Truth Decay in Europe

Magnifying glass over map of Europe, photo by amazing studio/Adobe Stock

Using the framework of RAND's original 2018 Truth Decay study, which focused on the United States, researchers uncovered evidence for the trends, drivers and consequences of Truth Decay in Europe. As the phenomenon is less pervasive than in the US, however, they also suggest actions to slow its growth.

What is the issue?

The evolving, uncertain and emotional context of the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for accurate and reliable information to make sound decisions in both private and public spheres.

Better access to facts and data should logically translate into sound, weighed decisions. Yet, more information does not necessarily mean better or more reliable information. Having access to more information can even make it more difficult for people to decide what to believe and what not to believe – regardless of the underlying accuracy of the information.

While attention has increased on access to, and the role of, information in decision making − with its resultant challenges such as disinformation, the role of information technology and an increasingly complex information environment − the role of facts and analysis in public life appears to be changing. Yet, empirical data that allows us to assess the extent, scope, and nature of these changes is lacking.

How did we help?

This study examined the evolution of the role of facts and evidence in public life in Europe. The research is part of the Countering Truth Decay Initiative, a portfolio of projects by RAND.

Researchers took the framework of RAND's original 2018 Truth Decay study, which focused on the United States, and asked whether there is evidence for the trends, drivers and consequences of Truth Decay in Europe. They analysed available data that could serve as indicators for the trends, drivers or consequences of Truth Decay, and reviewed empirical literature on the causal relations between them.

The research goes beyond a recording of the current climate and explores whether the situation is getting worse, i.e. whether the disagreement about facts and data is increasing, whether the volume and resulting influence of opinion (over fact) is growing, and whether trust in formerly respected sources of information is declining.

What did we find?

Overall, we found evidence of the occurrence of all four Truth Decay trends in Europe, although the evidence is not as overwhelming nor are the trends as pronounced as in the United States and there is a lot of diversity across sectors.

An increasing disagreement about facts and data, at least in some European countries. For example, we see growing misperceptions about levels of migration and increasing vaccine scepticism in some countries. Yet, with limited pan-European research available on this matter, it is difficult to say whether this trend is consistent across the continent.

A blurring of the line between opinion and fact, as illustrated by an increasing prevalence of interpretive journalism and advertorial content intertwined with news reporting. There appears to be a north-south divide in Europe, where news reporting tends to be more neutral in Northern countries, while reporting in southern European countries tends to more integrated with commentary and opinion. The evidence does not show, however, whether interpretative journalism has increased in Europe overall.

An increasing relative volume and resulting influence of opinion over fact, as illustrated by the explosion of the availability of online news outlets, including the emergence of niche media that cater for a select audience that share similar beliefs.

In contrast to the trend in the United States, there is increased trust in governance institutions across Europe since the end of the financial crisis. Trust in the media in Europe has been declining gradually over the last two decades.

The differences between the US and Europe can be partly explained by the evidence for the drivers of Truth Decay.

Changes to how information is shared in Europe has driven a rise in Truth Decay. New information and communication tools, in particular social media, have increased people’s exposure to information and impacted on the cognitive processing and biases that affect Europeans.

The education systems across Europe differ from those in the United States, making these perhaps less prone to being a driver of Truth Decay, but rather a possible part of its solution. European education systems appear to have recognised the importance of critical thinking skills and civic education for a future generation of media consumers and participants in their democratic societies.

There is evidence for an increase in polarisation in different parts of Europe (whether political, sociodemographic, or social and economic), but the overall extent of polarisation is not as strong and not as widespread as that evidenced in the United States.

We found examples in Europe of most of the consequences of Truth Decay and some evidence, though weaker, that these consequences stem from the trends of Truth Decay. This is different from what is seen in the United States and may be due to wider societal differences, such as political systems or that instances of Truth Decay are less prevalent or consequential.

There is some erosion of civil discourse. Civil discourse in multiple European fora is not always informed, honest, open-minded and constructive. This may be due to several factors that aid the production and dissemination of discourse such as cognitive bias, changes in the information system and the media business model.

Political paralysis does not seem to affect the functioning of institutions to the same extent as it does in the United States. This is likely due to differences in the institutional systems, with European political systems having more safeguards against the implications of political paralysis on institutions than the US.

We found evidence for uncertainty in Europe and some evidence that this uncertainty was driven by disinformation and the trends of Truth Decay. This evidence was apparent in economic uncertainty as well as government policy uncertainty.

What can be done?

If Truth Decay in Europe is at a less advanced stage than in the US, there are actions that could be taken to try to prevent or slow its growth and prevent trends from following a similar trajectory as they have in the US. These include:

  • Equipping citizens to play their part in democracy and avoid becoming agents of Truth Decay. For example, through investing in media literacy skills to help make people less vulnerable to disinformation.
  • Ensuring traditional media operate in an environment in which they can remain trustworthy, such as by encouraging business models that guard against incentives to contribute to Truth Decay, even unintentionally.
  • Introducing measures that elevate honest political debate, such as systematically fact checking political debates and/or having non-partisan research institutions estimate the (economic) impact of electoral programmes.
  • Improving access to anonymised social media user data. Independent research findings could be used as an opportunity to build a more socially sustainable, yet profitable, business.
  • Expanding the Truth Decay research agenda to better understand the phenomenon in Europe. For example, setting up more longitudinal studies focused on the issues raised by Truth Decay.