Can democracy survive the rise of misinformation?

Season 1 Episode 1

Can democracy survive the rise of misinformation?

Brendan Nyhan

About The Episode

Today, a core element of American democracy — access to reliable information — is threatened. How did this happen? And how can American democracy survive the impact of misinformation? Our guest is Brendan Nyhan. He is a contributor to The Upshot at the New York Times and a co-founder at Bright Line Watch, a group that monitors the status of American democracy. He is a professor of government at Dartmouth College.

Is that a fact? is brought to you by the nonpartisan, non-profit News Literacy Project. In each episode of this 10-part series, we’ll bring in an expert to discuss an aspect of our current information environment that is threatening the promise of American democracy. We’ll also ask our experts to share some solutions, so you can become a more informed voter.

For more information about the News Literacy Project, go to

Relevant interviews and links:

  • The Dartmouth, 2/5/2020 Discussing coverage of Trump’s impeachment trials
  • Albright Institute at Wellesley College, 01/11/2018 Talk titled: Why Facts and Science Don’t Always Change People’s Minds
  • NHPR 5/24/2017 Talking about political misinformation and “fake news” post-Trump
  • WNYC, 7/20/2017 Interview about the backfire effect on WNYC’s On The Media
  • The Communications Network (no date) Talking about research on misinformation

Additional credit: Zoe Denckla provided research assistance and Miranda Shafer provided production assistance.

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Episode Transcript

Darragh Worland: Welcome to the first episode of Is that a fact? the all new podcast brought to you by the nonpartisan nonprofit News Literacy Project. I’m your host, Darragh Worland. This season, we’re going to take a deep dive into a question that’s been on our minds a lot lately. How can American democracy survive the impact of misinformation?

Before 2016, we understood the country was polarized. Then news of Russian interference in the election forced us to acknowledge just how vulnerable our information system is to manipulation. And we could see that a core element of American democracy, access to reliable information, was threatened. Now as the country endures a pandemic, tensions over a revitalized Black Lives Matter movement, and another contentious election year, you’d be hard pressed to find an American who doesn’t feel we’re in the midst of a reckoning. Can American democracy survive? And if so, what’s it going to take? In each episode of this 10-part series, we’ll bring in an expert to discuss an aspect of our current information environment that’s threatening the promise of American democracy, but we’ll also ask them to share some solutions so that you can become a more informed voter.

Today, we begin by taking stock of the state of American democracy and how it has been influenced by misinformation. For this, we reached out to Brendan Nyhan, a professor of government at Dartmouth College. Nyhan is a contributor to The Upshot at the New York Times and co-founder of a project called Bright Line Watch, a group that monitors the status of American democracy. So we naturally started our conversation there.
So you’re a co-founder of something called Bright Line Watch? Can you tell us what this is and what does it do, exactly?”

Brendan Nyhan: Bright Line Watch is a group founded by four political scientists: myself and colleagues at Dartmouth, and two other universities, who are concerned about threats to the status of American democracy. We’re a nonpartisan group that tries to bring to bear the expertise of political science, to understand the threats to American democracy and to communicate what we learned about those trends to the broader public.

Worland: And why now specifically?

Nyhan: The group came out of the experience in the process leading up to the 2016 election, when my colleagues and I became concerned about democratic norms we saw being violated, and a worry that those could lead to further erosion of democratic rules and norms if President Trump took office in particular, but also that those events that revealed weaknesses in American democracy that we hadn’t taken seriously enough. My colleagues typically study democratic erosion and other countries around the world, not here in the United States.

I’m an American politics specialist who hadn’t thought very carefully about those threats, precisely because they hadn’t been taken seriously here. So we decided to join forces to see, you know, just how serious was the threat. And we wanted to build on the collective expertise of our colleagues. And so one of the main features of our work is an expert survey we conduct with political scientists across the United States, getting their assessments of the state of American democracy overall, and looking at particular areas where we have standards we’d like democracies to uphold and see how well the U.S. actually does in those areas, compared to what political scientists would hope.

