Expert Insights: Truth Decay in Europe

The role of facts and data in public life in Europe is changing and a new study has found evidence of the signs of #TruthDecay. However, there is still time to act and help prevent or slow its growth. Senior researchers Axelle Devaux and Stijn Hoorens discuss the research in the Expert Insights podcast.

Transcript

Catherine McShane

Well, welcome everybody to the Expert Insights podcast with RAND Europe. In these sessions, we discuss our latest research and we look more in-depth at pressing policy issues. In this episode, we will be discussing a recently released study on Truth Decay in Europe, and this is very interesting as it looks at the role of facts and analysis in European public life and how that might be changing. So it is part of a greater research initiative at the RAND Corporation, which we, RAND Europe, is an affiliation of. I'm Cat McShane from RAND Europe and on the program are two of the report authors Axelle Devaux and Stijn Hoorens, as well as Jennifer Kavanagh. So before we start, I think it would be really helpful if you could all briefly introduce yourselves and your roles, starting with you, Axelle.

Axelle Devaux

Hi, my name is Axelle Devaux, I'm a research leader in social policies at RAND Europe, based in our Brussels office. My recent research has focused on democracy and how technology has influenced how people participate in education and society.

Stijn Hoorens

My name is Stijn Hoorens, I'm a researcher at RAND and I also lead RAND's office, RAND Europe's office in Brussels. And over the past years at RAND, my research has covered a number of areas, including the societal impacts of new media and technologies, and I've also done work on security and on crime and illicit market.

Jennifer Kavanagh

Hi, I'm Jennifer Kavanagh. I'm a senior political scientist based in Washington, D.C., and I am the director of the Countering Truth Decay Initiative, which is a portfolio of projects looking at the concept that we call Truth Decay, which explores the role of facts and analysis in public life.

Catherine McShane

Thanks, everybody. Jennifer, I'll dive straight into it with you, then. You've touched on the Truth Decay Initiative lightly there, I think it would be really helpful to know, sort of, what the main trends of Truth Decay are, so, what it is, and then perhaps why RAND decided to turn the spotlight on Europe.

Jennifer Kavanagh

Well, it's a great question. RAND defines Truth Decay as the diminishing role of facts, data, and analysis in public life. And in our definition, Truth Decay is characterized by four trends. The first is an increasing disagreement about facts and data. An example would be disagreement about the safety of vaccines. The second trend is a blurring of the line between opinion and fact. And the third trend goes along with that; an increase in relative volume and resulting influence of opinion over fact. Most people are familiar with these two trends. We see it when we turn on the television or we look at social media. And the final trend is declining trust in formerly respected sources of factual information, including the government or the news media.

The first research that we did on Truth Decay outlined these four trends in the U.S. context, and we describe the ways in which the phenomenon of Truth Decay has worsened the last two decades — eroding civil discourse, causing political paralysis, and leading to public uncertainty and disengagement. And we also considered the drivers or causes of the phenomena. We looked at the role of cognitive bias, the role of changes in the information system, the nature of demands on the educational system and the role that plays in providing people resilience to disinformation. And we looked at polarization — political polarization, but also social and demographic polarization.

And finally, the book laid out a research agenda to better understand Truth Decay and identify ways to counter it. Part of that agenda was thinking about how the phenomenon might be the same or different internationally. As I said, we focus specifically on the U.S. context in the first book that we did on this topic. So the Truth Decay in Europe work was an attempt to explore the Truth Decay framework described in our first book in the European context to identify similarities and differences and then explore their implications for policymakers.

Catherine McShane

Thanks, Jennifer, that was really helpful to give us a bit of background. Given that background, Axelle, if I can put this question to you then next. So the big question is, are these Truth Decay trends that Jennifer discussed, are they evident in Europe? Can you tell us the main findings and what you found particularly interesting about them?

Axelle Devaux

So first of all, what I find interesting in the study; so we find interesting is that while we were writing the study, Truth Decay was happening around us and there were so many examples of what we were researching that were happening right in front of us. So that was the interesting part. Next to that, a challenging part of the study because the context was evolving every day and we try to keep up with the research, but new relevant articles were published every day. So in short, it was very interesting and relevant study, but also challenging to undertake in an evolving context.

Now back to the original question. The short answer is yes. We found evidence for the four Truth Decay trends in Europe. First, we found evidence of an increasing disagreement about facts and data in Europe. What it means is that we now disagree on things that we should not disagree about. If I can give you an example to illustrate that — if we take immigration, we used to disagree on whether to support immigration policies or not. We now argue about the scale of immigration and the number of migrants. The former shows a healthy functioning of democracy where different opinions exist. The latter illustrates discussions about facts and data, for which there should not be room for discussion, really.

