< The Convenient Untruths

Transcript

Friday, April 04, 2008

BROOKE GLADSTONE:
In the usual course of things, we expect information to lead to belief, but increasingly belief precedes information. It is, in fact, immune to information. In the new book, True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society, Farhad Manjoo traces the evolution of our tendency to tune out facts that don't jive with our beliefs.

He begins with a study conducted in the late '60s. Psychologists put college students in a room to listen to various speeches that were obscured by static. At any point the test subjects could press a button to temporarily reduce the static. Farhad Manjoo says that nonsmokers would repeatedly reduce the static during speeches about the bad effects of smoking.
FARHAD MANJOO:
The smokers, on the other hand, wanted to only listen to the stuff that confirmed their belief that smoking wasn't so bad for them. [BROOKE LAUGHS]

It was sort of one of the first and really one of the most clear-cut experiments on selective exposure. It's this psychological concept that basically says we tend to seek out information that comports with our beliefs and we avoid information that is dissonant, that kind of contradicts our views.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
And when your beliefs are not borne out by the facts and you can't tune the facts out, you can engage in something else, which you call selective interpretation. And that's what a doomsday cult did in 1954 when the world didn't end on schedule.
FARHAD MANJOO:
Right. When the world didn't end on schedule for this group, they decided that, well, maybe the message that they had been getting from this divine prophet actually suggested that their work to prevent the apocalypse worked. So selective interpretation means you see a set of facts and you fit the interpretation to your beliefs.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Now, you use examples from, you know, decades ago to illustrate selective exposure and selective interpretation, but you contend in your book that these are really manifestations of the current media world of blogs and talk radio and email.
FARHAD MANJOO:
Yeah. And in this world, there is the front door, the big newspapers and big network news outlets. The side doors are the blogs, talk radio, cable news, which actually draws a very small audience.

These side doors allow us to kind of amplify these factors of selective exposure and selective interpretation, and they make these factors kind of more important today than they were in the past, because in the past, you couldn't really seek out media that comported with your beliefs because, well, there weren't that many media choices.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
And you give a couple of great examples of how this plays out in the modern media world – the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which worked very hard to change the nation's understanding of John Kerry's war record.
FARHAD MANJOO:
Right. They went through this very circuitous path. They held a press conference. Big newspapers and big network news outlets came. And everyone ignored what they had to say because it was apparent to these journalists that the evidence that this group had didn't really stand up.

So they went to basically every talk radio outlet in the country and they popularized their message on the Web. And they started to attract donors, which was pivotal for them because then they could run TV ads and those TV ads then sort of got amplified through the cable news and then eventually made it to, you know, network news.

And lots of newspapers and legitimate journalistic outfits ran dozens of pieces basically debunking the Swift Boat Veterans, but the people on the right, and, to some extent, people in the center who listen to people on the right, didn't have much exposure to those facts.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Now, you show how false facts on both the right and the left make their way through partisan echo chambers, but you do suggest that conservatives have a different relationship with their media.
FARHAD MANJOO:
Right. People have studied how conservative blogs, for instance, link to each other and how liberal blogs link to each other, and they found that the people on the right generally have a tighter network and are more likely to indulge in only those sources.

And this has been a longstanding pattern where psychologists have noticed that people on the right are more efficient at filtering out things that kind of don't really support their views.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
We all know it's really easy to manipulate audio, video, and especially with Photoshop and digital images. But it was interesting – you said that the biggest effect of the Photoshopification of our society is not that it's easier to fool people but that now they have even more reason not to believe the evidence of their eyes and ears if they don't want to.
FARHAD MANJOO:
If you live in a world where everything is possibly fake, where every photo you see could have been Photoshopped, it gives you license to dismiss that photo. This is true not only of photos but of basically all kind of documentary evidence that comes at us these days. We can always assume that there's been some digital foul play there and that it's possibly not a truth.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
How do we have an informed society if you can disbelieve anything you aren't likely to approve of?
FARHAD MANJOO:
Well, in a number of areas I argue that we don't have an informed society; that one of the problems of this age is that we have people disagreeing over things that in the past I don't think they would have disagreed about – over the basic science behind global warming, for example, where you have huge numbers of Americans who simply dismiss the science.

And one of the difficulties about this situation is that the whole system sort of operates unconsciously. You can't really tell people that your truth is not true. They're not going to believe you.

It's possible with the Internet to go out and search for the well-researched documented truth of the situation. It's more possible now than it was ever before. I suppose I can suggest that people try to do that, but I don't know how well that's going to work.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
[LAUGHS] They could have done that all along. It just feels good to listen to the information that supports what we already want to believe. How do you fight something that feels so good?
FARHAD MANJOO:
Well, I suppose, just say no?
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
[LAUGHS] Farhad, thank you very much.
FARHAD MANJOO:
Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Farhad Manjoo is author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.