Civic Deliberation, Deception, and Public Trust
MORE THAN MIDWAY through 2018, we are still far from grasping all the ways in which the 2016 election was impacted by personal data breaches, the spread of intentionally false news stories, and other manipulation and distortion of information. While it is important to ask how much these phenomena hurt which candidate(s), more important are questions about how they compromise the longer-term health of our democracy. Election cycles are meant to provide voters with opportunities for meaningful debate and choice, grounded in a relatively shared understanding of the basic facts and stakes involved. This shared base of understanding is crucial if voters are to make choices informed by dialogue with fellow citizens—not as isolates, but with a sense of the public interest. As faculty cluster member Sarah Song reminds us, deliberation is a crucial democratic activity that depends on good-faith commitments to listening to, understanding, and seeking common ground with one another in a diverse society.32
Inclusive, constructive civic debate is not stymied by voters having very different ideas about what they want33—about what ought to be. But it will not thrive where there are dramatically different notions of what is and who “we” are. Recent research by faculty cluster affiliates explains some of the major trends and beliefs currently straining our capacity for inclusive democratic deliberation.
Dog-Whistle Politics: Deceit and Division
Haas Institute senior fellow and Berkeley Law professor Ian Haney López has extensively analyzed one particularly long-standing tactic of deception and division: dog-whistle politics. A form of political discourse, dog-whistle politics involves the use of coded messages to appeal to constituents’ racial anxieties and stereotypes, but while avoiding overtly racial language that might put off many voters. Indeed, the racial content of such messages is meant to be perceptible only to responsive audiences, hence the term “dog whistle.” Dog whistling plays on these audiences’ latent racist beliefs and prevalent racial narratives, stimulating fears that can, at the same time, be plausibly explained away in alternative, non-racial terms.34
Haney López is clear that dog whistling has historically been deployed purely for calculated political gain—to net as many votes as possible. It may or may not in reality reflect an earnest racism or white-favoring policy agenda on the part of the politicians who use the tactic. In fact, Haney López emphasizes that dogwhistle politics has tended to be about racializing social programs to stoke anti-tax and anti-government sentiments that will ultimately benefit corporate interests and the politicians who champion them.35 By enabling a candidate to convey different commitments to different constituencies, dog-whistle politics is a form of deception. Its logic is an attack on inclusive civic deliberation because it intentionally diminishes voters’ capacity for informed discourse and choice.
Even more harmful however is that dog-whistle politics activates, stirs, and stokes racial animus. Irrespective of its narrower strategic goals, politicians’ dog-whistle messages strengthen and embolden the racist beliefs and narratives they covertly affirm. Haney López argues that countering these divisive scripts requires exposing them for what they are, as well as spreading alternative narratives that “fashion an inclusive sense of linked fate.”36
The current political moment would seem to present us with new questions about the relationship between “dog-whistling” and increasingly prevalent racial “bullhorns.” Do the latter compromise the former by exposing their underlying meanings? Or do they make dog whistles even less perceptible by contrast? What does the rise of bullhorns mean for Haney López’s point that dog-whistle politics is grounded in the need to obscure racist meanings? These are questions that will need to be answered if we are to know how to build bridges for a shared civic identity that both transcends and embraces the diversity of the country.
Distrust of Media and Civic Debate
Another major barrier to constructive public deliberation in the United States is the sharp disagreement over what are credible sources of information. A forthcoming research brief by Taeku Lee, Jessica Mahone, and Joe Goldman shows that distrust in “mainstream media” is common and widespread. The December 2016 wave of these researchers’ Voter Study Group survey panel found 72 percent of respondents saying they “agreed” or “strongly agreed” that “You can’t believe much of what you hear from mainstream media.”37 As the authors note, this is consistent with a growing body of evidence that trust in media is in decline, and attitudes about the legitimacy of national news ever more polarized.
US voters thus increasingly operate politically without shared authorities on “the facts,” and presumably divergent bases for understanding key social and political issues. Distrust of media is particularly damaging to prospects for fruitful public debate given the prevalence of misinformation and disinformation on online platforms, and their ability to spread rapidly on social media. It means that mainstream outlets cannot effectively serve a fact-checking role; existing research suggests that alternative, “crowdsourced” fact-checking has been unable to fill the void.38
Lee, Mahone, and Goldman further find that among those who express distrust of mainstream media, support for democracy as a political system is markedly lower. This is likely due in part to the fact that distrust in media correlates strongly with other forms of skepticism. These include reluctance about trusting “most people,” the government, and “experts and intellectuals,” as well as the belief that the political system is “rigged.”39 Given this type of wide-ranging distrust, why would someone consider democracy necessarily and “always preferable to other political systems?”
