Statement from Herbert Lin
Following the launch of the Commission on Information Disorder’s final report, the commissioner addresses an additional priority of personal interest
I am pleased to align myself with the general thrust of the Commission’s report, both for how it sets an appropriate context for its recommendations and for the content of the recommendations themselves. However, while many of the Commission’s recommendations focus on reducing the flow of misinformation to the public and helping the public resist the effect of such exposure, the report says essentially nothing about what to do about those who have already been significantly exposed to misinformation and now mistakenly believe in its truth.
For example, a Yougov.com poll taken in the period July 30-August 2, 2021 found that 66 percent of Republicans continue to insist that “the election was rigged and stolen from Trump.” A Gallup poll taken August 2-17 found that 28% of respondents identified their party affiliation as Republican. Statisia reports that in 2020, the number of registered voters in the United States was 168 million. Taking these numbers at face value, they indicate that 18% of the voting-capable public, or over thirty million individuals, believe a proposition for which there is no evidence that has withstood scrutiny. Other groups consist of people who appear to believe—often to their detriment—the various untruths that circulate regarding Covid, climate change, and so on.
Communicating with such groups in meaningful ways that reduce the intensity of their belief in these kinds of misinformation remains a large and substantial challenge to be overcome. But little systematic research has been done to investigate how best to reach across this gap. To date, nearly all of the available evidence to date, though anecdotal, appears points to the need for acknowledging the starting points of such individuals, understanding “where they are coming from,” and respectfully listening to their concerns. For example, Katherine Hayhoe is well known as an evangelical Christian who is also a climate change researcher, and she reports that she is often able to talk best to climate change deniers by first finding their common ground as evangelical Christians. From there, she is better able to discuss the realities of climate change, framed around their common ground.
But these interactions are (almost) necessarily conducted on a retail basis – one-on-one rather than en masse. Moreover, few people have either the skill or the patience to engage in such a manner, despite the potentially large payoff of such an approach.
As it happens, some people are good at finding common ground and engaging with “the other side” with compassion and understanding, or at least they are much better at it that the rest of us. So one important question is “what can we learn from these gifted communicators that the rest of us can apply?“ A second question is how the application of “reach-across-the-divide” techniques can be scaled up to happen on a wholesale rather than a retail basis. For example, are there less labor-intensive techniques that can nevertheless embed such an approach to enable outreach of larger numbers of people?
Finding more effective ways of communicating across the divide is one necessary part of any long-term solution to the problem of today’s information disorder, and answering these two questions would be a good start. I wish the Commission had focused some of its formidable talent and brainpower on providing such answers.