How RAND Is Responding to Truth Decay: Q&A with Michael Rich and Jennifer Kavanagh


May 5, 2017

The word truth in fading black paint

Photo by ury Zap/Fotolia

RAND President and CEO Michael Rich has been talking about what he sees as an erosion of respect for facts and evidence in political life—a phenomenon he calls “Truth Decay.” He asked RAND political scientist Jennifer Kavanagh to help analyze the issue and lay out a research agenda to better understand Truth Decay's causes and consequences. RAND's editorial team interviewed Rich and Kavanagh to learn more about their work. In this edited interview, they talk about the evolution of their thinking on Truth Decay, how they define it, and the ongoing research RAND is conducting to help counter it.

What do you mean by Truth Decay, and when did you start thinking about the subject?

Michael Rich: My thinking on Truth Decay grew out of my work on the dangers of polarization, something I've been speaking on since 2005. More recently, I have been astounded by the erosion of truth in our politics. I'm using the term Truth Decay because I think it captures a phenomenon that goes well beyond the current outbreak of “fake news.”

Truth Decay describes a syndrome of distrust and disagreement. I see it as a process, not an end state. It has multiple causes and manifestations, some new and some that reach far back in history.

Jennifer Kavanagh: One of the elements we use to define Truth Decay is increased disagreement on basic sets of facts where consensus used to be more widespread, like the science showing the benefits of vaccines.

Another part of our definition is the erosion of what used to be a clear line between fact and opinion. You can see this in news outlets where news stories and commentary often are difficult to distinguish from each other.

There's also a growing volume of opinions relative to facts in the information space, which can drown out the facts. Look at your Twitter feed or any social media platform—quite the imbalance of opinion versus facts.

Michael's comment on trust is another aspect. In the past 20 years, the portion of Americans saying they trust newspapers and TV news “a great deal” or “quite a lot” has fallen from 35 percent to 20 percent, while trust in Congress fell from 22 percent to 9 percent. Even trust in books has declined, according to Gallup—from 41 percent in 1997 to 27 percent in 2016. How can we establish a core set of objective facts when people fundamentally don't trust key sources of information?

How widespread is this lack of trust?

Kavanagh: Plenty. A recent Edelman study found record mistrust worldwide, including in non-Western countries such as Malaysia. Europe is seeing the same degradation of trust in political institutions—the European Parliament as well as national parliaments—that we're seeing in the United States.

Could it be healthy that institutions are trusted less?

It's dangerous if people decide that it doesn't matter if something is factual or not.

Rich: It may be a good thing to the extent that people demand transparency and accountability from institutions and insist on verifiable facts, accuracy, and objectivity. It's not healthy if people begin reflexively distrusting all the experts and institutions they used to rely upon for complex technical or scientific information. And it's dangerous if people decide that it doesn't matter if something is factual or not, as long as it advances their interests or conforms to their beliefs.

That's why I believe that Truth Decay and the polarization that drives it are grave threats to America—to our politics, our values, and ultimately our democracy. It's rotting away our public discourse, undermining our civic literacy, and we've even seen it inspire violence.

What's the ultimate harm?

Rich: Well, it's hard to maintain democracy if you can't govern. Truth Decay certainly seems to be making it more difficult for government to function. Congress has been having chronic trouble passing laws, confirming nominees, and approving a budget. While there are a number of potential causes including differing values and reluctance to compromise, it seems it's in part because of disagreement about basic policy facts.

Another harm can arise if external adversaries use disinformation to delegitimize systems of governance. Think of the surge in cross-border propaganda, such as the effort by Russia that RAND studied in Christopher Paul's “Firehose of Falsehood” report.

A decline in trust in institutions can be life-threatening.

Unfortunately, information overload might be making us more vulnerable to disinformation. Garry Kasparov, the chess master and Russian dissident, said: “The point of modern propaganda isn't only to misinform or push an agenda. It is to exhaust your critical thinking … to annihilate truth.”

A decline in trust in institutions also can be life-threatening. Attacks on science have caused people to doubt the safety of vaccination, for instance. But study after study—including by RAND—shows that vaccines do not cause autism or other major harm. Some parents still refuse to vaccinate their children, which has real consequences. We are seeing a return of viruses like measles that had been mostly eradicated in America.

Where do you see signs of Truth Decay?

Rich: Russian disinformation and hacking are good places to start. There's strong evidence of it in the United States, the former Soviet Union, and in Western Europe. We don't know how far it went in terms of influencing the last U.S. election, but we know Russia is using falsehood to sow confusion and delegitimize Western democracies.

You may have seen the New York Times magazine article in 2015 that described the activities of government-funded trolls in Russia. It describes a very sophisticated ruse in Louisiana to make residents of St. Mary Parish think there had been a disastrous chemical spill caused by ISIS.

Another example: The Brexit campaign in Britain was marked by huge discrepancies in expert calculations vs. politician statements about UK payments to the EU (such as the claim “every week we send £350M to Brussels”). And we've already discussed the widespread decline in trust in institutions. This is also an example of Truth Decay.

When have we seen past periods that share the markers of Truth Decay?

Kavanagh: Essentially, in similar periods of political and social unrest, rapid technological and economic changes and turmoil in the media landscape. One example is “yellow journalism” in the 1890s—the creation of false news for profit and political motives, similar to the “fake news” we see now. The yellow journalism phenomenon is sometimes blamed as contributing to the political crisis and eventual war between the United States and Spain in 1898.

Another example was during the Vietnam War. The line that “truth is the first casualty of war” was a big deal then. Certain actors in the government were discovered to have been telling the public untruths about what was going on in the war, and the pro- and anti-war camps were both spreading disinformation to manipulate public opinion. Experience and opinion became pervasive in media coverage, just as we are seeing today.

