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Blog Post | May 10, 2024

Misinformation Miscues

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Misinformation Miscues

On Wednesday, Matt Yglesias wrote in his Substack, Slow Boring, about misinformation and how a key part of improving public discourse is correcting false understandings of the status quo. His piece, which was inspired by a new book by Emily Thorson, makes a number of good points, including that people are more open to changing their views upstream (about the current state of the world) than downstream (about the specific figures and policies in the headlines right now). In short, the biggest takeaway is that people are drawn to conspiracies and falsehoods that confirm their existing biases, but that you can reduce that appeal by providing good information that erodes the perceptions they have on which those biases are built.

It’s an interesting read and a good topic to think about. And, broadly, I’m inclined to agree, especially on the point that “A lot of what is important about current affairs isn’t what’s new about them.” However, there are a couple of things in the framing that are worrisome and undermine the entire point. Also, in the interest of correcting misconceptions about the status quo, I thought it might be helpful to discuss a few of the ones that Matt routinely promotes.

The example that Yglesias provides of people being inclined to believe misinformation that aligns with their politics is a poll from the end of 2016 showing that roughly half of people who voted for Hillary Clinton thought that Russia had manipulated vote tallies. This is a callback to the intro where he says that most concern over misinformation is a “lame cope” by progressives to try and ignore that the left gets things wrong too. It’s certainly true that liberals can believe things that are actually incorrect, but the centrality of criticizing the left detracts from the core part of the argument.

Progressives can have bad or crazy beliefs too, absolutely, but what Yglesias categorically obfuscates is that there is not an entire media sector that willingly eschews the truth to cater to this. If you look at The Blaze, The Daily Caller, The Daily Wire, or The Federalist–or right wing podcasters too numerous to name–it’s crystal clear that they are much happier to bend facts than the media ecosystem that caters to progressives. You may have issues with The American Prospect, Common Dreams, TruthOut, The Nation, or The New Republic, but they all clearly have journalistic integrity. MSNBC may be imperfect, but it cannot be compared to Fox News. Additionally, the fact-checking “cottage industry” that Yglesias is complaining about is largely centrist in reality. The high and mighty fact checkers are at The Washington Post, USA Today, and Politifact; not exactly outlets staffed by legions of leftists.

A past newsletter that Yglesias links back to complains that “the ‘misinformation’ construct has been wielded in the Trump era as a kind of partisan cudgel.” And in the Clinton voters example, he links back to a WaPo column by Catherine Rampell, in which she says “liberals should maybe keep any smug comments about paranoid, evidence-ignoring Trumpkins in check.” This kind of framing is a useless indulgence in their desire to stick it to the libs, nothing more. 

In addition to the asymmetric media ecosystems, the Clinton vote tally belief is actually plausible, especially in the wake of the 2016 election as information was still coming out. For a start Russia did try to hack into state voting systems, so the idea they could have gotten to the voting machines too, while it lacked evidence, was not implausible. And comparing it to things like the pizzagate conspiracy (as Rampell did), shows wanton abandon for actually trying to stick to the truth. Yes, neither turned out to be true. But if you followed the news and heard about Russia hacking the Clinton campaign (which was confirmed again later) and state election rolls (also reconfirmed), the idea that they might have been able to manipulate a tally wasn’t all that crazy. The flip-side, in Rampell’s own article(!), is believing, without any substantiated evidence, that Democratic politicians ran a child sex trafficking ring out of the back of a pizza shop. The crazy belief held by half of Clinton voters (50 percent) was that Russia managed to interfere in an election in a way that seemed to fit their overall election meddling scheme, while the crazy belief held by half of Trump voters (48 percent) was that Clinton was involved in using children, via a pizza parlor, in satanic rituals.

We can’t have a real conversation about misinformation without recognizing this lopsidedness. 

All of this parallels the fact that likely voters who get their news from cable TV, newspapers, and other legacy media that actually have some integrity-based commitment to the truth break strongly for Biden, while those who get their news from social media break towards Trump. The meat of Yglesias’ argument is good, but presenting it through the lens of how to unseat pretentious liberals turns the entire need for the conversation on its head.

