Misinformation as the Symptom, not the Disease - BCB #79
Also: Centrists might have an easier time dating, and extremists tend to become more moderate
Philosopher Daniel Williams argues that we can’t solve misinformation with bandage solutions unless we tackle its root cause of institutional mistrust.
Williams rejects the notion that misinfo happens because “people—specifically other people—are gullible and hence easily infected by bad ideas.” He points to how people have historically been difficult to persuade, even when expensive advertising campaigns and propaganda are deployed.
To many commentators, this fact is difficult to accept. If people are not gullible and persuasion is difficult, what explains extraordinary popular delusions and bizarre conspiracy theories?
Williams argues that most discussions of misinfo take for granted that the truth is inherently obvious, so that false beliefs arise from credulous acceptance. Yet he reminds us that the truth about complex issues is often not obvious at all, as we all interpret factual information through intuitions and values that are not — and cannot be — objective. To counteract existing biases, we must first encounter and then trust reliable information.
Unfortunately, not only do most citizens not pay much attention to politics or the news, but a minority actively distrust institutions such as modern science, public health authorities, and mainstream media. The causes of this distrust are complex and diverse. They include psychological traits that predispose some people towards paranoid worldviews; institutional failures, such as telling noble lies to manage public behaviour and dismissing legitimate ideas as conspiracy theories; and feelings—often justified—of exclusion from positions of power and influence. Whatever its causes, however, such distrust often drives people to seek out information—commonly misinformation—from counter-establishment sources and reject information from mainstream ones.
Even when people are incentivized to seek truth, Williams believes misinfo arises from factors like affective polarization and anti-establishment worldviews, which lead to the creation and sharing of content that demonizes outgroups and elites. This means many of the interventions we’ve discussed on BCB, like pre-bunking and fact-checking, are not enough to stop its spread. He notes that censorship in particular could make problems worse, a topic we recently addressed.
Williams makes a pretty reasonable suggestion: If we want to tackle the source of misinfo, investing in making institutions trustworthy is more efficient than trying to make people compliant. This suggests prioritizing issues that contribute to misinfo, such as social inequalities and increasing polarization. Restoring trust in the government is easier said than done, but there are no magic bullets.
A widening ideological gap is threatening young Americans’ dating and marriage prospects. We discussed how Gen Z tends to not date across party lines. Now, new findings reveal a polarizing liberal-conservative divide among white Gen Z men and women, alongside diverging views on feminism.
According to a major new American Enterprise Institute survey, 46 percent of White Gen Z women are liberal, compared to only 28 percent of White Gen Z men, more of whom (36 percent) now identify as conservative. Norms around sexuality and gender are diverging, too. Where 61 percent of Gen Z women see themselves as feminist, only 43 percent of Gen Z men do.
Since Donald Trump’s election, self-identified liberal women shot up from 20% to 32%, while men have grown more conservative.
People are choosing to ideologically sort more, meaning that social lives are organized around people who have similar views. College graduates seeking the same kind of beliefs “has set up young Americans for disappointment” since this group is more likely to find opposing political views offensive.
While politically mixed couples report somewhat lower levels of satisfaction than same-party couples, they are still likely to be happier than those who remain single.
On the other hand, if you’re having trouble dating because of extreme views, the good news is that political beliefs tend to become moderate with time. A new study challenges the assumption that individuals with extreme political attitudes are resistant to change. Utilizing large-scale panel surveys in the U.S. and the Netherlands, researchers tracked the evolution of political attitudes in individuals over 13 years.
In the U.S. the same respondents answered survey questions on their policy positions in 2006, 2008, and 2010 to examine how their individual political views evolved with time.
Individuals with extreme political views are more likely to change over time compared to those with moderate views, challenging the assumption that extreme attitudes are more stubborn.
Quote of the Week
What would an epistemically healthy society look like? Institutions in government, science, and the media would be diverse, inclusive, transparent, and accountable. Citizens would feel that they have a stake in public decision making and have the resources and opportunities to participate within it. Experts and policymakers would engage in honest communication, acknowledging uncertainty and treating the public as rational agents capable of handling hard truths, not panic-prone populations to be managed with strategic messaging. And perhaps most importantly, there would be enough social trust that everyone – citizen and policymakers alike – would genuinely try to understand why others disagree with them instead of dismissing other views as the result of brute irrationality or brainwashing.
Image prompt: The image is divided into three distinct sections. On the left, the plain blue background with people looking sad and disconnected. The center section with a plain purple background, where people of different genders and races are dancing joyfully together. On the right, the background is a plain red shade, and depicts people who are sad and alone, emphasizing a sense of isolation and difficulty in dating for that perspective. This adjustment further accentuates the contrasting emotional states and social interactions.