About Truth Decay

The line between fact and fiction in American public life is becoming blurred. RAND calls this phenomenon "Truth Decay," and our researchers are studying its causes, consequences, and how to counter it.

The Causes

America's current era of Truth Decay is defined in part by an increasing disagreement about objective facts that exists on scale not observed in previous periods. For example, despite having more evidence than ever before about vaccines being safe and effective at preventing disease, vaccine skepticism in the United States is on the rise.

This is just one example of how public attitudes can diverge from facts and data in debates and discourse. So what's behind the decline?

RAND researchers have identified four main drivers:

  1. cognitive biases
  2. changes to the information ecosystem, including the rise of social media and changes in the economics of news
  3. demands on the educational system that slow its ability to adapt to changes in the information ecosystem
  4. political and social polarization

The Consequences

Without a common set of facts, it will be challenging to make progress on any of the major issues facing the country: COVID-19, healthcare, immigration, climate change, poverty and homelessness, and many others. Policymakers need shared facts and data to debate priorities and tradeoffs and to make effective policy decisions.

At the individual level, the diminishing role of facts can erode public trust in institutions, feed deepening political and other types of polarization, weaken or displace the meaningful civil discourse required for a healthy democracy, and contribute to alienation and disengagement. Furthermore, a rejection of facts can have immediate consequences for individuals. In the case of COVID-19, for example, rejecting facts about the disease and how it spreads can lead to health complications and even death.

The Solutions

Countering Truth Decay will require a multifaceted and interdisciplinary effort from research organizations, policymakers, tech companies, the media, educators, and individuals. It is essential to continue to learn more about this vast problem, but RAND researchers have already identified some important elements of finding solutions:

This is only the beginning. RAND urges individuals and organizations to join with us in restoring the role of facts, data, and analysis in American public life.

Truth Decay as a System

Drivers

  • Cognitive processing and cognitive biases
  • Changes in the information system
    • Transformation of conventional media
    • Internet and social media
    • Spread of disinformation
  • Competing demands on the educational system
  • Polarization
    • Political polarization
    • Sociodemographic and economic polarization
  • Agents of Truth Decay
    • Media
    • Academia and research organizations
    • Political actors and the government
    • Foreign actors

Truth decay's drivers feed into the four trends.

Truth Decay's Four Trends

  1. Increasing disagreement about facts and data
  2. A blurring of the line between opinion and fact
  3. The increasing relative volume and resulting influence of opinion over fact
  4. Declining trust in formerly respected sources of factual information
  5. Truth decay's four trends result in the following consequences.

    Consequences at the personal, community, national, and international levels

    • Erosion of civil discourse
    • Political paralysis
    • Alienation and disengagement
    • Uncertainty

    Consequences can feed back into the trends. And the trends can also feed back into the drivers.

Funding for RAND's Countering Truth Decay Initiative

The RAND Corporation is a research organization that develops solutions to public policy challenges to help make communities throughout the world safer and more secure, healthier and more prosperous. RAND is nonprofit, nonpartisan, and committed to the public interest.

Philanthropic contributions support our ability to take the long view, tackle tough and often-controversial topics, and share our findings in innovative and compelling ways.

RAND's research findings and recommendations are based on data and evidence and therefore do not necessarily reflect the policy preferences or interests of its clients, donors, or supporters.

Funding for this research initiative was provided by unrestricted gifts from RAND supporters and income from operations.

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