Are Public Ignorance and Misinformation Getting Worse?
Many believe that political ignorance and misinformation have gotten worse in recent years, with the rise of the internet and social media, and its exploitation by populist political movements, conspiracy theorists, and others. But evidence supporting the idea that the public is more ignorant and more prone to misinformation today than in earlier eras is actually quite weak.
Recent articles by libertarian-leaning economist Tyler Cowen and liberal political commentator Matthew Yglesias provide helpful overviews of much of the available evidence on this. On the whole, they are right to conclude that these problems haven’t gotten significantly worse in recent years than was true in the past. But that doesn’t mean we can breathe a sigh of relief about public ignorance and misinformation. Rather, we should understand that political ignorance and biased evaluation of information have been serious problems all along – even when pundits and academics were less focused on them than today.
Cowen pushes back on the idea that the Covid era has seen an unusually great degree of misinformation by reminding us of past history when things were as bad or worse:
It’s hard to measure misinformation over time. But the premise that there was ever a golden age of accurate information, especially about public health, is suspect.
I just turned 60, so my youth is now fairly distant. Still, I can recall debates about smoking: not so much whether it was bad for you — that science was established, and the federal government had already initiated an anti-smoking campaign — but whether it was really all that bad. And I’m not talking about the occasional cigarette, but one or two packs a day. The scientific knowledge wasn’t nearly as socially salient as it is today, and there were many millions more smokers. That meant social opinion was invariably somewhat split….
Overall, I am genuinely unsure that misinformation about public health has become worse in my lifetime. My uncertainty is only strengthened when I do a reality check of how much general public misinformation there has been over the last six decades. A lot of experts and members of the public used to think the economy of the Soviet Union was just fine. They thought the Vietnam War was OK. They saw Nixon’s wage and price controls as justified.
Cowen’s list of examples can easily be extended. For example, there is a long history of anti-vaxxerism on both left and right. Yglesias notes some examples in his article.
Moving beyond public health, voter ignorance and misinformation have been serious problems for as long democracy has existed, all the way back to ancient Greece. Trump’s “Big Lie” about the 2020 election is a notable and dangerous example of the power of misinformation today. But it is no worse than widespread belief in the “stab in the back” myth of World War I, which played a major role in the Nazis’ rise to power during the Weimar Republic.
More generally, fascism and communism both achieved widespread popularity in the age of what we now consider traditional print and broadcast media; and advocates of both effectively exploited public ignorance in a variety of ways. Nothing that has happened in the age of Twitter and Facebook has – so far, at least – been anywhere near that bad.
Yglesias goes over some evidence indicating that political knowledge levels have remained roughly stable over the last two to three decades. He also points out (correctly) that many believers in conspiracy theories actually follow political issues more closely than most, and thus may in some ways be better-informed than others. But he goes wrong in arguing that people are likely actually better-informed than in the past, and that increasing political knowledge would do little good, because it cannot resolve difficult policy issues.
It is true, as Yglesias notes, that the internet has made accurate information on many issues more easily available than ever. But most voters have made little or no effort to take advantage of that. As Yglesias himself concedes elsewhere in the article, public knowledge of basic facts about politics has changed very little in recent decades, remaining at stably low levels. Most of the public continues to be ignorant even about very simple things, like the structure of government, how the federal government spends its money, and much else, besides.
Yglesias is right to emphasize that there are some difficult issues where increasing public knowledge may not do much to improv
Article from Reason.com