We also find evidence of a blurring line between opinion and fact in Europe. One example is the factual news reporting that is increasingly mixed with commentary, interpretation, and even advertising. And it makes it very difficult for the readers and viewers to see what is fact and what is opinion. In addition to that, the volume of commentary and opinion is increasing more and faster than the volume of facts, which itself is rather stable.

To summarize, we are overwhelmed with information and facts are more difficult to distinguish from opinion than ever before, so we don't know what to trust. And that actually leads us to the fourth trend that we observe in Europe — a declining trust in formerly respected sources of information. This is true for the media. Trust in the media in Europe has been declining gradually over the last two decades. But what we find interesting is that trust in political institutions has increased since the financial crisis. And this contrasts with what Jennifer found in the U.S.

Catherine McShane

So it sounds like there is evidence of Truth Decay in Europe, but it's slightly different from how it looks in the States and it's not as pronounced or as deeply embedded. Stijn, could you tell me, was the research sort of able to identify the reasons for these differences?

Stijn Hoorens

Yeah, so exactly. As Axelle says, we find evidence of Truth Decay, but we also observe that the speed and the magnitude of these trends tend to be higher and more pronounced in the U.S. than in Europe. In the book, Jennifer, as she just explains together with her coauthor, Michael Rich, they identify a number of drivers for Truth Decay. And some of these drivers, they are almost inherently universal, which is, you know, like Jennifer said, cognitive processing and cognitive biases — now these are hardwired in the human brain — or changes in the information system, although there are some regional differences, the internet and changes in the publishing model and social media uptake, and so on. They have changed how information is shared and processed at a global scale.

But there are some regional differences in those drivers as well—Axelle mentioned the competing demands in the education system, and we find that education systems in Europe tend to be more ready, so to say, to address the challenges linked to Truth Decay, and therefore the role of this driver is not as prominent in Europe as it is in the United States. But we conclude that the key in explaining the differences in Truth Decay between Europe and the U.S. really lies in the speed and the extent of polarization.

Catherine McShane

Can you expand on that and sort of explain what polarization is? I think Jennifer mentioned that, as well.

Stijn Hoorens

In our work, we describe polarization as a process that describes an increasing division into two, or more, sharply contrasting groups of people that share similar characteristics or beliefs or opinions. So it is this increasing sorting of people into groups with similar characteristics that could then become more insular in their thinking and in their communication. And it is that process that could create closed environments in which opinion or even false information could proliferate. In other words, the chance of bumping into someone who has different beliefs or different opinions is much lower, and that reduces the chance of having meaningful interactions that challenge your own beliefs or opinions.

Polarization in the context of Truth Decay is particularly important because not only does it contribute to an eroding role of facts and evidence in the public debate, but in turn Truth Decay may also exacerbate polarization. Which then, as you can imagine, could create some kind of a vicious circle of Truth Decay. Now in the report, we discussed different types of polarization, along socio-demographic characteristics like income levels or education levels, economic, ideological, political polarization. And for all of those, we do find some evidence that this process is happening in Europe, but that it is happening at a higher speed in the U.S. than in Europe. You know, we find evidence for more insular thinking in parts of Europe in terms of party politics, for instance. And you know, we showed that Europe has seen a hollowing out of the political center and the rise of the parties at the extreme ends of the political center, both left and right and even some, you know, some niche areas, like environment or animal rights. But the extent of disagreement on different political themes is weaker than it is in the United States.

There are various explanations of that or potential explanations of that. You can think of how media landscapes or systems are structured or how electoral systems work, you know, with multi-party systems and direct representation and so on in several European countries. And those aspects could have or may have mitigated these trends.

Catherine McShane

So I'm interested to know then, it sounds like the effects of polarization in many European countries is less polarized. But I'm interested to know does this still hold true for the trends during the pandemic, because there are lots of things that have sort of come to the surface during the pandemic and issues that people have been have quite different opinions about.

Stijn Hoorens

Yeah, absolutely. And we see it around us, right? We see very heavy and almost hostile conversations on vaccines and on, you know, face mask mandates and so on. They definitely seem very polarized. You know, first of all, I think it's important to say that, of course, much of the research and the data we considered in our report, they stemmed from before the pandemic. So to some extent, the jury is still out on this issue. But and secondly, what we need to bear in mind is that what we read in the news and what we see on social media is not necessarily representative for an entire population. There are some studies that show that it's actually a relative small minorities are very active and vocal individuals that often dominate online debates. So what might seem very visible and increasingly hostile tensions could actually just be, you know, some tussle between marginal groups of, you know, a few hundred individuals.

But having said that, the extent of this concept of effective polarization so that's, you know, the dislike of opposing groups or groups with other opinions, that fully depends on how you've defined those groups and you know how you've done the clustering. So if you're looking at voting behavior, you're measuring the extent to which voters for different parties dislike each other. And that trend could remain relatively stable. But if you're asking, you know, football hooligans, for instance, how much they hate supporters of their rivals, you might find completely opposite trends.

