Public Opinion

I don’t usually write about politics, but today was a weird day.

Thousands of people gathered outside the Capitol building in Washington DC today, some of them going into the building, some with guns. A woman got shot. All of this in response to Donald Trump’s remark:

We’re going to try and give our Republicans the kind of pride and boldness that they need to take back our country.

This is the latest in an escalating, years-long trend of different people seeing completely different realities in the US. What is to some a long-running trend of declining violence feels to others like a sharp increase; what’s to some a trend of increasing wealth and prosperity, is to others shrinking opportunity; what is to some a fair election, is to others an unfair steal.

It’s a good thing that different people have different political philosophies and values – competition of ideas is good, and leads to better ideas in the long run. We need conservatives and liberals and libertarians and socialists to ask questions and argue for ideas that others don’t.

There have always been radicals, good and bad, but the public largely agreed on most things most of the time, when it comes to the facts. Why has this changed? Or, maybe it’s just taking longer for people to converge on a common set of facts on a given issue?

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I just finished Walter Lippmann’s 1922 classic Public Opinion. In it he argues that different people often draw completely different conclusions from the same facts due to three things:

  1. Sampling. There’s a big universe of facts out there, and each media outlet reports on a tiny piece of this universe.

  2. Stereotypes. When you read a news story, you unconsciously pattern match and associate it to related examples you have in your mind (poor people are lazy, young mothers are desparate, immigrants are criminals, etc.).

  3. Context. When you read a news story, you subconsciously have some fascet of your own identity in mind (as a Republican, as a pro-choice person, etc.).

All three are in effect when stories are reported on and consumed. It’s a series of lenses that samples, then distorts, the truth in a way that given the same real-world event, different people may come to completely different conclusions about what happened.

For example, one person might read a CNN article about how voter turnout has been great this election, picture in their mind a stereotype of a concerned citizen going out to due their civic duty and vote for the first time, and feel proud about how this will help their party, the Democrats, win.

Concurrently, another person might listen to their trusted Breitbart podcast about several documented cases of voter fraud – which invokes in their mind a stereotype of a crazed liberal trying to push their unpopular policy by whatever means necessary – and feel their duty as a patriot to do something about it.

Both stories may have grains of truth within them, but by the time they are reported on and consumed by people, these grains are far gone and the two peoples’ resulting perceptions couldn’t be more different.

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I’d add a #1b to Lippmann’s series of lenses: Fake News.

Fake News amplifies #1 (sampling) significantly. It was less of a problem in Lippmann’s time since the News world was much smaller, and only highly edited and fact-checked publications – with their reputations at stake – had enough circulation to influence public opinion nationally.

Lippmann might have called Fake News “rumors”, not “news”, since they definitely existed in and before his time (think medieval stories about Jews putting Christian babies’ blood in Matzos). What’s changed now is rumors have national circulation.

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So, where do we go from here?

I think we should use Lippmann’s framework for public opinion as a roadmap for how to unify public opinion a bit more:

  • Sampling:
    1. Regulate news stations, and force them to give air time to the other side too (the FCC’s Fairness Doctrine Act did this in the US till 1987 – last year there was a bill to bring it back, H.R. 4401).
    2. 1000x government grants for public media, to make it possible for stations like NPR to compete with Fox, CNN, NYTimes, etc. in terms of national distribution, and to spur more competition in public media.
    3. Encourage social media companies to downrank content from people whose past content has been disputed.
  • Stereotypes:
    1. Improve public education by paying teachers more, breaking up unions, increasing competition in public schools (with vouchers, etc.), and funding early childhood and after-school programs.
    2. Increase arts grants to spur empathy and imagination.
    3. Invest in ways to get rural folks to move to cities for a few years, and vice-versa. People need to see the other side as concrete people, not abstract evils.
  • Context:
    1. Invest in a national counter-propaganda (in the Bernays sense) that promotes shared values (democracy, freedom, decency) over the tribal propagandas of today.
    2. Discourage tribalism and build a stonger a national identity with all of the above.