Distrust, Exclusionary Views, and Alienation
The brief by Lee and his co-authors also shows that distrust in mainstream media has a major influence on support for exclusionary policies. Of all the variables tested in their regression models—including income, ideology, and MSNBC and Fox News viewership— Lee, Mahone, and Goldman show that media distrust has the strongest predictive relationship to support for a Muslim travel ban and opposition to a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Distrust of mainstream media is also among the strongest predictors of opposition to affirmative action and the belief that discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against African Americans.40 The ties between media distrust and more generalized cynicism pose a formidable challenge for those committed to an inclusive electorate. They indicate, first, a retreat from the kind of civic solidarity needed to carry out constructive dialogue among people of different opinions. Without this basic foundation, spaces of participation and belonging will be distributed unevenly—and very likely stingily. The picture becomes even bleaker in light of the correlations between distrust and myriad groupbased exclusionary views. Here any effort to bridge across social difference, or even to reduce the force of othering inevitably runs up against the additional hurdle of an audience disposed to fundamentally distrust those with whom they do not already agree.
Here again, it is not clear that social media is serving as a conduit for more inclusive dialogue and civic participation. On one hand, there is evidence that popular talk of “echo chambers” and “information cocoons” is exaggerated, and that social media do in fact increase most people’s exposure to a diversity of views.41 On the other, a significant volume of information shared on Facebook and Twitter comes from hyperpartisan platforms that—together with intentionally false news—are often designed to provoke outrage, animus, and division. These affective responses in turn lead to more online “shares,” spreading exposure to hyperpartisan, uncivil debate.42 Such exposure is not only polarizing; it can also further alienate those who are already excluded and pessimistic about whether political participation has the potential to improve their lives.
The road map for addressing these problems, in the short or the long term, is not as well researched as some of the other issues discussed here. This is in part due to the relative novelty of the technologies that drive, subdivide, and channel information to different audiences—including information telling us that we should not trust one another. Policymakers in many cases lack sufficient knowledge about how these technologies work, and there is also still too little research on the nature of users’ relationships with the technologies. What is clear is that we are living a period of significant fragmentation and cynicism about public life. There is an urgent need for compelling and culturally salient counternarratives that support inclusive conceptions of civic debate and solidarity, and inoculate against the worst forms of division.
- 32. Sarah Song, “What does it mean to be an American?” Dædalus 138(2): 31-40 (2009).
- 33. Esterling, Fung, and Lee, “How Much Disagreement is Good for Democratic Deliberation?”
- 34. Ian Haney López, Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class, Oxford University Press, 2014
- 35. Ibid.; and Ian Haney López, “California Dog Whistling,” Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, University of California, Berkeley, April 2018.
- 36. Haney López, “California Dog Whistling.”
- 37. Taeku Lee, Jessica Mahone, and Joe Goldman, “Public Trust of Mainstream Media,” Democracy Fund Voter Study Group, forthcoming in 2018.
- 38. Data scientists at Facebook find that users’ efforts to fact check false or dubious information shared on their platform tend not to be able to keep up with the information’s ease and speed of proliferation. Adrien Friggeri, Lada A. Adamic, Dean Eckles, and Justin Cheng, “Rumor Cascades,” Proceedings of the Eighth International AAAI Conference on Weblogs and Social Media, 101-110 (2014).
- 39. Lee, Mahone, and Goldman, “Public Trust of Mainstream Media.”
- 40. Ibid.
- 41. Andrew Guess, Brendan Nyhan, Benjamin Lyons, and Jason Reifler, “Avoiding the Echo Chamber about Echo Chambers: Why Selective Exposure to Like-Minded Political News is Less Prevalent than You Think,” Knight Foundation, 2018.
- 42. A. Hasell and Brian E. Weeks, “Partisan Provocation: The Role of Partisan News Use and Emotional Responses in Political Information Sharing in Social Media,” Human Communication Research 42(4): 641-661 (2016).