This ache to make everything about punching left is also reflected in a number of misconceptions that Yglesias routinely repeats to his audience. Here are three big examples:

  1. Federal environmental laws are a central barrier to clean energy deployment.. Yglesias, along with folks like Derek Thompson and Ezra Klein, like to call for a “liberalism that builds,” which is a framework they use to call for easing standards and restrictions for infrastructure development of all kinds. This argument largely has two fronts that they like to deploy it on, while misleadingly conflating the barriers and imperatives to building each: housing and energy infrastructure. On housing, they have a point—there’s really no public interest argument against getting more housing built for the folks that need to be housed. (Though of course there’s a lot of reasons to have standards for that new housing construction.) On energy, they seriously misunderstand what the existing policies are, and which ones pose the greatest obstacles to renewable energy deployment. Hint: it’s not the National Environmental Policy Act.
    1. The federal environmental review process is not really a roadblock to building out renewables. For a start, only about 2 percent of projects are subject to a stringent review under NEPA in the first place. And of the wind and solar projects that are subject to federal environmental review, less than 5 percent between 2010 and 2021 had to prepare comprehensive documentation; most are already subject to streamlined procedures. If we want to increase the number of renewable energy projects on federal lands and thus increase the amount of projects subject to federal review, the easiest way to keep that process proceeding apace while preserving its integrity would be increasing staffing and resources at the permitting agencies, not gutting environmental standards. 
    2. There’s a reason why fossil fuel interests are so keen on permitting reform: they know it could ease barriers to constructing new pipelines and wells and export terminals. My colleague Hannah and I wrote for The Nation last fall about several reasons why the assumption from folks like Yglesias that across-the-board permitting reform will disproportionately benefit renewables ignores the many ways in which the fossil fuel industry is poised to capitalize on it, undermining the stated goal of decarbonization. (A reminder that renewables don’t “cancel out” fossil fuels: as long as we put carbon into our atmosphere the planet will continue to warm.)
  1. We need to increase fossil fuel production, especially LNG, to ease inflation. When inflation was at its peak, Yglesias repeatedly called for an increase in domestic fossil fuel production. His entire premise relied on bogus assumptions about how that would work.
    1. The timeline for how that could possibly help was always swept under the rug. Taking every other part of the argument as true, increasing oil and gas production and building out additional midstream infrastructure could never have helped inflation before, say, the 2024 election because it takes years to bring capacity online (even without regulatory delay).
    2. More production would have a limited impact on what Americans would pay in energy costs. The overwhelming majority of new production is devoted purely to exports for other markets, especially Europe, where prices are higher. As a result, any downward pressure on prices would be extremely limited–and by increasing demand for American production, exports could well increase domestic natural gas prices, even if they reduce prices globally.
    3. To the extent there was a capacity issue, it was at the refining stage, not the drilling stage. This was indicated by several instances where the crack spread—the difference between the cost of refined oil and the cost of crude— soared. If the issue was at the drilling stage, then we would have seen higher prices for both crude and refined petroleum increase. 
  1. Liberals who complained about Jerome Powell’s renomination were being alarmist.
    1. Powell is actively undermining financial reform and reinforcing incentives for banks to take undue risks. Powell has now spent years pushing back on critical regulatory reform, including watering down reforms from Dodd-Frank. Now he is working to sabotage restrictions on executive pay that would deter banking execs from pursuing short term profits over long term stability. 
    2. Under his leadership, the Fed is shying away from its responsibilities on climate-related financial oversight. My colleague Kenny explored this in depth in a piece for The Sling. While Powell insists that the Fed can’t touch climate issues, this ignores the very real, and worsening, situation where climate change poses dire financial risks. 
    3. Keeping rates high is helping Trump in the election and undermining democracy. Kenny also explored this angle, pointing out how Powell’s insistence on keeping rates high, despite inflation leveling off helps sow dissatisfaction with the economy among the electorate. And given that inflation has fallen without a rise in unemployment, it seems like that’s actually the main macroeconomic impact.

Image Credit: “Truth” by rstrawser is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

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