Worland: I want to talk specifically about that study. At the end of July, Bright Line Watch invited political scientists from across the country to assess the current state of U.S. democracy — and I think you had almost 800 respondents who completed the survey. Can you tell us what were the findings, or in other words, where do things stand right now for American democracy?

Nyhan: The news is discouraging. They rate the quality of U.S. democracy lower than at any point than since our first survey in February 2017, we’ve seen a consistent decline in the perceived quality of U.S. democracy among experts. Since early 2019 in particular, experts also rate U.S. democracy lower than they retrospectively evaluated it, looking back at 2015 prior to recent events. So experts perceive U.S. democracy to have weakened or deteriorated to some extent since 2016. And that appears to have gotten somewhat worse in recent months.

Worland: Can you tell me a little bit more what some of those findings were? Like what is it that we should be worried about when we talk about the erosion of American democracy? What exactly does that mean?

Nyhan: The declines in democratic quality we’ve observed in the United States seem to be concentrated in certain areas. Democratic erosion often happens in a piecemeal form. And so instead of just looking at how experts think U.S. democracy is doing overall, we also look at specific democratic principles that we think are important, like protecting free speech, protecting the right to protest, not manipulating government statistics and so forth. Overall since 2017, we find big declines in five areas that are pretty critical to how we think about democracy. Our experts are substantially less likely to think the judiciary can limit the executive branch, that government agencies aren’t used to punish the government’s political opponents, that the legislature can limit the executive branch.
That protest is tolerated. And finally, that the constitution limits executive power. So we see perceived declines and limits on the executive from the judiciary, from the constitution. And from Congress, we see perceived declines in toleration of peaceful protest. And we see a perceived decline in the government not using its power against its political opponents. So those are five critical areas of concern where experts really see substantial deterioration since early 2017.

Worland: So just coming back to that word “perceive,” I imagine that these erosions in democracy are tricky to actually measure. Is that why the word “perceive” is in there?

Nyhan: Yeah. I’m using the word “perceive” because there is no direct scientific measurement of the sort that we might like for something as abstract as constraints on executive power. We can’t put it under the microscope or put it in a test tube or apply the other kinds of direct scientific measurements we might like. And that’s why we ask experts to use their considered judgment. This is a standard practice in this field, precisely because these qualities are difficult to measure. And that’s actually part of the problem. The reason democratic erosion sometimes takes place is precisely because it can be somewhat imperceptible and quite abstract. And that’s why we need to count on experts to pick up on those signs that something important is happening that might otherwise be missed in the midst of everything that’s going on.

Worland: Right. That there can be this sort of slippage that happens imperceptibly. And then before, you know it, a lot of our constitutionally protected freedoms and guarantees are eroded.

Nyhan: And I want to emphasize that this erosion can be piecemeal and incomplete. It’s not a binary question. One of the hardest things for people to understand about concerns about democratic erosion is that the model isn’t mid- century Europe, it’s not a question of whether there will be a military coup tomorrow. The risk is that something will take place like what’s happened in Hungary or Poland or Russia or Turkey, where limits on government power weaken over time. Governing power becomes entrenched and abused. And even though there are still elections in these countries, it’s very difficult for the opposition and the media to hold those in power accountable. They’re not fascist dictatorships, but they are run in a way that doesn’t respect the kind of constraints on power and norms that we would expect from a democratic society.

Worland: How do you propose that we get back to a place where people are willing to adhere to those norms?

