Ray Block, Jr., has some advice for people heading into the 2024 elections. “Do not be a passive consumer of information,” he says. “Be an active consumer—an empowered consumer. Scrutinize everything. Cross-check it. Ask yourself, 'What goal does this information accomplish?'”
Block leads RAND's efforts to combat “Truth Decay”—the diminishing role of facts and analysis in public life. It's the talking heads on TV, the distrust and conspiracy theories, the basic disagreements over not just what's right, but what's real. With a presidential election looming in November, 2024 will be a year of Truth Decay.
Block holds the inaugural Michael D. Rich Distinguished Chair for Countering Truth Decay, named for RAND's former president and CEO, who identified Truth Decay as one of the existential threats of our time. Block's previous research has looked at racial, ethnic, and gender differences in civic involvement and public opinion. In addition to his work at RAND, he is an associate professor of political science and African American studies and a member of The McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State. He is also a senior analyst for the African American Research Collaborative and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network.
What motivates you to do this work on Truth Decay?
Honestly, COVID-19. It hit my family just like it hit everyone else's family. There was a period of time during the lockdown when I was really upset. Family members were passing away, and I felt really helpless. I'm a researcher, so I leaned into the research as a way to cope. I saw all of these social and political inequalities that existed before the pandemic that just got worse during the pandemic. It created what some have called the “info-demic.” There was this spread of disinformation, and it had racial and ethnic and gender and urban disparities built into it. Those are the things that I study, so I started working with medical researchers, public health researchers, to understand it.
Let's talk about your research. What is a lesson you've learned that you can apply now to Truth Decay?
I did a survey with the African American Research Collaborative a few years ago. We found that Americans are highly worried about the staying power of their democracy. Six out of ten people were really concerned, and that's similar to what we've seen in other surveys. In fact, our numbers might be conservative.
But people also said they were hopeful as they went to the polls in 2022—Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives. That hope, side by side with this fear of democracy ending, suggests to me that Americans are worried, but they're not going be passive and let their democracy go. Being upset with the system and feeling like you can do something about it—to me, that's a great inspiration for being civically minded and civically active.
You've pointed out that you hold the Distinguished Chair for Countering Truth Decay—not just studying it. What is RAND's role here?
I think of it as combining research with outreach. On the research side, we need to do more to understand how individuals process information and how institutions create contexts that provide fertile ground for disinformation. But we also need to look at nonprofit organizations, community organizations, religious organizations—entities that serve communities but aren't attached to the government. We need to better understand the role they can play.
We can empower the doers who exist already in our society, giving them tools they can use—and hopefully those tools help counter the problem.Share on Twitter
With outreach, we do a good job of making our information available to individuals and institutions. It's available online, and free. But I want to make sure we're accessible to people who work in the spaces between individuals and institutions, people who run foundations for democracy or who work for nonprofits and nongovernmental organizations. We can empower the doers who exist already in our society, giving them tools they can use—and hopefully those tools help counter the problem.
What do people misunderstand about Truth Decay?
Some people misinterpret Truth Decay as old wine in a new bottle, just another catchphrase. But to me, Truth Decay covers disinformation, propaganda, deepfakes. It covers all of the emotional triggers that information can have. It gives us a system to think about the causes and consequences of these things, to see and make sense of them holistically. It's not just a new bottle for old wine. It's a way to shelve different bottles of wine so we can see them and make sense of them all together.
What are you working on now?
I'm working with my colleagues here at RAND to explore, conceptually, what truth means in Truth Decay. Sometimes politicians or government leaders tell you things that aren't 100 percent true. So you can argue that truth is fundamental to democracy, but others will counter that lying is a pretty common feature of government, too. How do you reconcile those two things? What is the truth that we're trying to preserve from Truth Decay?
I'm also working on what I'm going to call COVID-related disinformation spillover. I'm looking at whether the posts on social media, the shares and the likes, the video views, truly, in a causal way, contributed to people being more or less willing to take mitigation steps to slow down the spread of COVID-19.
You've held this chair for almost a year now. Heading into 2024, are you feeling more or less optimistic than when you started?
The more I'm at this job, the more serious I think the situation is. I've got real respect for what we're dealing with. I hate it—but I've got to respect it. I also see all of the resources and all of the brainpower that RAND is bringing to the table, and I think we're ideally suited to inform the kind of change that needs to happen. My appreciation for the significance of the problem has grown since I got here. My belief that we can do something about it has never wavered.