Truth Decay Is a Threat to Democracy. Here’s What You Can Do to Help Stop It

q&a

Mar 29, 2022

An illustration depicting the difference between light and darkness, image by Alyson Youngblood/RAND Corporation

Image by Alyson Youngblood/RAND Corporation

Truth Decay, which RAND defines as the diminishing role of facts in American public life, is a complicated, systemic phenomenon. Over the past two decades in the United States, it has contributed to political paralysis and eroded the civil discourse a healthy democracy needs to thrive. Addressing this threat will require a coordinated effort from research organizations, policymakers, tech companies, the media, and educators.

In other words, Truth Decay is not a problem that any one person can fix.

Still, we wanted to understand how Truth Decay plays out in everyday life, and how individuals can do their part to chip away at it. So we asked Jennifer Kavanagh, the lead author of RAND's seminal report on Truth Decay, for tips that anyone can use when reading the news, sharing information over social media, and talking with friends and family members.

Why is Truth Decay so difficult to address?

As an information consumer, there are many powerful Truth Decay forces working against you. There are your own cognitive biases, for one. (We all have them.) There's disinformation spreading rampantly online—some of which stems from foreign campaigns targeting Americans, but a lot of which comes from domestic sources. And there's a lot of opinion out there masquerading as fact.

Even though Truth Decay is a phenomenon that I've studied extensively, I still experience some of the same challenges as everyone else. It can be difficult to know what's reliable and what’s a trustworthy source.

How do I find reliable sources?

With the way information is presented today, you have to ask deeper questions of the content you read or watch, and then do your best to pursue the answers.

Generally, individuals should make it a point to find experts on complex subjects. Don't rely on friends, family, or the social media account with the most followers. For example, if you're looking for information about how COVID-19 spreads, seek out physicians or scientists who specialize in infectious disease. If you want facts on climate change, read up on the evidence documented by experienced scientists and peer-reviewed studies. If you want to learn more about nutrition, find registered dieticians who are trained in the field. This is what experts are for.

As important as it is to rely on experts, it’s also a good idea to get information from multiple sources. Seeking out diverse sources and perspectives can be helpful, too. When reading analysis and commentary, consuming many different views, even—and maybe especially—those that you disagree with, can help you get a broader sense of perspectives that shape an issue. Be wary of taking this too far, though. Make sure that those perspectives are grounded in facts. Don’t seek out fringe figures who may be looking for attention by disputing widely accepted scientific facts, such as the safety of vaccines for children or the reality of climate change.

Finally, because there's so much disinformation out there, educate yourself about disinformation campaigns, actors, and techniques, so that you know what they look like.

What should I look out for when I'm online?

One way to think about this is to consume information with intention. This includes recognizing the limits of your own knowledge on a subject, considering your biases (and the potential biases of the source), and always thinking critically about what you’re reading. More specifically, consider who is quoted and cited, what evidence is used, and how much detail is offered.

Being intentional about consuming information also means appreciating nuance and asking questions of what you're reading. You should be a “greedy” information consumer. Things are often oversimplified in a headline, a tweet, or even an article. But most questions don't have an easy answer, so it's important to try to understand the details and accept uncertainties. With the way information is presented today, you have to ask deeper questions of the content you read or watch, and then do your best to pursue the answers.

What should I do before I hit “share”?

It's important to share information responsibly. That always starts with carefully considering the accounts, articles, and statements you choose to elevate and who you are trying to reach with the information you share. Are you trying to educate others? Are you sharing a personal opinion? Or are you trying to evoke some emotion? This may influence what content you share online and how you share it. Of course, you should always avoid sharing manipulated, false, or misleading information, photos, or videos—even if it's only as a joke. But we all make mistakes. So, if you do share something that you later learn to be false, just correct it and be honest about the error.

How can I hold my friends and family accountable for information that they consume and share?

You can be a resource for your friends and family. There may be opportunities to talk to them about the tips discussed here, or you could share other credible resources to help guide them. You won’t be able to help everyone, but you can help some people.

You can also actively counter falsehoods by pushing back when friends and family members share something false or misleading. Prevention is key, too, so if you learn about disinformation campaigns or tactics out there, then let your friends and family know about them. The more people who understand what to watch out for, the less likely disinformation is to spread.

When you're having conversations with someone you disagree with, try to find areas of cooperation.

Is there anything else that I can do to help counter Truth Decay?

We've talked mostly about evaluating and sharing information on social media and other online platforms. But it's also important to get offline and engage with people. Try to have conversations with people in person. You can learn so much from others when you're face-to-face.

And when you're having one of these conversations with someone you disagree with, try to find areas where cooperation is possible. If we all keep an open mind and are a little more patient with one another—both online and in person—then I think our conversations will be much more productive. We might also have a better shot at solving some of the difficult issues we face today.