What We Really Look For When We Say We’re Looking For Truth

With Dannagal G. Young - Professor of Communication and Political Science at the University of Delaware

Episode description:

Welcome to In Reality, the podcast about truth, disinformation and the media. I’m Eric Schurenberg, a longtime journalist, now executive director of the Alliance for Trust in Media.

One of my long-held assumptions is that everyone seeks the truth. They may be derailed in that quest by false information, but the ultimate goal is factuality. Today’s guest begs to differ. Dannagal Goldthwaite Young is Professor of Communication and Political Science at the University of Delaware, a frequent voice in the poplar press, the author of scores of academic articles and two books, most recently Wrong: How Media, Politics and Identity Drive our Appetite for Misinformation, available for pre-order on Amazon. Professor Young, who also goes by Danna, argues that people’s goal in consuming media isn’t understanding exactly, rather, it’s feeling like we understand feeling like we are part of a like-minded community. We’ll discuss that distinction, along with why our political and media institutions highlight outrage and division, about why Republicans are more susceptible to empirically inaccurate information, about the virtue of intellectual honesty, the role of trust, and what media and everyone else should do differently to get along in a diverse democracy.


This episode was produced by Tom Platts


Episode Transcript


Eric Schurenberg (00:02.691)
Dana, welcome to In Reality.

Danna Young (00:05.497)
Thanks, Eric.

Eric Schurenberg (00:07.362)
Before we dive into all the intricacies of misinformation and media and the information environment, let’s talk about you. So I’m really curious how you came to this field. But many students of the information environment are…
Also journalists or technologists or former journalists like me, many including you, are academics, but not many are academics and also improv comedians. So tell me what journey brought you to this field and how did improv become one of the stepping stones along the way?


Danna Young (00:44.321)
Yeah, the trouble here is that I spent a good 20 years studying things a lot more fun and lighthearted than misinformation. So I studied the psychology of satire and late night comedy. And some people could say, well, you actually just jumped from one form of fake news to another form of fake news, from John Stewart to disinformation. But…

I see it actually is quite a logical extension of what I have been doing for a couple of decades, which is studying how various mediated messages affect attitudes, beliefs, knowledge, and behaviors of individuals and groups. And once you have tenure at a university, it kind of frees you up to change things up and maybe think about what questions are most important.
In terms of how improv has shaped things, improv is just, first of all, everyone should do improv. Everyone should take an improv class because it encourages you to be present in the moment, listen to the offers that are given to you by people or the world, and build directly on those offers rather than going with what your pre-existing inclination already was. Instead, you’re just responding to the last offer given.

Eric Schurenberg (02:09.984)

Danna Young (02:13.089)
So I guess in some ways my shift to the study of misinformation was based on me responding to the last offer given, which was a change in our environment, right? We had COVID, we had election denialism, we had misinformation coming from the top, we had misinformation circulating online. And you know, I saw regular people who were very smart, thoughtful people really struggling to figure out what was true and what wasn’t. So rather than just jumping on the bandwagon of studying misinformation on the side of supply, which a lot of my colleagues are doing, which is super necessary, that is mapping the misinformation and disinformation environment online, looking at who is spreading this and disinformation.
Rather than looking at that side, which I think of as the supply side, I decided we really need to spend a little more time understanding why people are attracted to misinformation in the first place. Because we don’t come to false beliefs arbitrarily. We really come to false beliefs because they satisfy certain needs. And if you think about what those needs are, I think… you can start to unlock this puzzle.

Eric Schurenberg (03:45.974)
That is a very interesting observation and a real centrepiece of your book. For me, one of the more optimistic things that I hang onto in this information environment is the belief that people seek the truth, that no one wants to be fooled, and that everybody in their own way is trying to get to the best representation of reality. But the…
But what I took away from your book was that doesn’t quite mean the same thing to everybody. And what people are thinking is not factual accuracy, maybe in the way that you would if you were a scientist or hopefully a high integrity journalist or whatever, they’re looking for three C’s, comprehension, control, and community. Talk about those and how, in general terms, each one of those affects what people believe.

