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"Misinformation" isn't just on the right
Progressives, conservatives, and moderates alike all believe things that aren't true
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There’s a construct — “misinformation” — that’s been wielded over the past five years as a kind of weird partisan cudgel and ideological excuse. And it’s unfortunate, because I really do believe that media is an important factor in politics and that in particular, the dynamics of right-wing propaganda media on cable and talk radio are crucial to understanding the world we live in. But beyond that, the general subject of what people know about politics, what they think they know, and how that matters is interesting.
In a democracy, those who govern are accountable to a mass public that overwhelmingly comprises people who don’t think much about politics and policy and who really don’t know much about it. That real-world citizens are not idealized deliberators is a really important aspect of how society functions, and it’s important that everyone who cares about such things try to understand it.
And there’s a lot of interesting work being done on these questions. One of my favorite ideas, borrowed from David Schleicher, is that we should concentrate more power in the hands of governors and less in state legislatures. A mostly uninformed public does seem to pay at least some attention to what’s happening at the level of governor, while almost nobody has any idea who their state legislator is — most people simply use that vote as a referendum on the president. I’m really looking forward to my friend Emily Thorson’s forthcoming book on systematic policy misperceptions among the mass public. As someone who wants to make people more informed with my own work, I’m very interested in Brendan Nyhan’s research into which tactics are effective at correcting misinformation.
But this whole genre of genuine inquiry into public opinion dynamics has gotten derailed, I think, by the sort of goofy idea that Donald Trump was swept into power by a tidal wave of “misinformation” or the conceit that it’s constructive to analyze GOP outreach to Hispanic voters primarily through the “misinformation” lens.
The thing that makes this sort of superficial analysis so seductive is that it’s not exactly wrong. Most people really are very poorly informed about politics and policy. A lot of campaign messaging is pretty misleading. A lot of media coverage is sloppy and propagandistic. It’s also true that as a result of education polarization, over the past few cycles, Democrats have mostly done worse with relatively uninformed demographic groups (poor white people, working-class Hispanics) and better with relatively well-informed high-SES whites. This is to say that if you set out to find misinformation among people voting Republican, it’s not hard to do so. But it’s a totally unprincipled inquiry unless you take a systematic look at misinformation, in which case you’ll see it’s hardly confined to Republicans.
There’s a lot of progressive climate misinformation
I think the most salient example of this is climate change, where you not only have rightists spreading insane conspiracy theories (Trump used to say it was a Chinese hoax), but you also have a lot of very influential wrongheaded ideas on the left.
Perhaps the most prominent version of this is the idea that the world faces a hard tipping point to climate apocalypse sometime around 2030. This is routinely debunked (here’s Scientific American) but keeps popping up. As is often the case with misinformation, the problem arises in large part because elite communicators say things that are a little confusing or misleading. This NPR headline “Earth has 11 years to cut emissions to avoid dire climate scenarios, a report says” sounds superficially similar to AOC’s “The world is gonna end in 12 years if we don’t address climate change.” But the report is not measuring humanity’s time to avert human extinction — it’s measuring humanity’s time to avert the 1.5 degrees of warming adopted as a global target in the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. We will almost certainly end up with more warming than that, and this will lead to, among other things, irreversible harm to low-lying island nations. But it’s not the actual end of the world (just ask David Wallace-Wells). And even more importantly, there are no magic tipping points.
The misperception about this really is broadly influential, though.
“Don’t Look Up” was marketed as a climate change allegory, and it’s very explicitly about a genuine extinction-level threat with a specific near-term tipping point. If you conceptualize climate change as having those features, then the behavior of major world governments with regard to climate seems bizarre and borderline insane. That then encourages a lot of performative radicalism, inattention to cost-benefit analysis, and conspiratorial thinking about why elected officials won’t do what you want them to do. We have pretty good evidence that a non-trivial number of young people are experiencing meaningful psychological distress based on the misperception that they are going to grow up to live in a post-apocalyptic hellscape. Many, many people don’t realize that accounts of RCP 8.5 climate scenarios are not intended to represent “business as usual,” and that the world has been moving steadily away from this worst-case scenario outcome for some time.
I also think many people don’t realize that natural disaster deaths have become much rarer over time because for most people, the benefits of living in a richer world with better technology far outweigh the hazards of living in a warmer world.
Again, none of this is to deny the scientific facts of climate change: greenhouse gas emissions contribute to global climate shifts that are on net harmful, and it’s important that we take further action to reduce those emissions. But it’s actually a substantially different situation than the one a lot of progressives seem to think that we are in.
Meanwhile, in addition to overstating the most likely consequences of the status quo, it’s common to hear grossly exaggerated accounts of the ease of getting to net zero with current technology. That’s often paired with undervaluing energy in general, with the overall result that the climate left is less enthusiastic about actually deploying zero-carbon energy than it should be and also more hostile to fossil fuel use than it should be. These are errors that have had meaningful policy and political impacts, but that get totally ignored in a misinformation discourse that locates misinformation exclusively on the right.
“Hands up, don’t shoot”
A few years ago, both Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris commemorated the anniversary of Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri by tweeting that Brown was murdered by a police officer.
I thought nothing of those tweets when I read them only to find out from my colleague German Lopez that the Obama DOJ investigation of the Brown shooting exonerated the cop in question:
Brown died about 150 feet from Wilson’s vehicle. He was shot six times. No gunshot was confirmed to hit Brown from behind.
