Assuming that white supremacists, conspiracy theorists, and other domestic terrorists do not derail a ceremony that even Confederate secession could not prevent, twelve hours after this column goes live, Joe Biden will take the oath of office as President. I fervently hope that Biden’s inauguration will be uneventful and mark the beginning of the end of Trumpism.
Biden and the Democratic Congress have a large number of extremely urgent tasks on their to-do list: improving the flawed COVID-19 response; protecting the people suffering from unemployment, homelessness, and other economic side-effects of the pandemic by providing more relief to individuals, businesses, and state and local governments; investigating and prosecuting the seditionists who sought to overthrow the government; combating systemic racism in policing and beyond; protecting the right to vote; combating global warming and other environmental catastrophes; adopting humane policies towards refugees and other immigrants; restoring the credibility of the Department of Justice and other federal agencies that were turned into partisan organs under Trump; responding to foreign threats from Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, and other potential adversaries while reviving cooperation with traditional U.S. allies; and much more.
On all these fronts, Biden has announced appropriately ambitious plans. Because Biden has promised to nominate highly competent professionals to key positions, we can expect substantial progress on those issues that can be tackled through unilateral executive action. The legislative agenda will face higher hurdles. Either Democrats will need to persuade ten Republicans not to filibuster key bills or, should that prove impossible, “go nuclear” and substitute a simple-majority threshold to end debate for the current cloture rule requiring sixty votes. Given the 50-50 split, even without the filibuster, the fate of Biden’s legislative agenda will turn on the disposition of the Senate’s most conservative Democrats (like Joe Manchin of West Virginia) and the handful of moderate Republicans (like Lisa Murkowski of Alaska) who might occasionally cross the aisle.
Government can do a great many things, but there are a great many things it cannot do without the cooperation and support of the People. To give one example, because it will take months to vaccinate a critical mass of the country, in the meantime public health depends on vigilance in masking, social distancing, and minimizing gatherings. President Trump and his administration caused thousands of unnecessary deaths by undercutting such measures, but absent totalitarian means, even responsible national leaders can only lead where the people willingly follow.
To say that is not to diminish Trump’s culpability in spreading disinformation about COVID-19 or, for that matter, about the outcome of the presidential election. Trump’s repeated and outrageous lies did enormous damage to the health of Americans and the health of our democracy.
Yet the outrageousness of Trump’s lies only deepens the mystery. Trump and his spokespeople frequently and repeatedly tells lies that can be readily seen for what they are—about the size of the crowd at his inauguration, the path of a hurricane, the reason he wouldn’t release his tax returns, his ever-imminent announcement of an alternative health insurance plan, and really, just about everything. The sheer obviousness of Trump’s lies raises an equally obvious question: What is wrong with the people who believe Trump? Are they especially gullible?
Why People Believe Lies and Misinformation: Confirmation Bias and Social Media Bubbles
A large body of psychological research shows that human beings are not fully rational actors who form beliefs about facts (or anything else) based on an objective assessment of all available data. Rather, we have a stock of pre-existing beliefs, which we use to filter what we see and hear, creating a confirmation bias—a tendency to seek out and interpret information to confirm what we already believe.
Social media exacerbate confirmation bias. When you click on cat videos, the algorithms put more cat videos in your feed, which at worst wastes your time. However, when you click on QAnon conspiracy theories or stories claiming that COVID-19 is either a hoax or a weapon manufactured in a secret Chinese government laboratory (or paradoxically both), the algorithms feed you more conspiracy theories. Unsurprisingly, numerous studies (like this one) find a robust correlation between belief in misinformation and social media use.
Recent efforts by Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms to label or even ban fake news are welcome, but they will hardly put an end to the spread of misinformation and false beliefs. After all, confirmation bias long pre-dates the Internet. Discussing popular over-confidence with respect to a military conflict, Thucydides observed in his History of the Peloponnesian War that “it is a habit of mankind to entrust to careless hope what they long for, and to use sovereign reason to thrust aside what they do not fancy.”
As in the ancient world, so today, when unwelcome information manages to reach us, it often has scant impact. When we encounter evidence that contradicts our pre-existing beliefs, we tend to ignore or reinterpret it.
Consider a recent example: despite official assessments that far-right groups pose the greatest threat of domestic terrorism, a great many Trump-supporting Americans believe that far-left Antifa supporters pose a greater threat. That belief readily survived its encounter with the January 6 insurrection. How? Trump supporters who merely watched the violence on television (and even some who actually participated in it) said it was a false-flag operation—Antifa “members” disguised in MAGA gear stormed the Capitol. A week after the event, more than two-thirds of Republicans polled said Antifa participated in the insurrection, despite no evidence whatsoever for that conclusion.
