“Democracy requires citizens see things from one another’s point of view, but instead we’re more and more enclosed in our own bubbles. Democracy requires a reliance on shared fact; instead, we’re being offered parallel but separate universes.”
Eli Pariser, The Filter Bubble
Today’s political discourse is too often bitterly divided by people certain their way of looking at the state of things in America is the right one.
“Americans are more likely than ever to view politics in moral terms, meaning their political conversations sometimes feel like epic battles between good and evil,” Ian Anson, an associate professor of political science at the University of Maryland, writes.
Such passions, stoked by reinforcing misinformation on the internet, elevate the stakes of winning or losing. Those most fearful of what the other side represents should they gain power can justify breaking the rules to manipulate the outcome of a decision in their favor.
Anson studied “how Americans’ perceptions of their own political knowledge shape their political attitudes. My results show that many Americans think they know much more about politics than they really do.”
He says many Americans have a “confidence surplus” and a “knowledge deficit” regarding issues that drive voters to the polls.
Depth of knowledge of issues is often one question deep. When a person is asked to defend a position they’ve taken, they often can only cite vague rumors or allegations found on the internet, or second-handed comments they’ve heard.
Getting people to acknowledge they could be wrong isn’t easy.
“Political overconfidence can make people more defensive of factually wrong beliefs about politics,” Anson writes. “It also causes Americans to underestimate the political skill of their peers. And those who believe themselves to be political experts often dismiss the guidance of real experts.”
In our leaders, overconfidence tends to cement their positions making them less willing to listen to the reasoning of members of an opposing party, and less willing to work with them to solve the problems we face.
In his recent study, Anson looked at “what would happen when politically overconfident people found out they were mistaken about political facts.”
Some participants in his study were asked to look at statements to help them avoid falling for political falsehoods. His theory was that if people could spot falsehoods, they would be less likely to believe them.
Anson started by asking basic questions about American government, such as which party controls the U.S. House and who is the secretary of energy? The quiz was meant to assess the depth of a person’s knowledge of politics and government. What Anson found was that many who believed they would be top performers on the quiz were among the lowest.
What the test found was that the members of the overconfident group scored poorly against people less confident in their outlooks. Overconfidence married with a degree of arrogance entrenches beliefs. Overconfidence sets up barriers to tempering beliefs with new knowledge.
While the combination of overconfidence and poor political knowledge were worrisome, they weren’t the most disturbing finding in his study, Anson writes.
“The overconfident respondents failed to change their attitudes in response to my warnings about political falsehoods,” he says. “…their attitudes toward falsehoods remained inflexible, likely because they — wrongly — considered themselves political experts.”
If seeing through false information is essential to a functioning democracy, and overconfidence undermines that ability, then finding a way to lower it is critical. Maybe, Anson reasons, if we could make those overconfident people more humble, they might be open to other points of view.
To test his theory, he broke his study respondents into three groups. One was educated to recognize and avoid political falsehoods. Another wasn’t given the training. The third group got the training and was reminded of how they scored in the political knowledge quiz.
For the overconfident, seeing they scored worse than the majority of others in the American government study might be a “reality check” tempering their rigid opinions fed by falsehoods, Anson thought.
Participants in each of the three groups were given five political falsehoods and asked to rate their level of skepticism about them. One of the questions claimed that violent crime was up in America compared to a decade ago. In fact, it isn’t. Another said the U.S. spends 18 percent of its budget on foreign aid. The correct answer is that it only spends 1 percent.
Anson found that when politically overconfident people were given their “reality check” results, they were more skeptical about the false information. However, in the other two groups, there was no movement.
“…the humbling nature of the ‘reality check,’ when they realized how wrong they had been, led overconfident participants in that condition to revise their beliefs. They increased their skepticism of political falsehoods by a statistically significant margin,” Anson found.
Now that he saw a way to break through belief in political falsehoods, how could this knowledge be used on a larger scale? How could it be used to address the vast problem America faces with political disinformation and its consequences, such as the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol?
“To combat this problem, social media companies and opinion leaders could seek ways to promote discourse that emphasizes humility and self-correction,” Anson suggests. Still, he says, even “small nudges” may get internet companies to change their behavior.
“For example, Twitter’s recent inclusion of a pop-up message that asks would-be posters of news articles to ‘read before tweeting’ caused users to rethink their willingness to share potentially misleading content,” he writes.
It’s a nice thought but utterly unrealistic when Facebook and Google’s profits are tied to promoting the most viral and vile posts on the internet. We need to address the spread of misinformation with more than a nudge. We also need to shore up the sources of trusted, factual information, such as community newspapers.