the data or misleadingly string together disparate facts and data to present a compelling narrative that plays to their readership’s partisan leanings.
It’s not always a matter of dishonesty. Public-policy issues can be enormously complicated, with enough ambiguous data, anecdotes, and facts to support different versions of reality. One person can write that President Obama was a successful deficit-reducer because the annual budget deficit fell from $1.4 trillion to $587 billion between 2009 and 2016. Another expert can write that President Obama worsened deficits because he signed $5 trillion in cumulative legislation that resulted in annual deficits twice as high as the baseline levels that CBO projected when he took office (which already incorporated the recession). Both sets of statistics are accurate, according to CBO data.
The solution, for consumers of information, requires recognizing one’s own biases. Most people develop their political views early in adulthood (or before), at a time of limited information and life experience. Those political views quickly harden, and as we get older our political engagement becomes an exercise in tribalism. We no longer seek news or information, but rather confirmation of our own biases. Jonathan Haidt and others have shown that the typical response to data and information contradicting our beliefs is to double down on those beliefs. Evolutionary psychology tells us that such behavior reflects how our brains evolved to prioritize tribal loyalty, because being abandoned by the tribe meant likely death. Today, we dismiss contradictory information to protect our reputation. Few people want to admit that they were wrong—even to themselves—so they respond to contradictory viewpoints by digging in more deeply and lashing out at others. This is why Twitter is a toxic sewer.
Instead, let’s practice humility. Start by reminding ourselves that politics and policy issues are extraordinarily complicated, and that brilliant, well-meaning people come to completely different conclusions on most issues. Next, recognize how much blind trust we put in those who provide our information, and recognize their own errors and biases. We should demand that writers include sources for most facts (primary sources are the most credible), and we should carefully separate facts from narrative and interpretation. Finally, perhaps most importantly, we should rely on diverse sources of information. It is not rare for one article to read like a devastating, bulletproof argument for a certain viewpoint, only to be successfully shredded by a rebuttal article elsewhere. Only in a real competition can the best data, ideas, and arguments prevail. Read the smartest analyses from the right, center, and left, if for no other reason than to understand better those whom you oppose. Avoid echo chambers.
President Ronald Reagan once said that the trouble with his critics was “not that they’re ignorant; it’s just that they know so much that isn’t so.” Before we castigate others for disagreeing with our own policy positions, we should ask ourselves whether our own positions rest on verified facts or on blind trust.
Photo by Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images