A democracy depends on a well-informed electorate; for this reason freedom of the press is part of the very first amendment to the Constitution. There are two assumptions in this sentence. The first is that voters will be able to discern facts from fallacies, and will change their decision-making accordingly. The second is the the news media will search out and report the truth.
But does it really work that way?
Recent news stories have disturbingly shown that even when evidence is available, people continue to believe lies. In fact, with political partisans especially, being presented with facts that contradict their beliefs, will often become more entrenched in their incorrect beliefs. In the political realm, this means that they make political decisions based on deeply held erroneous beliefs rather than demonstrable facts.
In one story, a recent Pew poll found that more people believe that President Obama is Muslim than believed it soon after he took office, going up from 11% to 18%. 34% of Republicans believe he is Muslim. And the number of people who say they do not know what his religion is has increased to 43%, and is now higher than the number who know that he is Christian. (5) It is unusual for people to still believe misinformation about a president this far into his administration.
In another story, a report was recently published about a series of experiments done by researchers at the University of Michigan during 2005 and 2006 which showed that most people who believed certain facts about the Bush administration policies were likely to disregard and contradict facts that showed them to be wrong, and hold their beliefs more strongly. There were various strategies used to deflect unwanted facts, one of which was inductive. For example, people who believed that Saddam Hussein was either responsible for or gave material support for the attacks of September 11, 2001 would reason backwards, saying that we would not have invaded Iraq if this hadn’t been true. The fact of the war led them to make a reason for it in spite of evidence to the contrary, even when the sources were trusted.
Both of these stories can be explained by the theory of cognitive dissonance, a social psychological theory that says people avoid internal conflict caused by two contradictory facts by explaining away one of them. One of the original experiments in the late 1950’s had two groups of subjects apply for club membership. One group underwent a difficult and embarrassing initiation while the other only had a simple initiation. The club in either case was quite boring. The researchers found that those who had the difficult initiation were less likely to consider the club boring. The reasoning was, “I went through a difficult process to get here, therefore it must be worth the effort.” We tend to value things more highly when we have to work to attain them.
You can see that this is similar to the reasoning about Saddam Hussein and 9/11: “We invaded Iraq and are still at war there, therefore Saddam must have done something serious to hurt us (or we would not be there).” In this instance, the process of cognitive dissonance is clear. But what about beliefs about Obama’s religion?
We can find some insight in the third news story, and in one of the Michigan experiments.
Shirley Sherrod was forced to resign from her job at the Dept. of Agriculture after Andrew Breitbart, a right-wing blogger who has posted false information before, posted a cut video of her saying in a speech that 25 years earlier she, an African American, had not helped a white farmer who came to her with a condescending attitude. She was roundly condemned and the administration was exhorted to demand her resignation. Even the NAACP joined the chorus. Fox News made it a cause celebre, and the administration did indeed demand her resignation.
But within 24 hours, CNN had found the tape of her entire speech, which showed that she was using that anecdote to show how she came to overcome her initial bias and to realize that the real issue was not race but economic class. They also found the white farmer involved in the incident, who declared that Ms. Sherrod had saved his farm and that he experienced no negativity from her.
Yesterday, she rejected DoA’s offer of another job “after all that has happened.”
CNN did its job as a news source and found the facts behind the story. But everyone in the meantime was all too ready to believe the lie, and no one in the administration asked her for her version of what happened.
The key factor here is race. And this is an important part of the opposition to Obama. There is a feeling of panic among the opposition, that somehow an African American president cannot possibly really be president, that there must be something very wrong. He has clearly been accused of racism against whites, particularly by Glenn Beck at Fox News. Therefore all his policies could not possibly be good for the country. Just a year ago town hall meetings across the country were disrupted by angry protesters saying health care reform would make death panels or allow the government into doctors’ bank accounts.
The cognitive dissonance here is a matter of racial discomfort when it is not of actual racism. There are two contradictory ideas – that African Americans must hate whites, and that this African American is supposed to be protecting all of us. Or possibly that African Americans are inferior, and yet this African American is president. The birther movement takes denial of his presidency to an extreme. The belief that he is Muslim and that Muslims are the enemy are more indirect, but come from the same kind of reasoning
There must have been some variation of this process at work in the administration after the accusations against Ms. Sherrod. A president known for his cool is so unlikely to respond in such a hurry to any accusation or problem unless there is some anxiety associated with the particulars. Or those surrounding him thought it necessary to protect him from such accusations.
So are we doomed to continue believing lies? There is one ray of hope. In one experiment, the Michigan researchers found that after an affirmation exercise, subjects were more likely to change their minds in the face of new information than those who did not have the exercise.
That is, we are more likely to hold onto erroneous beliefs tenaciously when we are feeling threatened, afraid, and angry. Dictators have known this for centuries. In our present situation, where it is so easy only to get news from sources that agree with us, and where angry rhetoric and invective take the place of news in many places, an atmosphere of danger and anger is easy to maintain. We need to understand this, and get our major news sources to behave more like CNN did in the Sherrod case. Angry talk radio hosts and taking heads keep insecurity high, and in such an atmosphere, lies flourish.