Why People Believe Conspiracy Theories: Skepticism as Gullibility
Conservative readers of this column might be annoyed that my key examples of belief in misinformation involve Trump supporters. If confirmation bias is a universal human phenomenon, shouldn’t there be examples across the ideological spectrum? Indeed, there are—and I have no doubt that I myself am subject to the same cognitive limitations as other humans. I have focused here on right-wing beliefs in misinformation—especially concerning the pandemic and the presidential election—because of the gravity of their impact.
Rather than demonstrate my evenhandedness by identifying confirmation bias on the left, I want to turn now to offering my own modest contribution to the discussion. I would make the following observation: skepticism sometimes fuels rather undercuts conspiracy theories.
We are often told that people who believe conspiracy theories have failed to engage in critical thinking. There is a sense in which that is obviously correct. Consider the conspiracy theory according to which Trump received more votes than Biden but Democrats and their allies programmed voting machines to delete or switch Trump votes. A critical thinker encountering this claim would doubt it not just because it was rejected by Republican officials who examined the evidence but because it makes so little sense. To give just one flaw, if Democrats were capable of rigging the election in this way, why did they rig only the presidential election and not down-ballot races won by Republicans? To accept a conspiracy theory requires suspension of one’s critical faculties.
Yet in another sense, the engagement of critical faculties can make people susceptible to conspiracy theories. Believers in conspiracy theories are not universally uncritical; they are selectively so.
Consider vaccines. Hostility to vaccination, which exists across the political spectrum, may begin in legitimate skepticism. Pharmaceutical companies profit from widespread vaccination, and government agencies that regulate those companies are subject—as all regulators are—to the risk of agency capture. Moreover, not everything that anti-vaxxers say is misinformation. For example, when critics point out that vaccination against seasonal flu is often not very effective, they are not wrong. In recent years, overall effectiveness has often been less than fifty percent. (Effectiveness varies from year to year because vaccines against seasonal flu must be produced and distributed based on a potentially inaccurate prediction of which strains will be most prevalent in the upcoming season.) A critical thinker could reasonably conclude that public health advice to get a flu shot should be tempered by cautions about efficacy.
Yet anti-vaxxers go further, leaping from the under-reporting of the limits on flu vaccines to the unwarranted conclusion that vaccines cause autism and that nearly everything that mainstream medical and media sources say to promote vaccines should be discarded.
Nor do conspiracy theorists stop with skepticism. We are a believing species. The subversive slogan “question everything” is impossible advice. People thus do not simply question mainstream sources. They replace those sources with other, typically much less reliable ones. Instead of weighing competing evidence within the range of reasonable disagreement among knowledgeable experts, they place their faith in confident ignoramuses.
Beyond the Pale
What is to be done? There is no silver bullet, but a number of measures could mitigate the dangers from Americans who believe in destructive conspiracy theories.
Social media and other Internet companies have already taken steps to purge their platforms of misinformation. Because the Constitution limits government but not private actors, these policies are clearly legal—although one might legitimately fret about the potential for abuse of power over speech by oligopolists. Today, Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube have good reason to ban Donald Trump from fomenting violence, but future policies could stymie speech by civil rights activists or, more likely, workers seeking to unionize at those very companies.
How to regulate the Internet so as to promote legitimate free speech while minimizing opportunities to spread dangerous misinformation and incite riots poses long-term legal and technological challenges. In the medium term, responsible Americans can and should take our cue from the social media companies, New England Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick (who declined a Presidential Medal of Freedom from Trump), and the PGA (which canceled plans to hold its 2022 championship at one of Trump’s golf courses).
In a segment during the most recent episode of the NPR show On the Media, host Bob Garfield and his guests discussed these and other acts of shunning of Trump and his enablers in Congress. Such shunning, they argue, could work, especially if it takes the form of withholding campaign contributions and expenditures.
As with social media de-platforming, widescale shunning poses risks. In recent years, conservatives have complained that colleges and other institutions too often respond to unpopular viewpoints by simply excluding them. Whatever the merits of any individual objection, it only has force where it targets over-sensitivity. No one argues that colleges or other institutions have an obligation to treat every position on every issue as worth airing.
For example, in a debate over whether the government should pay reparations for slavery, it would be perfectly appropriate to include a speaker who thought the answer was no; it would be outrageous to give a platform to someone who wanted to say that we should reinstitute slavery. Similarly, in a discussion of whether to permit religious exceptions to anti-discrimination law, it would be problematic to exclude otherwise thoughtful commentators merely because they thought the answer was yes; it would be laudable to exclude someone who advocated a theocracy in which heretics and apostates were persecuted. Put simply, some ideas are simply beyond the pale.
So too with Trumpism. The goal should be to render it beyond the pale. That is admittedly a tall order, given that even after the assault on the Capitol, close to 40 percent of Americans approved of Trump’s job performance. Meanwhile, going after Trumpian and other lies and misinformation can feel like the Sisyphean game of whack-a-mole.
But accepting the status quo would be worse. Playing whack-a-mole means we must whack each mole as it pops up. Giving up the game means being overrun by moles.