What is RAND doing about Truth Decay?

Rich: We're doing what RAND does best—we're turning to research and analysis to better define the issue, and understand its drivers and consequences. This will enable us to move on to explore effective solutions.

What have you learned so far about Truth Decay?

Kavanagh: Our initial work indicates several key drivers. First, there's our cognitive biases. Humans' brains are wired such that we tend to accept information that confirms our current beliefs. We reject even factual information that challenges our biases, and we are heavily influenced by emotion and experiences in our decisionmaking. So our cognitive processing habits contribute to our susceptibility to Truth Decay.

Another factor is that the information space has changed around us: 24/7 news cycles, the financial stress and fragmentation of media companies, social media, the massive increase in the speed and volume of information circulating. Search engines and social media algorithms can also amplify misinformation or disinformation. In April, you saw Google tweak its search algorithm to move stories it had identified as “fake news” farther down in its results. RAND has recently published research on how algorithms can be vulnerable to bias and error—yet many are proprietary and extremely difficult to evaluate.

Our cognitive processing habits contribute to our susceptibility to Truth Decay.

We also may not be equipping young people with the tools to understand how they can help. We see reduced training in critical thinking and reduced emphasis on civics education that can train students to evaluate information sources and engage with government institutions.

Finally there's polarization—both among political parties and among Americans, who are tending to segregate themselves culturally and geographically. Polarization is actually both a driver and a result of Truth Decay.

What's new about the phenomenon?

Rich: As Jennifer said, one big difference between current and previous manifestations of Truth Decay is how social media amplifies the problem. Winston Churchill is reported to have said, ”A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth can get its pants on.” It's worse now. With social media, false or misleading information is disseminated all over the world nearly instantaneously.

But democracies have not agreed on procedures for taking false material down. Some governments require that hate speech be deleted. Others have laws on defamation and incitement. But there is no agreement on legal or regulatory remedies to information that is blatantly false. Many Western governments as well as the technology companies are still struggling to develop responses to false news reports, and foreign propaganda.

Kavanagh: Another thing that's new about Truth Decay is the confluence of factors that are interacting in ways we do not fully understand yet. It is not clear that key drivers like our cognitive biases, polarization, changes in the information space, and the education system's struggle to respond to this sort of challenge have ever coincided at such intensive and extreme levels as they do now.

Who is responsible for Truth Decay?

Rich: Truth Decay describes a syndrome. There is no single culprit. If you look back in history, we've seen things like Truth Decay occurring before. It's not just the problem of a particular party. This is a bipartisan problem with deep historical roots.

Consider the “Truth-o-Meter” database created by Politifact. It rates the factual accuracy of various statements by elected officials—not a scientific sample, to be sure, but it looked at statements that are considered noteworthy or controversial. Of the statements evaluated as of February, it was rating nearly half of those from the four top Congressional leaders (Speaker of the House, Senate Majority Leader and the two Minority Leaders) as partly or completely false.

Why is RAND looking into Truth Decay?

Rich: Our goal in speaking out about Truth Decay is about getting the public focused on the value of facts and evidence as the basis for good public policy. We need debates based on a common set of facts—not slugfests over competing set of facts, or debates that boil down to opinions about opinions.

RAND is fiercely nonpartisan. We stand for facts and evidence.

RAND is fiercely nonpartisan. We stand for facts and evidence. We are not aligned with either the Democratic Party or the Republican Party.

I would like to see RAND help define what it means to be a responsible citizen in a 21st century democracy. Citizens and policymakers need to adapt to a world where disinformation and misinformation are proliferating even as we debate what ought to be done about the problem. We hope that other civil society leaders who value the primacy of facts and evidence in their own decisionmaking will also become involved.

Truth Decay is a threat to all the people and institutions that play a role in uncovering facts, communicating unwelcome truths and standing up for evidence-based solutions, as well as those that rely on or use facts to make policies and decisions. This includes RAND. But more importantly, it's a threat to the people whose lives those policies and decisions affect.

So how do you feel about our prospects—are you hopeful Truth Decay can be stemmed?

Rich: Well, I would go back to my definition of Truth Decay—that it is a process, not an end state. It is certainly something that can be addressed. We don't have the answers yet—changes to civic education certainly may be part of it, or some institutions may need to alter their behavior.

I see reasons to be optimistic. Even as Truth Decay erodes our political discourse, other areas of American life are benefiting more and more from valuing facts and analysis. American business leaders are more data-driven than ever. They understand that bad facts or faulty analysis can lead to failure or bankruptcy.

Truth Decay is a process, not an end state. It can certainly be addressed.

Other professions are also more fact-driven today. Law, medicine, and advertising are finding ways to incorporate more data into decisionmaking. Think of sports. Even baseball teams are all changing how they operate based on what they're learning from big-data analytics. Or philanthropy. It used to be thought of by some as a touchy-feely enterprise. But donors are increasingly focused on quantitative metrics. They want to see evidence about what works and how their gifts can have a positive impact on the world.

On a common-sense level, people understand the consequences of ignoring facts in the physical world. Buildings can collapse or burn when contractors lie about meeting construction standards. We need to show that the effects of Truth Decay in politics can be just as terrible.

Overall, my outlook is positive. I've spent my career as a leader of a scientific institution focused on public well-being. We base our work on facts and rigorous analysis, and we solve problems. So while I'm a realist, I'm predisposed to an optimism that's based on a forward march of science—and improvements that science has delivered for individuals and communities. Truth Decay may be afflicting our politics, but there's a way out, and a way forward.