I would encourage any American who sees themselves in the independent middle between the two major U.S. political parties to read Farhad Manjoo’s TRUE ENOUGH: LEARNING TO LIVE IN A POST-FACT SOCIETY. I had mentioned the book in a blog a few weeks ago: True-ish, Truthiness, and True Enough.
“In this book I’ve explored how modern communications technology has shifted our understanding of the truth. I argue that new information tools haven’t merely given us faster and easier access to the news, but that they’ve altered our very grasp on reality. The pulsing medium fosters divergent perceptions about what’s actually happening in the world – that is, it lets each of us hold on to different versions of reality.” (p224)
Manjoo gives examples from recent political events to show that “reality is splitting” for liberals and conservatives in America. He examines some common political beliefs of the left and right, offers what evidence he could find from his research about “the truth” of the situation and then comments on how both the left and the right choose to believe what they want to believe and whom they want to believe no matter what the evidence might show. His claim is that the modern media exacerbates the problem as partisan commentators repeat partial or distorted truths, or harp on one truth while ignoring everything else that is known about a situation. And in the modern information age where everyone quickly becomes overwhelmed by the amount of information and the number of voices, people more readily turn to listen to those that are espousing views they already agree with. People aren’t searching for the truth, they are looking for evidence that confirms what they already believe. Thus on the right many choose to believe that John Kerry was not a war hero, on the left they believe that Bush stole the election from Gore, and a sizeable group of American conspiracy theorists still believe that the American Government or military staged the 9/11 attacks using missiles in order to justify going to war with Iraq. In each case, when evidence is used to pick apart the beliefs held, “believers” hold to what they believe and don’t trust the evidence offered even when they can’t refute the evidence. This is the sense in which “reality splits” and people see what they want even while looking at the same evidence. Manjoo offers some psychological and sociological reasons from research studies as to how the human mind works regarding what we choose to believe and why; the bottom line is we really do pay more attention and give more credence to those things which reaffirm our already held beliefs.
“Selective exposure, selective perception, the cult of fake experts, and the end of objectivity in the news: these are merely pistons in what has become, today, a powerful engine of propaganda, one that drives all the recent examples of our society’s unfettered departure from ‘the reality-based world.’” (p 227)
Among the sociological findings regarding our selective listening:
- “We’d rather listen to the other side’s flimsy attacks on our side than our side’s flimsy attacks on theirs.” (p 43) This has an interesting effect in campaigns: our voting decisions seem wiser when the opposition presents weak arguments for its side. Saturation type advertising can be counterproductive if it isn’t presenting compelling reasons for independent voters to change their minds, but might work to keep the party faithful, loyal. However, Manjoo points out that liberals and conservatives react differently to campaign advertising according to studies. Republicans prefer to hear even flimsy messages that support their ideas rather than listen to the weak arguments of Democrats, while the Democrats find the flimsy arguments of Republicans to be convincing evidence to vote Democratic.
- “Republicans and conservatives are more ideological in their political posture…” (p 46). Studies show Republicans prefer selective exposure – they don’t want to know both sides of the argument and prefer to hear only the view they agree with. I’m guessing this is true because the conservative mind by nature tends to eschew change, so they want to know what is right with their ideas and aren’t looking to change them, whereas “liberals” by nature are more open to (or looking for) new ideas and so are also less ideological bound and more willing to explore new/different ideas. (see my blog What Biology Says About Your Politics)
- Studies show news anchors and “experts” can sway public opinion 3-4 percentage points on an issue. Thus the battle to make networks more conservative or liberal can have an effect on elections. But also, “…’reality’ splits when people selectively expose themselves to different facts, or when they interpret the same evidence in divergent ways.” (p 107) So choosing to watch only one “biased” network will cause one to have a totally different view of reality than those who watch other networks.
- Studies show “each of us thinks that on any given subject our views are essentially objective… then we think that reasonable people ought to agree with us. And to the extent that people disagree with us, we conclude that they are not reasonable – they’re biased.” (p 152)
- Studies in education show “That American society prizes style over substance…” (p 116). I consider this to be one of the most negative factors in American politics. We continue to confuse entertainment with substance and so will continue to be attracted to entertaining/stylish/attractive candidates over people with substantive ideas who aren’t as good looking. (Yesterday’s news: Connecticut GOP chooses former World Wrestling Entertainer Linda McMahon as their senate candidate).
- Studies show that “Society works better when people trust one another.” (p 222) Unfortunately now we have “particularized trust” – we trust only those who agree with our point of view and so we are willing to blind ourselves to the negative aspects of the political views we hold.
Manjoo’s descriptive tour of America notes the effects of video news releases (manufactured “pseudo-news”; stories told from a point of view – even sales pitches – but presented as “news”; PR firm created videos intended to influence/deceive but offered as objective information). Not only has it become easier to create news stories and releases, but the effect of millions of blogs/tweets/txt messages/etc means messages even false or pernicious ones spread the word at the speed of light. This only furthers peoples’ distrust of information that they don’t like or don’t agree with which further enables people to hold to different realities. In the end Manjoo sees the current effects of the information/communication age continuing for years to come.