Friday, December 17, 2010

University of Maryland Study on Misinformation Among the Electorate

As a grading break I went on Facebook, and I was promptly bombarded by links to liberal websites announcing the results of a recent university study. The recurring headline was this: Extended exposure to FOX News makes you stupid.

So I tracked down the website of the study's sponsor,, which is a project managed by the University of Maryland's Program of International Policy Attitudes. The summary of the study that I found there was both more interesting and more complex than what the liberal websites picked up on.

The study certainly did note that, on a range of key issues, regular viewers of FOX News were more likely than the general population to be misinformed (leading liberal outlets to announce that the more you watch FOX news, the less you know). And, of course, the issues on which these viewers were most likely to hold false beliefs were precisely those that favored Republican politican agendas (for example, the belief that the economic stimulus produced job losses or that the new health care policy was likely to increase the deficit).

But the study also noted that regular consumers of MSNBC and NPR/PBS were more likely to believe, falsely, "that it was proven that the US Chamber of Commerce was spending money raised from foreign sources to support Republican candidates." While the correlation between partisan misinformation and favored news source was more extensive and obvious with FOX than with other sources, other sources were hardly immune.

But in all of these cases, one can reasonably ask questions of cause and effect. For example, are FOX News watchers misinformed because FOX News is airing false and misleading information; or are FOX News viewers drawn to watching FOX news because of certain political attitudes, attitudes which in turn make them predisposed to believe the worst about, say, the new health care policy? Do NPR listeners tend to mistrust big business and see Republicans as in the pocket of big business, and so believe it when some less reputable online source announces proof of such a thing--even though NPR itself makes no such claim? While I have a tendency to regard FOX as consistently engaged in partisan deception in a way that, say, NPR is not, I don't think this study establishes anything of the kind.

In a sense, however, the important insight from the study is not how misleading FOX News is. That is hardly a new insight in any event (I've watched FOX enough over the years to raise my eyebrows over how overtly supportive of conservative political agendas it really is). The important insight of the study is twofold: first, American voters in general, regardless of political party affiliation, are seriously misinformed; second, American voters in general think (rightly, it seems) that they are being exposed to a great deal of false information. But the latter sense of being lied to does not seem to have a great deal of effect on how likely they are to mistrust those who are lying to them. It doesn't stop them from confidently believing lies.

And this leads me to wonder whether both survey observations--the level of false beliefs and the widespread sense of being lied to--have their origins in the same phenomenon: the growing ideological bifurcation of favored information sources. Voters are deceived because they trust a partisan source of information that has political and ideological motives for misleading its viewers. They think they are being lied to because there are rival partisan news sources saying things at odds with what they are convinced (by their favored news source) is true.

Their sense of being lied to, rather than making them more wary of those who are most likely to successfully deceive them, is an outcome of the deep trust they place in those who are most likely to successfully deceive them. That is, the reason they think they are being lied to is precisely because, in the polarized world of ideological echo chambers, they instinctively trust what is bouncing around in their own echo chamber--and so, when they glance over into other echo chambers, they see what appears to be a barrage of lies bouncing around.


  1. Would it be inappropriate to mention that being lied to and enjoying it is relevant to other topics you cover on this blog? That some people shamelessly make stuff up, and others believe in it? We're funny that way.

  2. Burk--As I was writing this post, I imagined that you would respond with something very much along the lines of what you said. I guess you've been around long enough for me to anticipate (at least sometimes) how you'll look at things.

    Since you've been reading this blog for awhile, I wonder if you can anticipate my response.

    In other words, given my overall philosophy as espoused in my book and on this blog, what relevant differences am I likely to find between the forms of religious belief that I regard as legitimate and the beliefs of people who trust unswervingly the factual claims bandied about in ideological echo chambers?

  3. Eric-

    An interesting exercise that you propose. I would guess that you (and W. James) claim that immediate mystical experience is fully veridical. If we experience a feeling that tells us that we are loved by, say, the universe, then we can take that to the bank, at least for a personal ontology and approach to the universe. And even people lacking such direct experience can take it at second hand, regarding this intense conviction of others as provisionally veridical.

    So, while skepticism may be in order with regard to public issues like politics and science, especially when conveyed by self-interested or ideologically committed parties on the cable channels, the immediate experience and personal worldview is something quite different- there to be trusted, or at any rate impossible to not to trust, we being unable to spectate on our own inner experience.

    My take on all this would of course be quite critical. Not only are we able to self-criticise, but these feelings that arise are essentially the opposite of "knowledge". They are inspiring, they may even be intuitive breakthroughs to real ontological insight. But on their own, they are wild claims made by our dreamy unconscious, no more reliable than those of a cable pitchman, whose methods are interestingly enough geared to resemble them closely, arousing our emotions and implicit prior commitments. I wouldn't regard it as a coincidence that cable ideology correlates with fundamentalism, with televangelism and similar practices, at least in the rightward direction.

    At any rate, I personally can not endorse or even make sense of the distinction you claim. To call religious belief "legitimate" in the mode of actual belief, rather than in the form of personal resonance and artistic preference, seems incorrect, either degrading the meaning of "belief", or introducing a fatal lack of rigor that allows "believers" to merrily head down the road to fundamentalism.

