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False Facts and the Conservative Distortion Machine: It’s Much More Than Just Fox News

A new study found that voters’ values and partisanship had the strongest associations with distorted beliefs.
 
 
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Citizens are misinformed — often badly so. It’s not just that they lack good information — which would merely make them uninformed — they have plenty of bad information that leads them to believe untrue things. Or more likely the other way around: They believe untrue things, and that leads them to collect — even invent — bad information to flesh out what they already believe.

This was vividly illustrated by a 1991 study that found that the more people watched TV during the first Gulf War, the less they knew about fundamental issues and facts, even as they were more likely to support the war. Wanting to believe that the U.S. was involved in a noble cause, for example, only 13 percent knew that when Iraq first threatened to invade Kuwait, the U.S. said it would take no action, while 65 percent falsely “knew” that the U.S. said it would support Kuwait militarily.

But the problem is hardly limited to this one example, or to issues of war and peace more generally. Misinformation in public life isn’t the exception, it’s the rule, and researchers have been grappling with that fact, and its implications, for some time now. A new study published in Social Science Quarterly employs a “knowledge distortion index” and looks at two competing explanations for why this is so — one more top-down, the other more bottom-up — using three Washington state initiatives from the 2006 general election cycle to examine the dynamics of what is going on in this particular sort of political environment.

The study, “How Voters Become Misinformed: An Investigation of the Emergence and Consequences of False Factual Beliefs,” found that “voters’ values and partisanship had the strongest associations with distorted beliefs, which then influenced voting choices. Self-reported levels of exposure to media and campaign messages played a surprisingly limited role,” despite the presence of significantly mistaken “facts,” which were used to help construct the knowledge distortion index.

“Two of the competing theories on how people analyze political issues and develop factual beliefs are heuristics and cultural cognition,” the study’s lead author, Justin Reedy, told Salon. “Both of these theories recognize that citizens can develop distorted factual beliefs because of their political views, but they disagree about how those distortions might happen. Heuristics researchers generally think that citizens have limited attention for politics and try to process information quickly and efficiently.”

This is the more top-down approach, as we’ll soon see.

“People who are fairly politically knowledgeable can figure out whether political information and factual claims match up with their own ideology or not — and therefore whether they should accept or reject those,” Reedy explained. “Cultural cognition researchers, however, see political opinions as driven by deep-seated values about how the world works, and not contingent on someone’s political knowledge.”

Dan Kahan of Yale Law School is the figure most associated with cultural cognition approach (website here). He found the study useful. “I think it worked,” he told Salon. “It adds information.” He also found the broader project of studying the initiative process promising. “The opportunities to observe how people form their views will probably really be enhanced in many cases where there’s some kind of a high-profile referendum,” he said, “and where you can be confident that members of the electorate are engaged by it.”

“The two theories differ on the importance of media and campaign messages, too,” Reedy continued. “Heuristics theory argues that citizens need to get at least some information from the media or from a campaign itself, like endorsements from political parties or key politicians, to help them align their views with their ideology.” This is the sort of thing that campaign workers everywhere fervently believe. But they, too, could be misinformed. “Cultural cognitive theory, though, argues that citizens will get enough cues about nearly any issue in the public sphere to help them align their views on that issue with their underlying values.”

 
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