Wednesday, March 04, 2020

The Paradox of Political Problem Perception (or if you will, Persily's Paradox)

Nate Persily

For the symposium on Richard L. Hasen, Election Meltdown: Dirty Tricks, Distrust, and the Threat to American Democracy (Yale University Press, 2020).

One of the central concerns animating Rick Hasen’s excellent book, Election Meltdown, is Americans’ decreasing confidence in the electoral system.  Genuine worries about voter suppression and voting machine insecurity, as well as manufactured anxieties due to disinformation, lead citizens to question the fairness of the system and the legitimacy of election results.  As scholars of comparative politics are quick to recount, trust in the mechanics of democracy becomes very difficult to regain once it is lost. The 2020 election, therefore, represents a turning point for the United States: Will supporters of the losing candidate question the validity of the election and the legitimacy of the winner?

I should admit that I have frequently criticized a focus on confidence and perceptions in the context of the law of democracy.   In the campaign finance context, I have worried about the Supreme Court’s emphasis on the appearance of corruption as a justification for regulation of contributions or expenditures.  In the context of voter identification, coauthors and I sounded an alarm that perceptions of fraud may have been disconnected from the reality of what was happening in polling places. And in the context of race-based redistricting, wherein majority-minority districts were alleged to create “expressive harms” through racial stereotyping, coauthors and I suggested the evidence did not back up such assessments.

Times have changed.  We now live in an era where perceptions of electoral dysfunction are at least as important, if not more so, than the reality. Those perceptions might be shaped by real or exaggerated reports of what is happening on the ground.  Or they might be caused by broadbased public cynicism fed by polarized coverage of a particular election-relevant phenomenon. 

Even worse, there are also a set of problems concerning the functioning of elections, which, when you draw attention to them, you make them worse.  Analysts and critics of the system are therefore placed in a bind: Keep silent about the problem and hope your concerns are not as significant as they appear or identify the problem and be responsible for the foreseeable, if unintended, consequences when you amplify their significance.  Call this the paradox of political problem perception.

Take, for example, the problem of foreign-sponsored disinformation.  News outlets are quick to identify the mere existence of a Russian-sponsored ad, Facebook group or Twitter account, and in doing so, repost the associated content.  As with other “harmful content”, an item of disinformation, which otherwise may have been limited to an online echo chamber, is then amplified to a wider audience by the mainstream media that seeks to expose it.  Those who attempt to warn people about a problem, then end up exacerbating it.  They do so both by spreading the problematic content more widely, and also inevitably fostering a climate of skepticism as to the trustworthiness of even true information. 

Such is the case with respect to the “fake news” phenomenon more generally.  Researchers are finding that people are, in fact, getting better at spotting disinformation.  But at the same time, they are becoming much more skeptical of true news.  When the President calls CNN and the New York Times “fake news” and the mainstream media continuously draw attention to online sources of disinformation, casual consumers of news are left with the impression that they can only believe facts vouched for by the leaders of their information tribe.

We see a similar dynamic with account takedowns, hate speech enforcement actions, and even disclosure and factcheck regimes.  Many, if not most, consumers of online political information acquire news inadvertently.  News comes at them in their newsfeeds “packaged” just like other forms of communication (e.g., an advertisement, music video, opinion piece, friend’s communication).  Anything that distinguishes the harmful content draws attention to it, and for some share of people, their exposure to the countermeasure triggers their association with the content and plants some vague idea in their memory. (To some extent, this is an analog to the so-called “Streisand effect” – which refers to the incident in which Barbra Streisand attempted to suppress photographs of her house and inadvertently drew further public attention to it.)

These dynamics become especially disconcerting in the context of reporting about election mechanics and results.  The persistent warnings about machine vulnerabilities – some valid, others not so much – can erode confidence in the basic operations of elections.  Reports of Russian “probing” of voter registration systems are interpreted as hacking of the electoral infrastructure.  Similarly, claims of voter suppression are lodged at all kinds of list maintenance processes, many of which will not actually prevent anyone from voting.  Slowness in reporting results becomes fodder for accusations of manipulation.  The sum total of these alarms – some of which, I should emphasize, are, in fact, valid – is to erode confidence in the legitimacy and validity of the election.

So what is to be done?  The plea here is for more than accurate reporting or getting your facts straight.  Such an admonition is both obvious and obviously incomplete.  What is needed among the media and the pundit class in general is a better understanding about how incident reporting feeds into beliefs beyond the incident itself.  Reporting on the mere existence of a phenomenon, such as foreign propaganda, can do more harm than good, if it is not accompanied by some assessment of the magnitude of the problem.

The platforms have an important role to play as well.  To some extent, they are themselves to blame for misinformation about disinformation.  To this day, we have no real understanding of the prevalence of problematic content on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter.  Researchers can find millions of examples of disinformation, hate speech, or harmful content.  But on the internet, one can find millions of examples of anything.  We do not know key variables of interest, such as the likelihood that an individual is exposed to a piece of content or the share of disinformation posts that an average or particular user sees in his or her newsfeed.  We desperately need more independent analysis of the data the platforms possess on these topics.

Finally, we need to prepare for perception distortion, just as we prepare for hacking of the election infrastructure.  The debacle in the Iowa Caucuses was a reminder about how, even when the machinery of elections may work as intended, the process of reporting of results remains vulnerable to those who would cast doubt and undermine confidence.  As much attention as has been paid to voting machines, we need now to focus on each stage in the transmission of results from the machine to the polling place to the county to the state to the media to minimize the possibility of errors in transmission.  Similarly, as a greater share of the population votes through mail (with the possibility of massive changes in results after election day), it becomes ever more important to restrain the impulses to declare winners and expect concessions on election night.  That might be too much to ask.  But at the very least, we need to develop norms and criteria about when to sound the alarm about malfeasance and when to exercise restraint in letting the process work itself out.

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