These days, it’s impossible to turn on the television, scroll through your news feed, or talk with your neighbor without topics like “fake news” and America’s deep political divide coming into play.
This month, the RAND Corporation released a study that explored both of these issues: “Truth Decay.” It’s a timely report that details Americans’ declining confidence in the media, elected officials, and facts themselves.
Here are four things worth talking about that can be found in the report:
1 What is Truth Decay?
Truth decay is defined as a set of four interrelated trends:
- An increasing disagreement about facts and the interpretation of facts and data. An example of this is the disagreement in America over the safety of vaccines and genetically modified foods.
- A blurring of the line between opinion and fact. This could include journalistic pieces that do not clearly distinguish between opinion and fact.
- An increase in the relative volume, and resulting influence, of opinion and personal experience over fact. An example of this is how traditional media (newspapers and televisions) disseminate speculation, opinion, and falsehoods, while social media channels drown out verifiable data. One issue where we see this play out repeatedly is in the debate over the effect of immigration on jobs and crime.
- Lowered trust in formerly respected sources of factual information, such as a significant drop in public trust and confidence in government, newspapers, television news, books, the judiciary, and the presidency.
2 What Causes Truth Decay?
There are a number of factors that must all come into play in order for Truth Decay to take hold. These include:
- Cognitive bias. The way our brains process information leads us to look for opinions and analysis that confirms our preexisting beliefs, otherwise known as cognitive bias.
- Changes in the information system, such as the rise of social media, the 24-hour news cycle, and the increasing partisanship of some news sources. This also includes the wide dissemination of disinformation and misleading or biased information.
- Competing demands on the educational system that limit its ability to keep pace with changes in how we deliver and consume information. As school systems struggle to keep up with changes in the information system, the gap in knowledge between the educational system and the real world perpetuates Truth Decay by contributing to the creation of an electorate that is susceptible to consuming and disseminating disinformation, misinformation, and information that blur the line between fact and opinion.
- Political, sociodemographic, and economic polarization. By creating opposing sides, each with its own narrative, worldview, and facts, polarization contributes to increasing disagreement regarding the validity of facts and analytical interpretations of facts and data.
3 What Are the Consequences of Truth Decay?
According to the report, some of the most damaging effects of Truth Decay include:
- The erosion of civil discourse. Because people cannot agree on simple facts, it becomes nearly impossible to have productive and meaningful debates and important policies and topics. This leads to a decline in the quality of policies made and a slower decision-making process.
- Political paralysis. The inability to compromise, mixed with a lack of trust in government, strengthens the position of interest groups that can further interfere with government decision-making. This results in delays in political appointments (looking at you, U.S. ambassadorships that remain unfilled), lapses in oversight and investigative tasks, and an inability to make fiscal decisions (hello, government shutdown).
- Alienation. When trust in government declines, so does civic involvement. This is a problem because civic involvement often serves as a check on political representatives and fosters transparency and accountability.
- Uncertainty about U.S. policy. Because we are not basing policies on facts and analysis, this can lead to uncertainty about U.S. policies around the world (the U.S. stance on North Korea, for example), resulting in a loss of international credibility and challenges to diplomatic relations.
4 Has This Ever Happened Before?
Yes. This is not the first time the United States has confronted the issue of Truth Decay. In fact, there were at least three periods in the 20th century when there was evidence of Truth Decay:
- The 1880s-1890s, the Gilded Age, known for newspaper circulation battles and “yellow journalism”
- The 1920s-1930s, the decades of the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression, known also for “jazz journalism,” the birth of the tabloid, and the rise of radio broadcasting
- The 1960s-1970s, the decades of U.S. involvement in and retreat from the Vietnam War, known for “New Journalism”; concern about government and media propaganda; and, later, the resurgence of investigative journalism.
While this most recent period of Truth Decay (2000s-2010s) may seem alarming, there is some good news. America has been through this before, and after each era of Truth Decay, we’ve emerged a stronger country. How did we accomplish this? We eventually clarified the line between opinion and actuality by renewing our interest in holding authorities more accountable and returning to a fact-based analysis of policy and journalism.
One of the easiest ways we can all do this now is by taking the time to make sure the news we consume is grounded in fact before we share it on social media. Make a concerted effort to vet your news sources for political bias or misinformation and be willing to explore other channels if you find your go-to source isn’t entirely truthful or leans too far into one political direction.
In the end, despite the division that feels like it’s taking over our country right now, there is hope that we can emerge from this most recent period of Truth Decay and eventually regain trust in information — and one another.