Nyhan: That is the million-dollar question. I don’t think I have a magic answer either. I wish I did. I guess what I would say is, in some cases, things have to get worse before they get better, but that’s not a solution, right? It shouldn’t take going up to the brink to realize the danger of the direction we might be headed. And so I don’t want to suggest that’s the answer, you know — and again, I don’t think this is a problem that the everyday person can solve. Although I would certainly note that in small ways, of course we can all practice small “d” democratic norms and engage in political life with a spirit of civic mindedness. And those acts can add up in a way. That’s something that everyone can do, and they can do it even if they don’t think of themselves as especially political. Social media is a place where a lot of political discourse happens now, and one can engage with it in very different ways. And people may be able to take these sorts of principles and apply them to how they engage around political issues online and in that way, help to promote this kind of spirit, to the extent that they can.

Worland: And then what about the media? What can the news media be doing as part of helping to preserve democracy and democratic values, and are they doing enough?

Nyhan: That’s a good question. I think the media has come a long way on this issue. If you compare how violations of democratic norms are covered now compared to 2015 and 2016, I think the tone is quite different. The media take these issues much more seriously. At the same time, we do still see people who cover violations of democratic norms through a kind of horse race, or both sides prism that I think is not especially helpful. It is news when the president of United States abuses his power, regardless of its effect on the horse race, and framing it in terms of the horse race, I think, does a disservice to our democracy. It is clearly wrong for the government to abuse its power. You don’t need two sides that sort of question. And again, I think the media has come a long way on these issues, but there are certainly times when punches are pulled.

I think that is a real concern because the media, despite all of its problems, speaks for all of us. In those moments, they are one of the institutions we depend on to hold those in power accountable. And unfortunately, we’re especially dependent on them in a context where politicians are so unwilling to criticize leaders from their own side. And we have misinformation being abused at the highest levels. And it’s closely linked to a social identity now in people’s partisanship that makes them especially vulnerable to claims that seem to reinforce their predispositions and then can circulate around the world in an instant that makes it a particular challenge.

Worland: Do you want to talk a little bit more about the speed at which misinformation can travel?

Nyhan: If you think about George W. Bush, his administration, the false claims or half-true statements we focused on when we scrutinized his administration largely were made in the form of presidential speeches, photo ops, television appearances, and so forth. And now the president frequently makes use of Twitter and other direct ways of communicating with his followers. And that allows him to set the news agenda and communicate in a more unfiltered way than previous presidents have been able to do. So there’s this kind of zone flooding that can take place where the president, just by sheer force of repetition, is able to spread misinformation. And even sometimes in the face of repeated fact-checking, we’ve seen this again and again, and it really does date back to the beginnings of his campaign, when cable news outlets used to run his speeches uninterrupted for an hour or more as he made false claim after false claim, after false claim and that pattern is continued. There’s since been some effort by media outlets to engage in some kinds of live fact-checking, but the president’s Twitter presence is so large that he can still inject these kinds of claims directly into public discourse. And it’s a really difficult balance because people should be able to hear from their political leaders. One of the concerns about the mainstream media at its peak was precisely that it acted too much as a gatekeeper for what citizens could hear from their elected officials, that the media put themselves in the middle of that and made itself the interpreter of what politicians were saying in a manner that prevented a public from actually hearing from them directly. All right, so now we got what we might’ve wanted. We get to hear from politicians directly, and it does have this potential very serious downside, which is the constraints on them to make accurate statements are much weaker. If you said something false, the media might not quote you, and if they did, they might contradict you, right? And that in a way changed the incentives faced by politicians who now instead might be able to communicate directly, especially to play to a base. It’s very receptive to that kind of communication.
Well, I want to turn the focus a little bit to how our perceptions of information can be affected by our own cognitive distortions that are common to us as thinking human beings. Can you talk a little bit about why misinformation takes hold the way it does in our minds and why it can be hard to counter it, even with fact-checking?