The physical evidence suggested that Brown reached into Wilson’s car during their physical altercation and, very likely, attempted to grab the officer’s gun. The most credible witnesses agreed that Brown moved toward Wilson before the officer fired his final shots — and there simply wasn’t enough evidence, especially given the struggle at the car, that Wilson wasn’t justified in fearing for his life when he fired the shots that killed Brown.
Although some credible witnesses suggested Brown raised his hands up before he died, witnesses who disputed major parts of Wilson’s side of the story were discredited by the physical evidence and when they changed their accounts.
The report said all this was “corroborated by bruising on Wilson’s jaw and scratches on his neck, the presence of Brown’s DNA on Wilson’s collar, shirt, and pants, and Wilson’s DNA on Brown’s palm.”
Brown’s death sparked massive protests in a community that was predisposed to believe the worst about the local police. Those protests spurred federal investigations both of the specific incident and of the department more broadly. The pattern-or-practice investigation into the department unearthed a lot of troubling conduct and racism, which explains why many people in the local community were predisposed to believe the worst about Wilson. But the investigation into the specific shooting suggests that in this case, the predisposition was wrong and the early story that Brown was shot while saying “hands up, don’t shoot” is totally unsubstantiated.
While the protests themselves were sparked in part by viral misinformation spreading on social media, they did lead to a lot more awareness among white liberals of the problems of police misconduct. But nobody on Team Warren or Team Harris was aware of what this specific DOJ investigation concluded — and neither was I.
One suggestive survey indicated that about 40-50% of liberal or very liberal people believe 1,000 or more unarmed Black men are shot and killed by the police in a typical year. I have a lot of qualms with the methods used in that survey, which I think encouraged overestimation across the board. But if nothing else, it demonstrates that a huge share of the population is operating with very little factual information about a subject it purports to believe is very important. This is not unique to liberals or the topic of police misconduct —it is, rather, fairly typical of average citizens’ general lack of engagement with policy or facts.
And to return to my original point, we do our own understanding a disservice if we convince ourselves that misinformation is a strictly partisan or one-sided phenomenon.
There’s centrist misinformation, too
A theme I’ve returned to several times recently on Slow Boring is that a lot of misguided-at-the-time Obama-era ideas about deficit reduction are warranted from the vantage point of 2023.
That’s part of the reason I’m such a cranky centrist here in 2023, writing my scolding “both sides” column about how progressives fall for misinformation, too. But critically, one big reason all this centrist deficit reduction stuff got discredited was the huge, wildly misguided deficit reduction push coming from centrist elites at the depths of the Great Recession. This push involved a lot of accurate-but-misleading rhetoric that muddied the waters between short-term and long-term concerns. It featured shoddy, bias-confirming empirical research purporting to show that depressed labor force participation was about video games (it turned out to just be demand). A misguided panic about the idea that Disability Insurance was depressing labor force participation (again, it turned out to just be demand) was also in the mix. And a fat finger Excel spreadsheet error committed by highly prestigious economists became the basis for an elite panic about a supposed debt:GDP tipping point.
All those tragic economic policy errors occurred just a few years after centrist national security elites convinced themselves (and the country) that Saddam Hussein had an advanced nuclear weapons program and that the U.S. government had the capacity to rebuild Iraq as a friendly democracy.
I think it’s very clear that Trump’s followers were and are possessed by a lot of conspiracy theories and misinformation. I also think, as I argued above, that the leftist faction that has become increasingly influential in the Democratic Party has fallen for a decent amount of misinformation. But if you want to understand the role of misinformation in destabilizing the sensible center of American politics, I think you primarily have to point the finger inwards at the one-two punch of Iraq and the Great Recession in which establishment elites, gassed up on their own misinformation, badly mismanaged the country.
We need a richer understanding of human fallibility
The moral of all these stories is that people are prone to bias-confirmation and groupthink, and the mass public tends not to pay much attention to policy issues, even ones they find interesting enough to march in the streets about.
This is a kind of tragic aspect of the human condition and not a specific failure of your political enemies.
I think back sometimes at my own misinformation on the Michael Brown point. A big part of the reason I didn’t know the truth about this is it didn’t matter to me, practically speaking. During the five years or so between the Ferguson protests and Lopez’s articles about the tweet, I didn’t write anything for which the DOJ inquiry into the shooting was relevant. I was actually so disengaged from this topic that when I started work on this 2019 article making the case for increased police funding, I was a little surprised to learn how controversial the thesis was. After all, I was making the case for the merits of federal police funding initiatives that were pushed by Bill Clinton and Barack Obama and opposed by Donald Trump. The progressive conventional wisdom had moved on from that Clinton/Obama consensus without me realizing it, but I hadn’t moved on even though I also didn’t realize Wilson had been exonerated — it wasn’t actually policy-relevant, so I hadn’t been paying attention.
And the average citizen has much less reason than I do to pay attention to news developments.
This is why people mostly don’t do it and thus why people are pretty misinformed. Ideally, actual U.S. Senators and their communications teams would take a second to say “wait, are we sure this is true?”, just as in my police funding piece I didn’t type from pure memory — I actually looked into the research and got my facts in order before writing.
But all kinds of political elites act impulsively or irresponsibly at times. Or they share things like that NPR article, which was perfectly accurate but also played directly into a widespread misconception. These problems, unfortunately, are not unique to any one faction or party — they are part of life.
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