Politicians don’t know more than you do
Here are three truths in today’s political world:
1. Politicians don’t know what they’re talking about.
Shock, gasp, right? It’s the oldest saying in Washington, D.C. but it’s also true — potentially more true today than it ever was.
The Guardian published a great editorial on the science behind misinformation last week. While much hullabaloo is made of social media’s role, misinforming politicians is not a new phenomenon — and Big Tobacco wrote its most effective playbook.
What works isn’t blatant fabrication, rather stoking confusion and playing up irrelevant truths. The Guardian’s example was the Big Tobacco push for asbestos-caused cancer research — hint: it wasn’t for our health, but rather to provide a distraction that proved healthier for their bottom line.
Over time, confusion and strategically-placed irrelevant information can sway even the smartest politician. A recent study modeled how decision-makers become swayed into believing things that all relevant experts know to be untrue. To repeat: They believe things all relevant experts know to be untrue — that should give us all pause when we consider the power of lobbyists at all political levels.
2. Fake news works on voters.
Take Brazil, for example. In June, the country’s electoral court made each political party promise to refrain from fake news during the presidential campaign. By the October runoff election between Jair Bolsonaro, the head of the Social Liberal Party, and Workers’ Party candidate Fernando Haddad, a Bloomberg report called the Brazil’s main social media — WhatsApp — an “impenetrable candyland of misinformation” complete with a partisan assassination video actually lifted from a robbery.
Think of the many dollars spent in this election cycle, pressing influence into your physical and digital inboxes, eyeballs and ears. Are the charges simplistic, targeting an emotional reaction? You can bet on it.
3. Having to wade through the muck of false information gives rise to the two-headed dragon of polarization and apathy — that also, ironically, allows it to exist.
Fake news at its core is fueled by our mistrust — mistrust of traditional news, mistrust of science and scientists, mistrust of knowledge and the systems behind knowledge. When you start believing that you can’t believe anything, fake news expert University of Connecticut professor Michael Patrick Lynch told Bloomberg that we double down on preexisting beliefs or opt out of the system entirely.
Says Bloomberg, “The electorate is then divided between those who dominate the discourse with information that supports only their personal views and those who tune out politics entirely.”
The good news is that knowing what’s out there and being aware of the forces at play make us all smarter voters. We know “alternative facts” are more rampant than, you know, facts. But that doesn’t stop us from searching past the easy answer. That’s our job as a newspaper.