Nobody likes to be considered part of the uninformed masses. We don’t mind saying that everyone else is part of that group, but it’s a bit hard to look in the mirror and ask if we, ourselves, are part of that group.
Here’s the thing, in some form or fashion, we all, myself included, are uninformed about some aspect of government and politics. There are topics about government I still don’t know, bills that are being passed that I don’t understand, and inter-workings of the bureaucracy that confuse me. Consistently, I feel at a complete loss when it comes to the news and what to believe or not believe. I have voted and not fully known who all the candidates were or what they stood for on every issue.
We are all part of this massive republic and we don’t all know everything. They key is, do we have a solid foundation? If we do, then all those little details are much easier to iron out.
Right now, it is more important than ever that we have a strong grasp about what we believe and, more importatnly why we believe it. This allows us to weed through the mess we’re walking through right now. Otherwise we’re just prey for the politicians and media alike.
Listen, the masses are frantic, confused and yes, deeply uninformed or misinformed. It’s good to understand what it means to be part of an uninformed and misinformed public. I’m going to nerd out on y’all today for a bit and talk political science with you. I think it’s relevant and pertinent in this moment in time. So, I’m going to touch on what public opinion is, what the uninformed masses are and then dive into a dialogue with you about the misinformed masses. It is essential that you grasp the reality of the misinformed world we are living in today.
Public Opinion and The Uninformed
First, what is public opinion? So, when I say public opinion, in a political science sense, I mean an the overall public opinion about government and politics in the citizenry. Of course, public opinion is just a combination of many personal opinions about government and politics in general, but public opinion has more power because of its size and influence. So, the public opinion of healthcare may be overall in favor of more government control even though your personal opinion is somewhat different. Make sense?
The key here is, public opinion is the public opinion of the ignorant masses.
Let’s look at some basic statistics. In 2016, a study from Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania found the following about how little citizens know about government and civics:
Only 26% of Americans could name the three branches of government.
Nearly 40% didn’t know which branch had the Constitutional authority to declare war.
According to a Newsweek Poll in 2011:
Twenty-nine percent of Americans couldn’t name the Vice-President.
Seventy-three percent couldn’t correctly define why we fought the Cold War.
Forty-four percent were unable to define the Bill of Rights.
These are just a few silly statistics, but let me say this, in the political science field, it is a well known fact that the American public is grossly uninformed and uneducated. So much so that most people don’t even know their own beliefs, which is why it’s even harder to get a grip on public opinion and what affects it.
Because public opinion changes so much, is so inconsistent with itself and rarely ever based in fact. This makes it incredibly hard to measure, understand or predict. This is probably why public opinion is such a bloated topic within the field of political science.
Listen, we care about public opinion because we assume that public opinion affects government policy, right? So, this is why we (political scientists, but Americans at large as well) are so interested in what affects public opinion. Make sense?
Random variable —> public opinion —> law —> direct affect on us
Right now fear is a huge variable affecting public opinion, which in turn, is affecting law. Public opinion is powerful and therefore worth knowing about.
The Misinformation About Misinformation
Ok, so since I established how many people in the United States are uninformed, let me introduce you to a new concept. Misinformation.
Misinformation is somewhat the by-product of a lack of information. Misinformation is when citizens stay somewhat informed on politics and government but “believe” the wrong information and, therefore, base their opinions on wrong or incomplete information.
In other words, people are fed some information all the time. The problem is, most people don’t know enough basic facts to form a well educated opinion about the limited information they are given or seek out. Primarily foundational information. On top of this, much of the information people are fed is either framed to manipulate … or is completely not true.
So, let’s imagine a scenario for a second. A few people read that the current president closed the borders to China on January 31st because of the coronavirus. They decide that this was far too late to wait to close the borders to China and therefore form an opinion that the president has done a poor job of helping the country handle the coronavirus.
Hmmm, ok. Well, we might call these people misinformed rather than uninformed. They have informed themselves somewhat, but they’ve based their opinion on an incomplete story (which is usually left incomplete intentionally btw). What if these same people were later told that the president was the first world leader to close his country’s borders to China? Or that based on the Constitution, the standards against which most Americans are assessing the president are not within his job description in the first place, but rather should be left to the states?
You see? It was a lack of information that led to a flawed opinion…but in combination with some information. This is what leads to misinformation. This is what being misinformed means. And misinformation is lethal because it is what forms opinions, opinions that may otherwise be different if exposed for the misinformation that it is.
So, misinformation is perhaps far more dangerous to our republic than a lack of information.
Alright, I’m sure your imaginations have gone wild considering all the ways our country could be different without so much misinformation. Let me go on a little tangent here and tell you all about my experiences in gradschool learning about the concept of misinformation.
So, while in grad-school I took a public opinion class. One of the really sad things about that class was learning that, based on scientific and statistical data, the average American citizen is grossly uninformed about government and politics in general. And not only that, most citizens don’t care to be informed even if given the opportunity. And on top of that, citizens are painfully unengaged in politics at large. There’s a difference between being uninformed and unengaged. One can be highly informed but unengaged, or highly uninformed but highly engaged.
