Can we learn to be honest with one another this year?
This is a question we’ve been asking of each other, of our neighbors and of our readers since this newspaper was launched in 2017.
The answer, until now, seemed to be a befuddling no. You only have to walk down the block to find an argument or a jarring reminder of how fragmented our shared concept of truth has become.
In a 2018 study commissioned by the RAND corporation, researchers Jennifer Kavanagh and Michael D. Rich coined the term “Truth Decay” to define the collapse in American dialogue that we’ve experienced over the past few years.
“Truth Decay” occurs when people lose trust in their sources of information and begin to disagree about basic objective facts. It’s not a new phenomena, according to the RAND researchers, who point out that Truth Decay pervaded three other distinct periods in American history — during the heyday of Yellow Journalism in the 1880s, in the Roaring 20s and again in the 1960s. Truth began decaying again before Sept. 11, 20001, they argue.
This phenomena appeared to reach a pinnacle with the big lie former president Donald Trump told his supporters, claiming without evidence that he had won last November’s election, culminating in the events we all witnessed at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.
The Truth Decay of the Trump era was a confluence of so many known drivers — in 2016, foreign actors in Russia took advantage of our already fractured systems for sharing information and the very real economic struggles facing most Americans. Donald Trump’s media savvy and his warped worldview were simply a convenient vehicle for so many enablers to sow discord. Call him the Manchurian Cantaloupe.
Such a spectacle couldn’t help but be attractive to the news media and attention-seeking members of Congress. But moths drawn to a flame face more than one peril — they’ll get burned, no doubt, but that flame also sucks all the oxygen out of the room. There is always an eventual reckoning when you build a house of cards.
The antidotes to Truth Decay begin with a very simple premise: Facts matter.
Many external factors led to the end of prior periods of Truth Decay — the rise of investigative journalism, improvements in our public education system, and the unity enabled by shared economic prosperity.
And sometimes, the pendulum of truth and lies swings too far in one direction.
In hindsight, these periods often seem like a natural correction. We may soon look back at this period and know for sure that the assault on the Capitol was the beginning of the end of this Truth Decay period.
The new administration’s speechwriters appear to be well aware of the RAND research, folding hints into President Joe Biden’s inaugural address.
“There is truth and there are lies — lies told for power and for profit,” said Mr. Biden on the steps of the Capitol Jan. 20. “Each of us has a duty and a responsibility as citizens, as Americans and especially as leaders … to defend the truth and defeat the lies.”
What struck us the most about this statement was the clear causation Mr. Biden drew between lies and their utility for those seeking power and profit. This is particularly striking because the new president isn’t known to ascribe motives to his competitors at whim.
Lies don’t just empower and profit politicians. They also empower and profit our foreign adversaries and many corners of private industry, including the news media.
The role of the news media in this process is outsized, and even the most responsible news organizations often contribute to the problem, both intentionally and unintentionally. We all have to do better at reaching people and regaining trust.
“In the work ahead of us we’re gonna need each other,” said Mr. Biden on Jan. 20. “Rebuilding trust with the American people will be central to our work.”
The Truth Decay study is ongoing, and all the antidotes are not all yet known. For more information on this effort, visit rand.org/research/projects/truth-decay.