Nyhan: This is a subject I’ve been studying for more than 10 years. It’s a difficult problem. A couple of things you might think about the first is just that when it comes to politics, we have pretty weak motivations to hold accurate political beliefs. People are busy, they have other priorities, and it can often be difficult or burdensome to find correct information. And it doesn’t actually matter that much to your life whether the beliefs you hold about politics are true, right? In particular, a lot of the things that you hear or read about politics aren’t things you can easily evaluate directly, right? So if the weatherman lies to you about the weather every day, you can look out your window and see what they’re telling you is not true. But politics rarely have those kinds of properties, except for really salient factors like the state of the economy, and that leaves a lot of room for misinformation about all different sorts of topics, where we depend on third parties to tell us what’s going on. And sometimes, unfortunately those third parties are not giving us the full picture or they’re lying to our faces. In that context, we may come to believe things that aren’t true, or at least aren’t supported by credible evidence. And one of the main factors that seems to cause us to hold those kinds of police is our predisposition to want to believe things that are consistent with our point of view. So when it comes to politics here in the United States, that’s often going to be people’s partisanship, and whether they support or lean towards one of the two major parties is a very strong predictor of whether they’ll hold certain kinds of misperceptions that are more likely to be held by one side or the other. And we’ve seen that kind of pattern again and again, and those are often precisely the sorts of claims that are pushed by politicians on one side of the aisle. So, you know, a high-profile example is to claim that Barack Obama wasn’t born in this country, which a quarter or more of Americans believed, even though there was no evidence to support it. And over time, more and more evidence accumulated of course, proving in more and more ways that the claim was false, and yet the belief persisted. And the most prominent birther or the public figure who most publicly claimed that the president maybe hadn’t been born in this country and therefore wasn’t eligible to be president himself became president. So, it’s hard to argue that sort of claim hurt him. And it may have even helped him by strengthening his bond a few ways within the Republican party, precisely the group that was most likely to endorse that belief.

Worland: Well, you’ve also talked about how fact-checking doesn’t necessarily help. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

Nyhan: When we do experiments, where we show people correct information or fact checks of various kinds, and then we ask them what they believe, they tend to move in the direction of that correct information. And that does tend to happen even for people who support the other side. You know, the good news is when we show people this information, they tend to move in that direction. The bad news is it doesn’t seem to stick. And that’s why it’s been so hard to roll back the kinds of widespread misconceptions that we see in politics, even though they’ve been fact-checked again and again and again, right? Millions of millions of Americans still don’t believe climate change is real. Still don’t believe that President Obama was born in this country. Despite all the fact-checking, those beliefs seem to persist. So it illustrates how hard it is to change people’s minds at scale, and to really get rid of these misconceptions once they take hold.

Worland: So are you saying that as long as the facts are presented right in front of the person in that moment, they are swayed by those facts, but then they tend to slip back into their old ways of thinking. I’m starting to think of this as sort of like anyone who’s ever tried to change a bad habit, or even a pattern of thinking knows how hard it can be to reprogram that once those trenches are built.

Nyhan: That’s what seems to be happening. This isn’t an active area of research and it’s one that I hope to be able to say more about soon after we complete some additional studies, but I do think that seems to be the pattern. We can infer that millions and millions of people have seen the most hope for high-profile, fact-checks on the sorts of misconceptions we’ve been talking about. Now, whether that’s them forgetting about the fact-check they saw or coming into contact with some of the other information, or just getting back into the well-worn grooves of the thinking that produced that belief in the first place like you’re suggesting, we don’t really know. It does suggest that these aren’t problems that simply go away with after contact with a single fact-check, that it’s likely to take more than that to contradict them. Now, I want to be clear. This doesn’t mean there’s no hope at all. So let me give you a much more encouraging example.

Worland: Yay, there’s hope.

Nyhan: So a great example is this claim, the fact that smoking causes cancer. So there was widespread misinformation claiming that smoking doesn’t cause cancer. Of course, this was the crux of the public health debate over tobacco use in this country for decades. The communication wars on that issue were run by? big tobacco but most Americans overwhelmingly think tobacco causes cancer, above almost any other scientific fact, whether it’s the age of the earth or the big bang theory or any other kind of foundational scientific finding, right? Smoking causes cancer is at the top of the list. That’s an issue where there’s no political divide over the fact, and it was repeated over and over. And again, in a variety of ways, it did have the additional feature, which might be notable, that people had experience with it in their everyday lives. Americans had friends and family members who were affected by tobacco-related illnesses. They could see what it was doing to people. They knew. They also had access to evidence from the tobacco lawsuits that the tobacco companies themselves knew tobacco caused cancer. So there were some special circumstances in that case, but it is still worth noting just how successful that campaign was. And presumably that helps save thousands and thousands of lives by helping to deter people from smoking.

