As we all learned in high school, citizens of a good democratic government are well-informed, able to sort through the issues of the day in deciding who to vote for or what is a good policy. Thomas Jefferson, among many others, made that argument: “by far the most important bill in our whole code [of new laws] is for the diffusion of knowledge among the people. [N]o other sure foundation can be devised for the preservation of freedom, and happiness.” Implicit here is the assumption that while citizens’ preferences may differ, they agree on the important facts.
But our research suggests the opposite: political misinformation is rampant. Widely shared misinformation hampers democracy because it makes it difficult for groups of people to take effective and appropriate action on shared civic problems. (As, variously, Mark Twain, Satchel Paige, or Will Rogers is reported to have said, “It isn’t what we don’t know that gives us trouble, it’s what we know that ain’t so.”)
The example of global warming reveals the extent and importance of misinformation. Yale University poll data from 2015 show that one-fifth of Americans think global warming is not happening. Another three-tenths think it is occurring but is mostly caused by “natural changes in the environment” rather than “human activities.” Both sets of respondents are wrong. Of those who ventured an opinion on this question, almost all agreed that there is no consensus among scientists on the fact and causes of climate change – another piece of incorrect “knowledge.”
These mistakes are important because false knowledge is associated with policy preferences. According to our analysis of 2012 Gallup poll data, between a third (on expanding the use of nuclear energy) and a half (on enforcing environmental regulations) of misinformed respondents opposed a series of policies to alleviate or offset climate change. These individuals, in short, hold policy views that accord with their misinformation. As a result, their views are neither in their own interests (presuming that they would suffer from global warming as others would) nor good for the country as a whole.
Partisanship strongly predicts who is misinformed on a given issue and holds preferences consistent with their incorrect “knowledge.” In the case of global warming, three-fourths of Republicans, compared with 44 percent of Democrats, answered at least one (of two) factual questions incorrectly in 2012. Even among all misinformed individuals, Republicans were more likely to oppose enforcement of environmental regulations.
Misinformation is not the sole property of Republicans, however. In our book, “Do Facts Matter? Information and Misinformation in Democratic Politics,” we highlight an array of cases in which citizens’ misinformation is associated with policy views that violated their own interests or the good of the United States as a whole. Those cases include, among others, the Affordable Care Act, Justice Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearings, the “birther” movement (the belief that President Obama was born outside the United States), Iraq and weapons of mass destruction, and childhood vaccination. Democrats were more misinformed in some of those cases, Republicans in others. In some cases –such as parents’ refusal to vaccinate or Americans’ belief that the Iraq invasion was necessary in order to eliminate the country’s weapons of mass destruction–people died because of the choice to act on misinformation. In other cases–such as opposition by the uninsured to the Affordable Care Act or liberal African Americans’ support for confirming Clarence Thomas to be a Supreme Court justice—people have relied on false “knowledge” to make choices that ended up violating their own interests as they defined them.
Interconnections among partisanship, misinformation, and mistaken policy preferences is well-known to political science researchers. What has not before been fully explored are politicians’ incentives to tolerate or even encourage false “knowledge.” Consider how misinformation looks from a politician’s vantage point. A misinformed voter who holds concordant policy or political views is in a very stable state. She “knows” something important, she uses this “knowledge” when she thinks about politics (as a good citizen is supposed to do), she is connected with a compatible political party and leaders, and many friends or members of the group with which she identifies share her understanding of how the world works. Furthermore, inertia is powerful, so a change in political views is always less likely than persistence. To persuade this person to reject false knowledge, change policy views, disagree with friends, agree with former enemies, and perhaps abandon leaders or even a political party, requires an enormous amount of effort and resources. Both of these are inevitably in short supply in a political campaign.
Thus leaders of one political party—for instance, in the case of global warming, Democrats—have little incentive to try to persuade people holding and using factual misinformation to change their minds and behaviors. Democratic candidates can get much more bang for the buck by deploying their scarce resources to persuade current supporters or fence-sitters to go to the polls and vote Democratic. Conversely, leaders of the other political party – Republicans in the case of global warming–have a powerful incentive to keep individuals misinformed and active. These misinformed individuals hold views that accord with the party’s platform, they are inclined to support Republican candidates who, after all, share their views, and friends or family members who concur will encourage them to vote. Why would any Republican politician who wants to win office (a redundancy!) expend resources to tell his or her supporters that they are wrong in their supposed knowledge and policy preferences? As the political consultant Lee Atwater is supposed to have said, “Politics and facts don’t belong in the same room.”
Luckily, there are some responses available to citizens and political leaders who seek to follow Jefferson’s precept and bring our government closer to the democratic ideal. We discuss them in “Do Facts Matter?” Strategies to combat misinformation range from education through carefully selected policy options, fact checkers, expert advocacy, legal decisions, and policy mandates. Some are available to private citizens such as teachers and group leaders; others are better suited to judges, legislators, the media, experts such as doctors or clergy. None is fully effective and all may be weak in the face of a stable, gratifying intersection among false information, corresponding policy views, connection with like-minded others, and reinforcing politicians. But for proponents of good democratic governance, they are worth trying.
Jennifer L. Hochschild is Henry LaBarre Jayne Professor of Government and Professor of African and African American Studies at Harvard University, and president-elect of the American Political Science Association. Katherine Levine Einstein is assistant professor of political science at Boston University.