Why is it hard to debunk misinformation? Why aren’t people willing to change their minds? Part of the problem lies within our own psyche, and part of the problem is with the news media.
Ezra Klein of Vox interviewed Dartmouth University political scientist Brendan Nyhan about our reticence to accept proven facts. The underlying problem is that we’re slow to update our belief system. No one likes to admit he’s wrong, and admitting you’re wrong becomes even harder when the subject is tied to your political beliefs.
On top of that, there’s little consequence to clinging to falsehoods concerning politics. Think about it, no matter how wrong you may be, what does it cost you, especially if your social circle is limited to people who think like you? Our sense of self has become more important than having an accurate view of world events.
The media is also to blame. With so many news services and 24-hour broadcasts, competition for our attention is fierce. The name of the game is to broadcast events as soon as they happens, with little concern for filtering what is being said and presenting the facts accurately. With priority being given to attention-grabbing, it’s not unusual for news media to broadcast what a politician said just minutes after he said it and then hear the same statement repeated by people in his camp. After a while, viewers lose track, and the repeated statements—no matter how false they may be—become reality.
What to do? Here are five ideas.
Look for confirmation. Just because a politician or a pundit makes a statement doesn’t mean the statement is true. Look to other news sources for confirmation. Remember President Trump saying he saw thousands of Muslims celebrating in New Jersey after the 9/11 attack? There was no evidence to prove his story (but he kept repeating it).
Recognize that repetition does not make something true. Instead of accepting a repeated statement as true, look for the actual source of the news. Trump and people in his camp have talked repeatedly about three million people voting illegally in the 2016 presidential elections, but I haven’t heard one secretary of state—the officials who run elections—confirm that a voting problem exists.
Correction: there is one secretary of state who believes there’s a voter fraud problem—Kris Kobach of Kansas, who was appointed by Trump to investigate voter fraud. Because Kobach believes the 2016 election was rife with voter fraud—a claim that has been debunked—he won’t admit Hillary Clinton won the popular vote. I suppose the other 49 secretaries of state in the U.S. are wrong.
If the news sounds crazy, maybe it is. Years back, the late Fred Thompson (a former actor and U.S. Senator) had a talk radio show. One of his guests in 2009, Betsy McCaughey, voiced her alarm about a provision in the then-pending Affordable Care Act that would authorize “death panels” to decide what medical care the elderly would receive. What?!
I researched the bill. Sure enough—no death panels, but there was a provision that would authorize the use of Medicare funds for physicians to talk with their patients about end of life medical treatment. Even without doing the research, McCaughey’s claim didn’t make sense—the American Association of Retired Persons supported the bill.
Take an active interest in getting it right. Anybody can repeat a sound bite. Heck, parrots can do that. If we want this difficult system of democracy to work—and democracy is difficult, because it requires each of us to think—then be a discerning listener and try to figure out what the reality is.
Be slow to accept what is presented as fact. Long gone are the days of Walter Cronkite. When he delivered the news, America didn’t have to wonder whether it was true. Regrettably, it’s a different world. Be skeptical of what you hear.
Jack D’Aurora writes for Considerthisbyjd.com
Also published on Medium.
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