Conspiracy Theories, False Beliefs and the Echo Chamber

Today’s news brings a report about a study of political beliefs and conspiracy theories conducted by Fairleigh Dickinson University. The poll finds surprisingly high levels of belief in conspiracy theories and other false beliefs about politics. According to the poll, Republicans and Fox News viewers are more likely to hold false beliefs about topics like the President and the Iraq war.

For example, a majority (51%) of Republicans and a surprising minority (42%) of all those polled believe the U.S. found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. We didn’t. You can read a story about the poll here and the entire poll report here.

Dan Cassino, a professor of political science and the director of experimental research for the poll, said, “This sort of motivated reasoning is pretty common: when people want to believe something, they’ll twist the facts to fit it.”

And that’s the problem. People who “want to believe something” not only twist facts, they deliberately isolate themselves from contrary facts, as I’ve written about here before. The echo chamber of the Internet and 24-hour partisan cable news means it is not only possible, but easy, for anyone who wants to hold a particular opinion regardless of its accuracy to find plenty of “facts” to support them and a complete absence of contradictory evidence.

This is precisely the same problem as that caused by government propaganda, only its origin is not the government so much as it is private corporations driven by greed and unenlightened self-interest.

I don’t think this problem has a solution. But I think it has far-reaching and almost entirely negative repercussions. We are all forced to live in a world where most of our fellow citizens are intentionally uninformed or misinformed about the important issues of the day, whether by Fox News or MSNBC. Having discovered that blurring the line of distinction between facts and opinions draws loyal viewers and readers, the media are certainly not going to go on a diet of objectivity. The death of objective news reporting and factual information being readily accessible to and understandable by the average voter marks, I suspect, the beginning of the end for the type of democracy that ha been our governing principle for more than 200 years,

What comes next, I can’t even imagine.

 

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