“Truth Decay”: Arbitrary Facts and Extreme Polarization

Catchy title. Maybe even a little too cute (or trite). But behind the title is, I think, an important – and freely available – study. It speaks spot-on to our political and social reality of the moment. Ongoing and increasing polarization is the gravest threat to the life and integrity of our nation and society. Analysis of causes and addressing them constructively without falling for the blame game and finger-pointing together constitute, I think, the highest priority of the moment. Here’s the report summary:

The line between fact and fiction in American public life is becoming blurred. RAND has begun studying the causes and consequences of this “Truth Decay” phenomenon and how it affects democracy and political and civil discourse in the United States. Where basic facts and well-supported analyses of these facts were once generally accepted — such as the benefit of using vaccines to protect health — disagreement about even objective facts and well-supported analyses has swelled in recent years. In addition, a growing number of Americans view the U.S. government, media, and academia with new skepticism. These developments drive wedges between policymakers and neighbors alike. This research brief describes RAND’s findings about the causes and consequences of Truth Decay and offers a research agenda for addressing the challenges this phenomenon creates, with the intent of improving policymaking and political discourse. Truth Decay presents a vital threat to American democracy, and RAND invites other researchers, policymakers, journalists, and educators to join in responding to that threat.

Defining Truth Decay

Heightened disagreement about facts and analytical interpretations of data

There have always been differences of opinion within the American electorate. But disagreements about objective facts and topics for which data are reasonably definitive have become increasingly common. Examples include the benefits of vaccines and the safety of genetically modified foods.

The Blurred Line Between Opinion and Fact

Changes in media content and the media business model have contributed to the jumbling of fact, fiction, and opinion. Examples include journalistic content that fails to distinguish between opinion and fact, news programs that rely on commentary rather than factual reporting without clearly labelling them, and social media platforms that allow anyone to become a source of information.

Increased Volume and Influence of Opinion and Personal Experience Across the Communications Landscape

The growth in the volume of subjective content relative to factual information increases the likelihood that audiences will encounter speculation or downright falsehoods. That makes it more difficult to identify key pieces of factual information.

Diminished Trust in Formerly Respected Institutions as Sources of Factual Information

Polling data from across the country show a significant drop, and continuing decline, in public trust in such institutions as the government and the media. Amid confusion about what is fact and what is falsehood, where people should turn for objective, factual information also becomes unclear. [ . . . ] Read the rest of the brief here.

 I’ve also downloaded the entire 326-page report, and look forward to studying it in greater depth. (It will not be good bedtime reading, and I’ll have to sharpen my long-dormant speedreading skills!)

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