Worland: Do you think that could happen today? Because I’m thinking of things like 5G conspiracy theories, which is sort of the opposite. A certain percentage of people believe firmly that 5G technology is dangerous to their health. What is it going to take to convince them that the evidence does not support that? And do we live in an information environment today where people are open enough to opposing the facts to be swayed?

Nyhan: I’m not sure if 5G will have staying power. That strikes me as something that will fade over time. There’ve been various panics over prior communication technologies when they were first introduced. But I take the point about the broader information ecosystem. I do think the kind of process I’m describing can happen. Now, the question though, is what will it take and how long will it take? So an example that you might consider as climate change. People are having their beliefs falsified about the existence of climate change. Unfortunately, in many places around the country and around the world where we’re already seeing significant impacts from climate change, whether it’s sea level rise or increased storm severity contributing to a greater severity or prevalence of wildfires, climate change is affecting people right now. And the question is, will that experience cause people to update their beliefs, right? Well, we finally reach a consensus about the existence of anthropogenic climate change largely caused by human activities that has eluded us to this point, and what will it take to get there? How severe do the impacts have to be and how distorted will our debate over that issue continue to be given the challenges you’re describing: I don’t know if the great tragedy of the story that I’ve told, though, is that these misconceptions are easiest to feed precisely when they’re inflicting the greatest harms. And one of the things we have to do is to figure out how to avoid it, taking those sorts of great impacts on people’s lives to roll these misconceptions back.

Worland: Well, since we’re on the topic of harm to individuals, I want to talk about a piece that you wrote for Foreign Policy. You said coronavirus, misinformation was not the same as political misinformation, and shouldn’t be policed the same way on social media. And specifically you wrote, and I’m quoting here, “ the platforms’ approach to pandemic information has been aggressive, effective, and necessary, but it cannot and should not be applied to politics. Tactics that work against dangerous health misinformation are likely to be less effective and more harmful when applied to political speech within the United States.” So why do you make that distinction? And then how should social media platforms respond to political misinformation?

Nyhan: The distinction in my co-author Sarah Kreps and I were trying to make was between information that posed direct harms to people’s health in their everyday lives, like false cures for coronavirus and political misinformation, which is worrisome and objectionable for all the reasons we’ve been discussing, but is part of living in a free society. I think it’s appropriate in the midst of a pandemic for the social media platforms to take aggressive action against information that could directly cause people to harm themselves or others, like information that might cause them to put themselves or others at risk to COVID-19, that seems appropriate. I’m much less comfortable with the platforms being that aggressive about political misinformation, because it gives them a level of control over political debate that no entity has exercised before. In this country, we created a First Amendment precisely because we didn’t want the government to have control over political speech. Facebook isn’t a government entity, but it operates at a scale beyond governments around the world. And I think we should be very circumspect about putting so much power over our political debate or the political debate of other countries in the hands of an unaccountable private corporation. That’s just a very challenging issue.

Worland: Okay. So can you give us your take on Twitter and Facebook’s recent efforts to label political speech that is factually untrue. What do you think of that?

Nyhan: Labels? Like what Twitter and Facebook are applying to news stories are very labor intensive to apply carefully and they don’t scale to the volume of content on social media. There’s just too much. Those companies can still apply those approaches to the most salient claims and the most high-profile figures, but they’re never going to be able to cover everything. We have to figure out how we can encourage people to interact with the news in a mindset that helps them make those sorts of distinctions for themselves. We can’t depend on the platforms to label every piece of information online because it’s simply not possible. We could have hundreds of thousands of fact-checkers and we couldn’t possibly keep up.

