Elections are inflection points in a conversation that began with the founding of the nation, but without informed voters, armed with well-sourced facts about candidates and issues, “truth decay” will hamper democracy’s effectiveness, said civics advocate Lindsay Hayes.
Hayes spoke at the Oct. 28 virtual Common Hour on “Free the Facts: A Conversation About an Informed Election.” A former communications consultant in the White House and U.S. Senate, she leads the nonprofit, Free the Facts, a civic group directed toward informing young people.
“We’re really committed, to put it simply, to getting America’s brightest minds on our biggest problems,” Hayes said. “We pride ourselves on providing good, reliable information so that people can become engaged, empowered citizens.”
The group, she said, is nonpartisan. “We always explain to people, ‘We don’t tell you what to think, we just make sure you can.’ That’s a really challenging thing to do these days, and part of that is that the foundation by which we have these conversations and engage in deliberative democracy … has corroded,” Hayes said.
Hayes, a professor of political communication who taught at the University of Maryland for more than a decade, listed some of the reasons for the corrosiveness in public discourse—hyper-partisanship, political echo chambers and a deluge of information thanks to technology that is often confusing, misleading or untrue.
More troubling, she said, is a Pew Research study in which participants were asked to determine whether 10 statements drawn from media reports were factual or opinion. Only 26 percent accurately identified all five factual statements and only 35 percent identified all five opinions.
“This is one of these examples that Michael Rich and RAND has talked about,” Hayes said, referring to the president and chief executive officer of the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan global think tank. “They’re all emblematic of the difficulty we’re having.”
Rich is co-author with Jennifer Kavanagh of “Truth Decay: An Initial Exploration of the Diminishing Role of Facts and Analysis in American Public Life.” The 2018 book identified four trends that characterize this issue.
They include: an “increasing disagreement about facts and analytical interpretations of facts and data; a blurring of the line between opinion and fact; the increasing relative volume and resulting influence of opinion and personal experience over fact; [and] declining trust in formerly respected sources of facts.”
While clearly a problem for the nation as a whole, it’s more so for the 18-to-35 age group, and in particular college students, who Free the Facts is focused on reaching and informing, Hayes said.
“The Millennial and Z generations, that demographic that we typically work with, there are some alarming statistics that we’ve seen that really contribute to perpetuating a lot of this truth decay that we’ve seen over the last several years,” she said.
She cited a 2017 Tufts University study that found that 60 percent of Millennials who are in rural areas live in what the researchers characterized as ‘civic deserts.’
“They have little, if any access to the institutions that foster civic engagement,” Hayes said. “They never get into the zone to actually exercise [their] deliberative democracy muscle because there’s simply very few institutions in their geographic region that provide those kinds of opportunities.”
Solutions to engaging Millennial and Z generations, the age groups less likely to want to run for public office, range from enhancing media literacy to better understanding differences between fact and opinion to changing the zero-sum, win-or-lose election to what can be a workable agreement.
Hayes finished the conversation with words of hope for the nation’s future leaders who are today’s college students.
“This is not a young generation like previous generations,” she said. “This is a generation that I think understands that being an engaged citizen is marching; it is reading; it is being active; it is engaging in your community; it is volunteering; and it is also voting.”