    Basically, god is a factual claim, which is bandied about in ideological echo chambers (churches, et al.). At least what FOX news reports is sometimes true, or indirectly based on some truth. With religion, we are in territory where even the idea of truth and falsity has lost meaning, there being no evidentiary basis either way, rather the basis is one of "feelings" and "it benefits me to believe this ... I think" and "you can't disprove it", and baldly arbitrary creeds of various sorts. There are no fact-checkers here. Yet god is still put forward as a factual claim.

  4. Great post - love it! In a world with so many sources of information available to us, it's hard to slog through and consider many different options. It's so much easier to just pick the one you like or mostly agree with and go with that.

  5. I enjoyed reading your thoughts on this study. I thought I'd pass along a video about this topic from
    The video is a combination of quotes & clips from a few different sources that commented on the study. I thought you & your readers might find interesting-Newsy gathers & analyzes information from various news outlets, with the goal of providing multiple perspectives of news stories to those that might normally receive their news from just one source-like Fox News....
    To go along with what C.P.O.'s comment-Newsy tries to make it easy for people to slog through all the sources by packaging it up into nice little 2-3 minute videos.

  6. A Soros funded study, what a surprise.

  7. Anonymous: The study itself names the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Calvert Foundation as funding sources, and lists numerous other supporters (Tides Foundation, Ford Foundation, Carnegie Corporation, just to name a few). One member of the board of directors of the Calvert Foundation also served as an advisor to George Soros. Is that why you say it is a "Soros funded study"?

    Also, university studies publicize their research methods and research findings for the express purpose of ensuring that their research can be assessed for accuracy and freedom from bias. Most major research studies receive some kind of funding, but academic researchers are committed to methodologies independent of the prejudices or preferences of their funding sources. Do you have any reason to suspect that this is not the case with the University of Maryland Study? If so, that is an egregious violation of professional standards and a very serious charge--a breach of the deepest ethical commitments of academic researchers. Do you have ANY evidence to support the truth of this charge? Or are you just in the habit of anonymously throwing around groundless accusations when the study itself is available for public scrutiny?

    Sorry to be a bit prickly, but insinuations of academic integrity violations are a serious business that should not be made cavalierly.

  8. Burk--I'm in the grading mode these days, and so I couldn't help but read your idea of how I would respond as if I were evaluating the extent to which a student in one of my classes had grasped the substance of a philosopher's thinking and ideas.

    In other words, I imagined that my question about relevant differences was an essay question on a test, one aimed at assessing how much you've internalized.

    In those terms, I wouldn't give you a failing grade--you do correctly note that I take religious experience seriously. So you'd pass the first hurdle by which I grade student essays: Evidence that the student has actually been in class and/or cracked open the book.

    Beyond that, your answer doesn't situate the value I extend to religious experience within the broader philosophical context of my thinking, thus reducing my view to a kind of caricature. And there are important elements of my thinking that are relevant to making the distinction asked for in the "essay question" that the "essay response" leaves out altogether (in fact, were I answering the question I might not even mention religious experience at all).

    For example, there is the distinction between empirical facts and holistic interpretations of the facts that I'd probably invoke. I'd also distinguish between holistic worldviews that are true to the empirical evidence (even if they posit more than what can be known empirically) and holistic worldviews that ignore the empirical evidence (and so provide a holistic interpretation of some other possible world rather than the one in which we actually live). I'd likely note the difference between a holistic worldview that seeks to meaningfully integrate the diversity of human experiences (empirical, aesthetic, moral, and--yes--religious) into a worldview that one can live out in pragmatically fruitful ways, from a holistic worldview that results from the blind appropriation of traditional teachings without regard for what it means for human life. I'd likely also stress the crucial difference between claiming to KNOW X and believing X in a pragmatic sense--that is, recognizing that X is not known but is believed as a matter of pragmatic choice (the decision to live as if a hopeful and morally beautiful possibility, consistent with but transcending what we DO know, is true). There's also the difference between someone who believes X and actively seeks out opposing views and wrestles with them seriously and respectfully, and someone who believes X and eschews any kind of serious engagement with those who think otherwise.

    Now back to grading...

  9. Eric-

    It would help to define what you mean by .. "believing X in a pragmatic sense". I take this to be a bit of psychological legerdemain, permitting people to engage in whatever belief they wish, (holistically), with your caveat that it should accord with rigorously derived facts from disciplines like science.

    This is an invitation to put god in the gaps. It is also an invitation to make "holistic" cosmic interpretations out of whatever makes one feel good and socially affirmed, like your god of moral beauty, etc. I believe that my comment to Keith about the epistemological value of psychological pragmatism vs scientific and logical pragmatism put the matter decently. They are two different things, and it seems grossly mistaken to mix them together.

    You propose rules by which people can "reasonably"/"legitimately" believe anything that does not violate current knowledge, and call that activity "belief", rather than something that is more philosophically credible, like "hypothesizing" or "wishful thinking", or "imagination", or "buying into the socially acceptable imaginary holostic interpretations of reality with no evidence for them", or something similar.

    One has to ask why? Why torture language to such an extent? Why torture philosophy and rationality? I have only one answer, which is that you are trying to reconcile a self image of reasonableness with a desire to peacefully and contentedly engage in wild speculation about reality, in concert with the millions of other who want to do so as well for reasons of moral uplift, mystical feeling, and social pleasantness, which could be pursued without all the unsupported cosmic rigamarole.