Our Society Sickens With Truth Decay—Here Are Causes and Possible Solutions

Wrapping your head around Truth Decay — A Threat to Policymaking and Democracy, a recent-published 365-page report from the Rand Corporation, is not for the faint of heart. And certainly not for the busy corporate communicators in our audience. Besides, as fascinating a read as it is, you’ll need a large supply of Zanax or your drug of choice to forget the depressing conclusions of their research. The reward for reading the entire report is that it identifies the specifics of the problem, and suggests that bringing logic and rational thought to bear might actually fix it.

Nonetheless, the contents of this paper, authored by Jennifer Kavanagh and Michael D. Rich, are so significant and relevant to the PR and corporate communications profession that we took on the task of translating their summary into eight bullet points that you can snack on. (And we hope not have to wash it down with too much whiskey.)

1. Truth Decay defined

Coined by Rand Writer-in-Residence Sonni Efron, Truth Decay is shorthand for the growing imbalance in political and civil discourse between facts and opinion. Between, on the one hand, trust and reliance on analytical interpretation of facts and data, and, on the other, opinions and personal attitudes. A balance that seems to be increasingly shifting in favor of the latter.

2. Truth Decay is characterized by four trends

  1. Increasing disagreement about facts and the analytical interpretation of facts and data. For instance, discussion of the need for vaccines or humans’ impact on climate change.
  2. A blurring of the line between opinion and fact. The classic example is the proliferation of columnists and bloggers, and the shrinking ranks of trained journalists.
  3. The increasing volume and resulting influence of opinion and personal experience over fact. For instance, social media channels that drown out verifiable data with fake news.
  4. Declining trust in formerly respected sources of factual information. Including significant drops in public confidence and trust in government, newspapers, books, the judiciary, and the presidency. (See our report on the recent Edelman Trust Barometer.)

3. We’ve been here before

Rand is not the first, nor will it be the last, to compare these crazy times to the Watergate era. But what makes this body of research so fascinating is that they go all way back to the 1880s to identify three earlier times that were just as crazy. Not sure that makes any of us feel that much better, but we did manage to survive all three:

  • The 1880-1890s. A time when the term “populism” was born. It is also, to my chagrin, the era in which both my grandfathers rose to fame as leading participants in the Gilded Age of yellow journalism that used made-up headlines to propel us into a war that killed thousands. The populists of the day had little in common with today’s Trumpist versions. Still they were motivated by common causes of economic disparity, and a lack of respect for and/or attention toward a broad spectrum of Americans whose jobs were disappearing. (Back then, farming jobs were being replaced by manufacturing jobs, just as today mill workers and coal miners are being replaced by automation.) The role of the media was remarkably similar, partly because of the sensationalist news that publishers like Hearst and Pulitzer made up. Also because of the influx of immigrants and resulting anti-immigration sentiment stirred up by the media and politicians of the day.
  • The 1920-1930s. The birth of the tabloid and radio broadcasting, the social media of those days. Both of which served to amplify the sensationalism of the many sex- and alcohol-fueled scandals of the times. (Can anyone say Great Gatsby?) Then came the Great Depression, which wiped out almost everyone’s trust in the government and financial institutions.
  • The Vietnam and Watergate era. Its own unique brand of populism was embodied in George Wallace, and saw television bringing civil rights marches and Vietnam battles into 90+% of American living rooms. Social divisions were just as high as they are now, and government credibility was destroyed by the revelations of the Pentagon Papers and Watergate. Who knew that those nattering nabobs would end up portrayed on the big screen by Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks?

In all three of those periods, RAND researchers found evidence of the four trends outlined in Point 2.

4. What makes the current era different

Today our trust in institutions such as government and media is far lower than ever before. And, never before has the level of disagreement about objective facts and scientific findings been as pronounced.

5. Causes of Truth Decay

Rand cites several potential causes of truth decay:

  • Cognitive bias. Our natural inclination is to weight personal experience over data and facts.
  • Changes in information systems. Including: the increase in speed and volume of news flow driven by social media and the 24-hour news cycle; the rise of blatantly partisan news channels; the pressure to increase profits from news sources; and the ease with which fake news can be disseminated.
  • An education system that doesn’t have the wherewithal, financial or otherwise, to keep pace with changes in the information process. In other words, we aren’t taught to be critical thinkers or informed voters, we are taught to be job applicants.
  • Political, economic, and social polarization that funnels people into opposite “sides” each with its own narrative and perspective.
  • The end of the Fairness Doctrine for media.

6. Truth Decay has its own villains

Just as we were taught that eating sweets is bad for our teeth, Rand identifies agents that are equally (if not more) harmful to truth. They include:

  • Pundits with agendas
  • Foreign actors
  • Major donors and lobbyists
  • Politicians
  • Filters and algorithms
  • The 24-hour news cycle combined with corporate ownership of media and a drive for ever-greater profitability. In other words, it’s cheaper to get pundits to fill air time than it is to go out and dig up facts.

7. The consequences are a lot worse than rotting teeth

Instead of rotting your molars, Truth Decay rots your civil discourse. Even worse, prolonged Truth Decay will cause friends to drop out, alienated from society. Also political paralysis, insecurity, and uncertainty (not just for your looks but for your company and country). Worse still, there is significant evidence that all of these consequences of Truth Decay are present in a much larger degree than ever before.

Further evidence suggests that the increase in uncertainty has negative financial impacts on organizations of all types. When people and corporations are uncertain about the future, they are less likely to make major purchases, and less likely to invest in long-term solutions.

8. How to stop it

Rand is very clear that this study is preliminary and far more research is required to produce conclusive solutions. But they do offer some hope:

  • Investigative reporting may be the societal version of fluoride. The one consistent theme in prior Truth Decay eras is the rise of investigative journalism – muckrakers in the 1890s, financial journalists in the 1930s, and Woodward and Bernstein in the 1970s.
  • Better use of data will help. The Great Depression ushered in a raft of data. It showed up in government, military planning, and eventually the media. While we may be overwhelmed with data these days, there is some bi-partisan faith in the Moneyball approach to policy making. (Results for America, an organization that uses the Moneyball approach for decision making and public policy, is our Measurement Maven of the Month.)
  • Another consistent antidote has been changes in government policy that increase accountability and transparency. Whether or not that happens in our current situation will depend a lot on turnout and voting patterns in the upcoming election, but it has worked before.
  • We need to change the way we communicate data and facts. Research has shown that how data and facts are communicated can determine the degree to which they are believed. If they are presented in non-threatening or neutral ways—or, better yet, articulated by a skeptic—credibility increases.
  • There is some evidence that prior notice that news may be manipulated or fake mitigates the damage that lies so often wreak.
  • Further study of historical antecedents may also yield better solutions.

So there’s the summary. Now read the full report for yourself. ∞

(Thanks to Comfreak on Pixabay for the image.)

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