Worland: And what are some of the other things that can be done on the platform side?

Nyhan: One promising approach is limiting sharing of labeled stories, at least some stories that have been identified as false or misleading by fact-checkers. The platforms can create an additional friction before they’re shared, asking “Do you really want to share that? You might want to know that there’s a fact- check saying this claim isn’t true.” And if the person says yes, of course the platform lets you share it anyway, it might be you’re sharing it to say that it’s false, right? And so you’re totally aware of it. That is false, but they bring that to your attention and add this additional step, this additional friction. We also need to think about how to undermine the business model that drew so many people into the marketplace for providing dubious political information online. Essentially the combination of online ads and Facebook as a distribution platform meant that entrepreneurs from all around the world realize that they could make money putting up content on show up on the hyperpartisan websites and using Facebook to get distribution and making money. That way it’s important to turn those incentives around, to make it costly for publishers to repeat false information by reducing their distribution on social networks, by preventing them from being included in ad networks, and to have corporations declining to advertise on disreputable sites.

Worland: Well, you know, I do want to switch to talking a little bit about news literacy and whether you think that it can be a part of the solution, particularly in stemming the flow of misinformation. What’s your take on the value of news literacy and campaigns to improve the public’s news literacy?

Nyhan: I think news literacy is very important. My co-authors and I did a study where we actually gave people tips for spotting false news that found just seeing those for a few seconds helps people do better at distinguishing between true and false news headlines, both in the United States and a survey that we conducted in India. So I think there’s real evidence that media literacy can play an important role in helping people make these sorts of distinctions between true and false information, which we increasingly have to do online. So I’m actually quite optimistic about these kinds of short reminders online, these little nudges to encourage people to think about whether what they’re seeing is accurate as well as the kind of more in-depth training and education approaches that are increasingly being undertaken with K-12 students and students in college to help equip the next generation with media literacy skills.

Worland: You’ve talked a lot about some really great solutions to how misinformation is affecting our ability to make sound decisions. I want to bring it back to democracy with one final question, and just ask you personally, how optimistic are you about the future of democracy in the United States?

Nyhan: That’s a hard question. You’re turning me from a Bright Line Watch organizer to a survey respondent. I’m concerned, but let me say two things. I’m encouraged by the sources of strength in our democracy that I hadn’t anticipated. And I believe that the vulnerabilities that have been identified through this process may create opportunities for us to think about how to change our institutions, whether it’s our formal political institutions, or our informal ones like the media, in ways that can ultimately make our democracy stronger. I do think that more questions are open about how our politics works. That has been true in my adult lifetime, and that means that the risks are substantial, but it also means that the opportunities are great. This could be a time for us to kind of renew our idealism. The sixties were a tumultuous, difficult time in many ways, but our Bright Line Watch experts look back on that period as marking a substantial improvement in American democracy, as we fully enfranchised and guaranteed the rights of Black Americans who were previously a subjugated political group in this country a hundred years after emancipation. And I don’t want to suggest that what we’re approaching now could match that, but it does suggest that even when times are difficult, substantial gains can be made for democracy too. And I hope people of goodwill across the political spectrum will fight for that.

Worland: Thanks for listening. We’ve been talking with professor, author and political columnist, Brendan Nyhan about the state of U.S. democracy. In our next episode, we’ll talk to Michael Luo of The New Yorker about the role of journalism in democracy. Is that a fact? is a production of the News Literacy Project, a nonpartisan education nonprofit helping educators, students, and the general public become more news-literate so they can be active consumers of news and information and equal and engaged participants in a democracy. Alan C Miller is our founder and CEO. I’m your host, Darragh Worland. Our executive producer is Mike Webb. Our editor is Timothy Kramer and our theme music is by Eryn Bush. To learn more about the News Literacy Project, go to


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