First published in Morning Consult’s Opinion Page

Truth is the First Casualty in Taking Down Our Democracy

Misinformation and disinformation have taken over our political system, according to a new poll of five western states by Morning Consult, conducted for the bipartisan Frank Church Institute at Boise State University. (The full survey is available here.)

Over 80% of those polled in the five states of Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Utah and Nevada are worried about “misinformation” (54% very worried, 29% somewhat worried). A similar number of 83% are worried about the “misrepresentation of facts”.

It seems we are way beyond former Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s admonition, “You are entitled to your own opinions, but you aren’t entitled to your own facts.”

Too often we Americans don’t seem to trust in the truth or even the pursuit of the truth. We accept “alternative facts” that conform to our beliefs rather than acknowledging that, very simply, facts are facts. 

The concern about misrepresentation of facts dovetails with the respondents’ concern about the health of democracy – 85% of respondents (50% very concerned and 35% somewhat concerned) indicate their lack of confidence in democracy in America.

For decades we have seen the growing distrust and cynicism about government and politics spread to other institutions such as business, religion and education.  Now that distrust has seeped into almost all our sources of information, including the news.

The era of Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite and Huntley/Brinkley is long over in time and substance.   As Yogi Berra might say, if they were alive today they would turn over in their graves!

From the evening news to local news to the internet, and especially social media, large majorities believe misrepresentation of facts is spread far and wide. A full 73% believe that misrepresentation is “spread a lot” on social media with 18% more saying “some.”  The internet is next highest with 58% saying a lot and 31% saying some. For the regular news media 48% say a lot and 36% say some.  Virtually nobody believes we are not living in an age of misrepresentation of facts.

It is interesting that both Democrats and Republicans seem to pretty much agree on the spreading of misinformation on social media and the internet, but there is a real difference in their views of the regular news media.  Republicans believe by 60% that a lot of misinformation is spread while only 26% of Democrats agree. Clearly the attacks by Trump and others on “mainstream (or ‘lamestream’) media” has taken its toll.

So, who is to blame for this misinformation?  Not surprisingly, in these mostly Republican western states, 22% hold liberal media responsible, while 14% believe conservative media, and 47% say both.  We can’t be shocked to see that 44% of Republicans blame the liberal media and 36% of Democrats blame the conservative media. This is just an example of the political polarization exhibited in the survey – especially regarding the election of 2020, perception of Biden and Trump, and the events of January 6th.  While 79% of Democrats believe that Trump was responsible for the violence at the Capitol, only 13% of Republicans believe Trump was responsible.

Despite the polarization in the country, and tendency to divide up into waring camps, one encouraging finding is that by almost 4-1, 66% to 17%, respondents in these five western states believe that elected officials should find compromise and common ground rather than stand their ground and push their own party’s agenda.

As our country struggles with how to enhance democracy and see to it that it survives and thrives in the 21st century we consider consider focusing on tackling the problem of misinformation, disinformation and the spread of falsehoods and false narratives. If we can begin to agree more on what is clearly true and what is clearly false, we may begin to come together on how best to solve the problems that confront us.

There is growing consensus in Congress and across the country that social media and ubiquitous sites like Facebook have resulted in spreading misinformation and falsehoods.  Regardless of whether you are a Democrat, a Republican or an Independent, or a conservative or a liberal, there is common cause in doing our best to embrace what is true and reject what is false. 

The threat to our democracy is put on steroids when our leaders and our media deliberately misrepresent what is true.  The public does get this.  Democrats and Republicans (84% and 83% respectively) agree that ‘fake news’ is used purposely to mislead people and three-fourths of them believe that politicians use it to dismiss facts that are actually true.

This is a growing cancer and it is up to both political parties, the media and the people, to confront it.  If we shrink from this responsibility our democracy will go from the emergency room to intensive care in a nanosecond.  Pressure must be put on politicians and media outlets who put out lies and falsehoods—whatever their party or ideology.  We can’t dismiss this as “politics as usual”, it is far from it.  Whether it is the false accusations against Trump in the Steele Dossier, or the lie that Obama was not eligible to be President because he was not born in the U.S., or the dangerous falsehood that the 2020 election was rigged and Biden was not legitimately elected – or many more – they lead to conspiracy theories, encourage violence, and the breakdown of confidence and established order in our country.

We need leaders, especially on the Republican side, who have the courage to confront those who dominate the news and whom they know deliberately mislead and disseminate falsehoods that undermine democracy.  History will judge us by what we do now to turn back this trend and rekindle what our founders envisioned.