Enough time has elapsed since Nov. 3 to begin looking for lessons from this historic election. Political pundits will be among the first to poke around, already thinking about what it means for 2022 and 2024. What lessons are there for the rest of us, including many who are wondering about the future of American democracy?
The certainty of Joe Biden’s election juxtaposed with Mr. Trump’s refusal to concede is more than unsettling. It illustrates what New York Times columnist David Brooks calls an epistemological crisis in our country, meaning the increasing difficulty of distinguishing between truth and falsity, especially in the realm of politics. Therein lies our first lesson.
Whatever the impact of his policies, Mr. Trump’s most significant and ultimately most dangerous legacy is his practice of the dark art of falsehood. It is a legacy we should utterly refuse. He turned the White House into a breeding ground for false rumors, phony conspiracy theories and outright lies. In today’s parlance he bred a pandemic of lies.
Many of his lies could be dismissed as harmless. There have been so many of them that most registered only briefly on fact-checkers’ lists before being overtaken by other lies and forgotten.
So, what’s the big deal? Aren’t lies and half-truths the currency of American politics? Well, yes, say the cynics, and no harm no foul, even if today’s plague of prevarication exceeds anything that preceded it.
The real problem is not that there are so many lies, but that so many people believe them. Even that might not matter, if not for the fact that lies can have consequences, especially big lies that gain wide acceptance. Let’s look at two of Trump’s most consequential lies.
First, his lies downplaying the seriousness of the pandemic. These include oft-repeated statements such as: “It’s going to disappear. ... It’s a miracle — it will disappear.” “(The pandemic is) fading away. It’s going to fade away.” “It’s getting under control.” “(We’re) rounding the final turn.” Trump’s refusal to wear a mask and social distance reinforce these lies.
The truth: Now, nine months in, the pandemic rages out of control more than ever, with national case counts, positive test rates, hospitalizations and deaths at the highest levels since the beginning.
Why is this of any consequence? Because by repeating his falsehoods over and over, Trump creates an illusion of truth that many accept: the pandemic will go away on its own and we don’t need to follow the experts.
Accepting this illusion as truth has very likely cost thousands of American lives. A study from Columbia University estimates that 36,000 American lives could have been saved if social distancing had started only one week sooner. The University of Washington estimates that 130,000 American lives could be saved between now and next spring if 95% of the population always wore a mask. Unfortunately, only about 50% do so now, thanks in part to Trump’s campaign of deception. Meanwhile, 3,000 Americans are dying from the coronavirus every day. What could be more consequential than that?
Second, Trump’s lies about the election, such as these from the last several days: “We won”; “NO WAY WE LOST THIS ELECTION”; Biden “cannot be considered president”; and his repeated claims that the election was stolen, rigged, tampered with, corrupted and fraudulent.
The truth: Officials from Trump’s own administration call this the most secure election in American history. State election officials, Republicans and Democrats alike, say their elections were fair, open and transparent and are baffled by Trump’s torrent of misinformation. States’ certification of their elections and the Electoral College vote confirm what has been obvious for weeks. Still, the unreality show goes on.
Why is this of any consequence? Because Trump’s misinformation campaign convinced so many people that our election system failed us. A recent Monmouth University survey found that 77% of Mr. Trump’s backers said Mr. Biden won the election because of fraud. Accepting Trump’s untruths spreads cynicism and distrust, subverts the will of voters, discourages Americans from voting, distorts our image in the world, and makes our hold on democracy more precarious. It’s hard to view these falsehoods as anything but deeply destructive.
These examples shine new light on the “illusory truth effect,” which describes how, when we hear the same false information repeated again and again, we often come to believe it is true.
We all like to think of ourselves as immune to misinformation, but research shows we are equally susceptible to the illusory truth effect(.)
This is not just a theory. It’s been validated by a mountain of research. Though its origins are much older, the illusory truth effect is sometimes mistakenly attributed to Hitler’s propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, who said, “If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth.” In an article entitled, “Why Do We Believe Misinformation More Easily When It Is Repeated Many Times?” the people at the Decision Lab, a Canadian behavioral science think tank, note: “We may be skeptical of a false claim the first time it floats through our Twitter timeline, but the more we are exposed to it, the more we start to feel like it’s true.” Bad actors who understand this principle “understand that all they need to do to help a lie gain traction is to repeat it again and again.”
Biased in favor of conserving its resources, the brain often credits as truth what it has already processed, whether it is true or not, even when we know it is false.
“When politicians repeat obvious untruths again, and again, and again,” says the Decision Lab, “we should recognize that this is a deliberate strategy, aiming to familiarize people with the lie being told until they accept that lie as truth.”
We all like to think of ourselves as immune to misinformation. Unfortunately, research shows that we are equally susceptible to the illusory truth effect, regardless of political party, and are usually unaware of it when we’re in its grasp.
Experts urge the importance of critical thinking when encountering information that we know or suspect is false. Consult someone whose objectivity you trust or visit a website that fact-checks and debunks fake news. Warnings appended to questionable Facebook and Twitter posts alone won’t do.
Admittedly, critical thinking is more difficult in today’s political environment, subject as it is to the heaving waves of social media. Knowing the durability of our election process and the health of our nation are at stake, hopefully all of us will exercise greater care when choosing what to believe and what not to believe.
Brent Ward is a Salt Lake City attorney and a former United States Attorney for the District of Utah.