You know, I think you're right that what you and I have been observing during the pandemic could definitely be an increase of ideological or affective polarization on issues like vaccination or face masks or obeying other government restrictions. And although much of this evidence is anecdotal, there's certainly some new empirical evidence supporting our observations. But it is possible that these trends of, for instance, pro-vax versus anti-vax, that they cut across traditional strata such as socio-demographics or party politics, you know, the traditional left-right scale or conservative versus liberal. So this would certainly be an area of further research.

Catherine McShane

Thanks, Stijn. And if I can sort of follow this up now because if I understand it, the evidence of Truth Decay is increasing. It's not as pronounced is in the States, but there is sort of an opportunity to perhaps sort of tackle the issue. So were there any recommendations for policymakers to make in Europe? Could you give examples of what people could do, Axelle?

Axelle Devaux

Yeah, sure. So in the report, we propose a number of pointers for policymakers. First, we find it important to ensure that people are equipped to counter Truth Decay and to avoid becoming agents of Truth Decay themselves. And we think that the way forward is to invest in media literacy skills so that people know how to react when they encounter the information, in particular on social media, for instance. The media are already playing great role in countering Truth Decay. For instance, in supporting fact checking. But there is an even greater role for them to play, and we think that it should go with rethinking their business model to make them less dependent on advertising alone and on sensational content to optimize viewers' viewership, and readership. There are also measures to be taken to elevate the political debate and to serve the quality of democracy in Europe. And this would involve strong commitment from not only the media, but also politicians and citizens. Social media are often criticized for making profit on the back of the users, and the data they use, which is a goldmine for them, could also be used to support not-for-profit social research. The European institutions are already working hard, and they're working on ways to mitigate their contribution to some of the Truth Decay trends. What we propose would offer that without making unrealistic demands about completely changing the business model, they would contribute to countering Truth Decay.

Catherine McShane

Stijn, you mentioned earlier about further research being likely or possible. How do you think future research should examine this issue in Europe so we can get a sort of handle on that problem?

Stijn Hoorens

Yeah, that's a really good question. There's so many aspects to this phenomenon, Jennifer explained. A number of drivers, a number of trends, and really to be able to do something about it you need to understand exactly how these mechanics work in all the different contexts. And you know, we've investigated these phenomena associated with Truth Decay in Europe in a similar fashion as Jennifer and Michael have done for the U.S. But of course, that is at best a little bit naive, to look at Europe as a homogeneous entity. What our findings showed that, for each of the trends and drivers and consequences there are considerable national and sometimes even regional differences. You've got different political and electoral systems, as I mentioned earlier. You've got different education systems and even more than twenty languages in which this Truth Decay could proliferate. So each country and each regional context in Europe is unique, and so is the speed and the nature of Truth Decay across Europe. So, you know, I would almost argue that each European country or region deserves its own Truth Decay book.

But there's another good reason for doing so, and that is that that's also how you fight Truth Decay. Axelle just mentioned a couple of potential interventions or instruments or policies to tackle Truth Decay. And although there are some initiatives at EU level, for instance, in targeting or regulating tech companies and social media, but there is no Europe-wide silver bullet. Truth Decay should be tackled in the classroom, in news or editorial rooms, and also in town halls or even in the local pubs where these actual conversations and this discourse happens. So if we want to be serious about tackling Truth Decay in Europe, we need to design interventions tailored to the regional and national contexts. And that's where I see most need for future research. And I know Axelle is interested in conducting further research into the role of people as agents of Truth Decay.

Axelle Devaux

Yeah, that's right. Actually, I would be interested to look at what we as individuals can do to counter Truth Decay. This would start, for instance, with understanding the extent to which people are aware that Truth Decay exists, how it works, where it comes from, and what the consequences are. And this is what we are trying to do at RAND. People also need to be able to spot it when they experience it and know what to do. Small things like not sharing disinformation, selecting quality sources of information, and keeping the public debate constructive and healthy can make a huge difference in democracy. We do not always need to rely on platforms or regulators to do the work that we can sometimes do ourselves. And I would be interested to explore that.

Catherine McShane

Thanks, Axelle. I find that sort of quite heartening. I can play my role, too, in helping to tackle Truth Decay instead of just being...

Stijn Hoorens

Yeah, yeah, exactly.

Axelle Devaux

Exactly.

Catherine McShane

That's it from us today. That's all we've got time for. So, a big thank you to our podcast participants for joining us on Expert Insights with RAND Europe. The study that we discussed today was Truth Decay in Europe: Exploring the Role of Facts and Analysis in European Public Life. The study was funded internally at RAND. And if you're interested in finding out more about this research, please visit our website at www.randeurope.org. RAND Europe is a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization that helps to improve policy and decisionmaking through our research and analysis.

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