In his famed dissent in Abrams v. United States a century ago, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said that the “best test of truth” is whether it gets “accepted in the competition of the market.” But what happens to the “marketplace of opinion” when the public’s thinking goes haywire? What if citizens, rather than weighing the facts, believe what they prefer to believe?
Misinformation is rampant. On crucial issue after crucial issue, staggering numbers of Americans have views of reality that are wildly at odds with the facts. In the lead-up to the 2003 Iraq invasion, a majority of Americans falsely believed that Iraqis helped carry out the Sept. 11 attacks. During debate on the 2010 Affordable Care Act, a third of our citizens falsely believed that the legislation included “death panels” — government-appointed committees with the power to deny medical treatment to elderly patients. Millions of Americans today falsely believe that illegal immigration and free trade are the leading cause of lost factory jobs. More than 80 percent of job loss is attributable to automation — the replacement of workers by machines. And then there’s climate change. People elsewhere in the world accept the scientific consensus that the climate is changing and that it’s due to human activity. Not so in America. Polls indicate that large numbers deny it’s happening or attribute it to sunspots and other natural causes.
Americans’ flight into fantasy began in the late 20th century with the elimination of the Fairness Doctrine and the advent of cable and the Internet. The transformation unleashed sources that had no qualms about twisting the facts. Hyper-partisan talk shows are among the worst offenders. Spawned by elimination of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, they now number in the hundreds and have a combined weekly audience exceeding 40 million. Listeners are fed what the writer Kurt Andersen called “a sociopathic alternative reality” — an incendiary mix of half-truths, misrepresentations, deceptions, and outright lies.
The corruption of information has been worsened by the widening partisan divide, which has heightened our appetite for alternative realities. In a 2016 Public Policy poll, 60 percent of Republicans claimed that millions of undocumented immigrants voted in the 2016 election, depriving Donald Trump of a popular vote victory. Those who are undocumented go to great lengths to avoid detection for fear of deportation. It defies common sense to think that millions of them decided that the nation’s polling places would be a good place to hide out.
America’s misinformation problem is destructive. Urgent policy problems have in part gone unattended for lack of factual agreement. Facts don’t settle arguments, but they’re a starting point. How do we effectively respond to human-caused climate change when huge numbers of Republicans deny it’s happening? Alternative realities are also driving us apart. Tribalism comes easily when we harbor absurd beliefs. Are those on the opposite side of the partisan divide “dishonest” and “immoral?” According to a Pew Research Center poll, a great many Democrats and Republicans think so.
America’s misinformation problem will not be easy to reverse. Change would have to start at the top. Political leaders who lie with abandon —and there are now so many that lying is close to being normalized — are more than an affront to democracy. Research indicates that misinformation is highest on issues that leaders fabricate or distort.
News outlets also need to step up. Although seldom the originator of misinformation, their routines, including the quoting of political leaders without regard for the accuracy of what’s said, contribute to its spread. A Columbia School of Journalism study concluded that “news organizations play a major role in propagating hoaxes, false claims, questionable rumors, and dubious viral content.”
And we need to change. We’re relying less on the traditional guardians of information — our journalists, educators, and scientists — and relying more on unreliable sources — our talk show hosts, bloggers, and ideologues. Although it’s reassuring to listen to those who tell us what we’d like to hear, we’re in danger of deluding ourselves to death.
Thomas E. Patterson is professor of government and the press at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and author of the newly released book "How America Lost Its Mind.''