George F. Will: Rand Corp. considers 'Truth Decay'
It cannot be a sign of social health that the number of tweets per day worldwide exploded from 5,000 in 2007 to 500 million six years later. And this might be related to the fact that whereas in the 1992 presidential election more than one-third of America's 3,113 counties or their equivalents had a single-digit margin of victory, in 2016 fewer than 10 percent did. And to the fact that in 2016, 1,196 counties — about 2.5 times the average over the preceding 20 years — were decided by margins larger than 50 percent. And to the fact that newspaper subscriptions have declined about 38 percent in the last 20 years.
These developments and others worry Michael D. Rich, Rand Corp.'s president, and his colleague Jennifer Kavanagh, who are not feeling celebratory in their 255-page report “Truth Decay: An Initial Exploration of the Diminishing Role of Facts and Analysis in American Public Life.” They suggest the public's mental bandwidth is being stressed by today's torrent of information from the internet, social media, cable television and talk radio, all of which might — partly because the media's audience has difficulty sorting fact from opinions — be subtracting from the public's stock of truth and trust.
The authors discern four trends: increasing disagreement about facts and their interpretation, blurring of the line between fact and opinion, increasing quantity of opinion relative to facts, and declining trust in formerly respected sources of factual information. The information flow's volume and velocity, combined with the new ability to curate a la carte information menus, erode society's assumption of a shared set of facts and deepen the human proclivity for inhabiting information silos, seeking and receiving only congenial facts.
Living in echo chambers produces polarization. Furthermore, when, on social media and elsewhere, filters and gatekeepers are dispensed with, barriers to entry into public discourse become negligible, so being intemperate or ignorant — or both, in the service of partisanship — are not barriers, and toxic digital subcultures proliferate. Kavanagh and Rich dryly say, “When the length of news broadcasts increased from two to 24 hours per day, there was not a 12-fold increase in the amount of reported facts.”
Their suggestions range from the anodyne (schools that teach critical reasoning; imagine that) to the appalling (“public money to support long-form and investigative journalism”). But their main purpose is, appropriately, to suggest research projects that will yield facts about the consequences of the new media and intellectual landscape.
We should regret only unjust distrust; distrust of the untrustworthy is healthy. The preceding 50 years, from Watergate and the Pentagon Papers through Iraq's missing weapons of mass destruction and “if you like your health care plan you can keep it,” show that a default position of skepticism is defensible. And consumers of media products should remember Jerry Seinfeld's oblique skepticism: “It's amazing that the amount of news that happens in the world every day always just exactly fits the newspaper.”
George F. Will is a columnist for Newsweek and The Washington Post.