Posted: Aug 11, 2020 7:31 pm
by Seabass
The Facts Just Aren’t Getting Through
The electorate is split into separate information bubbles. But unconventional messengers, appeals to patriotism, and even jokes can reach voters who don’t want to listen.

Afew weeks ago, I went to a political rally in a farmyard. The Polish presidential candidate Rafał Trzaskowski was speaking; in the background, a golden wheat field shimmered in the late-afternoon sun. The audience was enthusiastic—the host, a local farmer, had spread news of the candidate’s visit only the day before—but the juxtaposition of Trzaskowski and the wheat field was odd. He is the mayor of Warsaw, speaks several languages, has degrees in economics, and belongs to the half of Poland that identifies as educated, urban, and European. What does he know from wheat?

But Trzaskowski was running for president in a country whose other half lives in an information bubble that teaches people to be suspicious of anyone from Warsaw who is educated, urban, and European. Polish state television, fully controlled by the ruling Law and Justice party, was sending aggressive messages into that bubble, warning its inhabitants that Trzaskowski was dubious, foreign, in hock to “LGBT ideology”—which the incumbent president, Andrzej Duda, called “worse than communism”—and beholden to Germans and Jews. The messages, constantly repeated on a wide array of radio stations and television channels, were designed to reinforce tribal loyalties and convince Law and Justice voters that they are “real” Poles, not impostors or traitors like their political opponents.

During his short campaign, Trzaskowski did his best to reach into that bubble too. He stood beside wheat fields, spent a lot of time in small towns, and ran ads that called for an end to division. “We are united by a dream,” he said in one speech: “a dream of a different Poland,” a Poland where there are no “better” and “worse” citizens. This was a deliberate choice: Instead of mobilizing the voters inside his own bubble by attacking the ruling party, he sought to bridge Poland’s deep polarization by appealing to national unity.

He came close, winning 49 percent of the vote. But he failed. Trzaskowski’s half of Poland was insufficiently enthusiastic, while the other half was energized, angry, and very much afraid of Jews, foreigners, and “LGBT ideology.” Duda’s voters were also happy with the government subsidies and reduced retirement age that his party had approved, and not remotely inspired by Trzaskowski’s language of solidarity and unity—if they even heard it.

If they even heard it: If that doesn’t sound familiar, it should. Because the same thing could happen in the United States this fall—or during the next election in France, or Italy, or Ukraine. American politics, Polish politics, French politics, Italian politics, Ukrainian politics, all derived from their own history, economics, and culture, now have this in common: In each of these countries, deep informational divides separate one part of the electorate from the rest. Some voters live in a so-called populist bubble, where they hear nationalist and xenophobic messages, learn to distrust fact-based media and evidence-based science, and become receptive to conspiracy theories and suspicious of democratic institutions. Others read and hear completely different media, respect different authorities, and search for a different sort of news. Whatever the advantages of these other bubbles, their rules render the people in them incapable of understanding or speaking with those outside of them.

In some places, including Poland and the United States, the country is divided in half. In other places, such as Germany, the proportions vary, but the divide is just as deep. A couple of years ago, I took part in a project that looked at foreign influence in the 2017 German parliamentary elections. We found, among other things, that the overwhelming majority of Germans—left, right, and center—follow a mix of big newspapers, magazines, and television outlets, including public TV. But many of the Germans who vote for the far-right Alternative for Germany—the number hovers between 10 and 14 percent—get their news from a completely separate set of sources, including a heavy dose of Russian-funded German-language media, such as Sputnik and RT. The voters in the far-right bubble don’t just have different opinions from other Germans; they have different facts, including “facts” provided by a foreign country.

The point I am making here is not about Russia. It is about the deep gap in perceptions that now separates a tenth of German voters from the other 90 percent. Is that chasm permanent? Should the other German political parties try to reach the people in the populist bubble? But how is it possible to reach people who can’t hear you? This is not merely a question of how to convince people, how to use a better argument, or how to change minds. This is a question about how to get people to listen at all. Just shouting about “facts” will get you nowhere with those who no longer trust the sources that produce them.

Here is how this problem looks in the United States: On the day after Donald Trump met Vladimir Putin in Helsinki in 2018, Sarah Longwell found herself in Columbus, Ohio, talking with a focus group she had convened—a room full of people whom she characterizes as “reluctant” Trump voters, people who had voted for the president but had doubts. Trump’s bizarre behavior in Helsinki had bothered her. The president had looked cowed and frightened; in accepting the Russian leader’s insistence that he had not interfered in the 2016 U.S. election, Trump appeared to side with Putin and against America’s FBI. “D.C. is on fire about it, I’m on fire about it, I think it’s a big moment,” Longwell told me. “I ask folks in Columbus, ‘What happened yesterday in Helsinki?’ They look blank.”

Longwell is a Republican activist, or rather a Never Trump Republican activist—one of the few remaining members of what was once a large group. She spent 2016 rooting for an alternative to Trump. She spent 2017 losing friends. That was the year of the “body snatchers,” she said, when “people who you thought were with you suddenly started to change.” In 2018, she tried to figure out what to do next. Instead of giving up, she and another Never Trump Republican, the longtime journalist and activist Bill Kristol, raised money and set out to find people who felt the same way, not in Washington but across America, especially in Republican-voting suburbs.

Their initiative, now called Republican Voters Against Trump, immediately ran into the information wall. Among Longwell’s focus group in Ohio, Trump’s bizarre behavior in Helsinki did not register. “People haven’t heard about it,” Longwell recalled thinking. “It’s not breaking through.” This wasn’t because the people in the group were uninterested in politics. Nor was it because they were only watching Fox News. On the contrary, they were getting news from social media, from alerts on their phone, from devices of all kinds. They were getting too much news, in fact. As a result, all reporting about Trump—the crush of scandals and corruption—is, Longwell said, “so omnipresent, so daily, that it becomes white noise to people.”

Helsinki, porn stars, “Grab them by the pussy,” Ivanka Trump’s Chinese trademarks, taxpayers’ money going to Trump golf clubs, the sex scandals, ethics scandals, legal scandals, even the power-abuse scandal that led to Trump’s impeachment—they have all melted together over the past four years. They have become a series of unpleasant news stories that follow TV advertisements for hairspray or mouthwash, that precede a Facebook post about a cousin’s wedding anniversary. For Longwell’s reluctant Trump voters, dislike of the scandals and dislike of the media that report on the scandals became one and the same—a huge hornets’ nest that nobody wanted to touch or think about. At the same time, these same voters were being bombarded with other messages—messages that reminded them of their tribal allegiance. They “swim in a cultural soup of Trumpism,” Longwell said. Being Republican was part of their identity. Images relating to God, patriotism, and the Republican Party were all around them. Cumulatively, those messages were much stronger than their dislike for Trump.