But I think the concept in this class that I found most fascinating was the study of the misinformed.
My guess is, as you’ve been reading about this concept of misinformation, you’ve likely been imagining all the people who watch MSNBC, CNN or read newspapers like The New York Times——or really subscribe to any of our “mainstream” media.
Right? Don’t you automatically assume that a huge portion of the US population is misinformed because they do believe the media?
Yeah, that’s what I thought too. But I’ll let you into a little secret about the academic world——-according to them, those who don’t subscribe to the mainstream media are the misinformed.
Yes! So, in this academic setting, they assumed the misinformed were those on the right side of the political spectrum. The ones who believe what the talk show hosts say, or base their decisions on FOX news or… who simply believe anything that the mainstream media is not saying. So, all the research on this topic has to do with studying the poor misinformed conservatives.
And I’m not joking.
For instance, take a look at this quote about a book in the political science field scientifically analyzing the misinformed:
“Analyzing the use, nonuse, and misuse of facts in various cases—such as the call to impeach Bill Clinton, the response to global warming, Clarence Thomas’s appointment to the Supreme Court, the case for invading Iraq, beliefs about Barack Obama’s birthplace and religion, and the Affordable Care Act—Hochschild and Einstein argue persuasively that errors of commission (that is, acting on falsehoods) are even more troublesome than errors of omission. While citizens’ inability or unwillingness to use the facts they know in their political decision making may be frustrating, their acquisition and use of incorrect ‘knowledge’ pose a far greater threat to a democratic political system.”
Notice the topics being analyzed? Mmmhmm. Yup, me too. These are all topics that conservatives would be “misinformed” about, right?
So, here I was, a young graduate student, and I literally remember the moment in class when I realized that I was who they were talking about. I was their perfect description of a misinformed delusional American because I was skeptical of the mainstream media, because I didn’t buy everything President Obama said, and because I leaned towards the right side of the spectrum.
What an odd feeling to discuss this subject in our class debates, knowing the whole time that they didn’t realize I was their test subject.
And I’d been so excited to discuss this subject! Why? Well, I’d felt immediately excited at the prospect to discuss a subject that seemed painfully obvious to me—yes, there are tons of misinformed people, on both sides of the aisle, but especially those who watch and believe the mainstream media without question.
And yet, wading through the debates I realized how wrong I was to assume this. It hit me like a load of bricks when I realized, I was sitting in a room full of individuals studying to get their doctorates in political science (or for our professor, he already had it) and not one of them questioned the mainstream media. Not one. I felt a bit like I was in a twilight zone and wasn’t sure what to make of it. How could they not see that that, in and of itself, was misinformation?
So, as I listened to all my fellow liberal/progressive grad-students and professor laugh at, scorn and belittle the very group of people I identified myself with, I realized then and there just how misinformed people in this country really are. My classmates and professor scoffed at how the“misinformed” were so uneducated (formally). They boasted about how the more educated people become the more liberal they become—-as they “see the light”. Insinuating, of course, that the liberal perspective is the informed and correct perspective. I remember thinking to myself, “Excuse me? I wouldn’t call myself uneducated and yet here I am, in the same class with you and I vehemently disagree with all your conclusions. So, how do I fit into your hypothesis?!”
I think the part of this whole topic that startled me more than anything else was this: in my classroom, no one questioned that their conclusions and assumptions about the misinformed were wrong. It was a given, as if we all should know that, when discussing the misinformed, it meant those on the right. And not only that, it was also a given that everyone should believe the mainstream media and that, to question it, would make you part of the misinformed.
How is that objective learning and research?
I share this with you all to help you understand that we live in a world who, right now, in the midst of all the panic, are slaves to the information they are given. And America’s public opinion is formed around the misinformation they are intentionally told.
Why? Because public opinion is an important tool that the government and media love to manipulate and use to their own advantage. And their greatest weapon is to tell us just enough truth to let us form some kind of opinion, but not enough to let us form a fully educated opinion. And unfortunately, we have become slaves to this. How can we know the real truth when no one tells us?
Because here’s the thing, we may be slaves to what we’re told (we can’t change whether or not the media or politicians tell us the whole truth), but we’re not victims. We can educate ourselves about the basics of American government and the Constitution. That’s why, we need to ground our personal opinions in basic foundational truths about government, the Constitution, and theory.
We may not be able to always figure out what is real or not in politics today, but we can stand on solid foundational truths. There’s no wavering in that. Arming ourselves with the basic tools will help us better assess current events without becoming part of that misinformed mass. And maybe then we can even help educate that misinformed mass by giving them the rest of the story. At least then they have a choice…when right now, they are slaves to the information they are being fed.
Seriously, if we’re misinformed…what hope does the rest of America have?
The Liberty Belle