Danna Young (04:43.257)
Sure, so when you started off, you said no one wants to be fooled, people want to seek the truth. I think those are two different propositions. No one wants to be fooled. I see that as a social dynamic. No one wants to feel that they’re being tricked by someone else. But I don’t think that people ultimately seek the truth. I think people are generally not motivated by accuracy motivations. And that’s a hard pill to swallow. Let’s be honest, that’s a very hard pill to swallow. We wanna believe that people want to perceive the world as it actually is. Sometimes perceiving the world as it actually is, is upsetting. Sometimes there’s aspects of life that are painful. Sometimes there are events and dynamics.

Just the reality of mortality is upsetting. In fact, I spent a bit of time in the book talking about how one of our big motivations for understanding the world is to have control or agency within it. And part of that is about how we struggle to deal with the reality of mortality and our own death is very upsetting for us. And so we come up with all kinds of ways to feel like we can have control over that. So the three Cs.
Comprehension, control, and community. Comprehension is the notion that we are driven to feel like we understand the world. We comprehend it. Note I say, feel like we comprehend it, right? That doesn’t necessarily mean that we comprehend it accurately, but we feel like we understand it. Two is feeling that we have that sense of control. We have agency. If we do not feel that we have agency, powerlessness is a really upsetting and dysfunctional emotion. And so we avoid feeling that way to the extent possible. And the third one really captures social motivations. That is community. We are driven to feel connected to our team, to our group that we identify with. So those are the three Cs.
Now that is not to say that we are never motivated by accuracy, but I would argue that our default is generally to be motivated by those three Cs.

Eric Schurenberg (07:15.246)
A phrase that occurs a lot in your book is people like me. So what do people like me believe? How do people like me behave? You can understand why that’s a reference point for a lot of people, but how does it distort reality?

Danna Young (08:52.865)
Well, it doesn’t always distort reality, but what it does is it shapes how we come to satisfy those needs for comprehension, control, and community. So we will tend to understand or comprehend the world in the way that people like me do. We’ll tend to try to have control over the world the way that people like me do. And we’ll tend to want to enact and engage with community the way people like me do.
This sort of brings me to what I think is the most fascinating part of the story for me in the context of American wrongness, as I call it, right? The supply side is about misinformation, but the demand side is about wrongness. So there has been amazing work in the past five to ten years in political science looking, not just at polarization, which I think was kind of a fetish of a lot of folks for a long time, this notion of political polarization, but also at what’s called the social sorting of our political parties. That is that our political parties back in the 50s and 60s used to include all kinds of different people. So the Democratic Party and the Republican Party were actually both ideologically mixed with various socio-demographic… groups represented within both. But due to changes in the 60s and 70s, mainly around race and civil rights, the parties began to realign. There was a great sort of racial realignment and the Democratic Party became the home of civil rights. African Americans tended to identify as Democrats. And there was a concerted effort on the part of the Republican Party to really court white evangelicals and to tap into a culturally conservative worldview. So what we have now are these parties that include different people, different kinds of people in a way that they didn’t 40 years ago. And that sorting itself has become asymmetrical. The Democratic Party has become quite heterogeneous in its makeup. It is ethnically diverse.

Danna Young (11:15.453)
It is suburban and urban, a little rural, but mostly suburban and urban, secular and agnostic with some, obviously some faith abiding people there. But the Republican Party has become uniquely homogenous, white, Christian, rural, culturally conservative. What that means is that social identity processes really operate efficiently for those people whose identities are what we call aligned. They all have very good fit. If you have very good fit, if you look like what most of your teammates look like, if you worship the way they worship, if you live the way they live, you have good fit. And when you have good fit, it means that your social identity is going to be salient in your mind a lot.
It’s gonna play a huge important part in how you live and how you think of yourself. And that is going to then play a greater role in shaping those three Cs, how you comprehend the world, seek to control it, and have community within it. So that to me is the interesting piece, the interaction of the psychological needs at the individual level with these sociological processes and even political processes you know, at this sort of macro.

Eric Schurenberg (12:44.098)
Mm-hmm. Part of your work deals with personal traits, individual traits that make some folks more susceptible to misinformation than others. So quite apart from the social constructs, the seeking of community and mega identities that the political parties represent. What are those characteristics?

Danna Young (13:09.473)
The characteristics that will tend to be correlated with greater susceptibility to misinformation at the individual level. Um, it generally has to do with motivations to think critically and reflect on information. So you can think of traits like need for cognition, which is about how much you enjoy thinking and solving problems. If you’re high in need for cognition, you’ll, you’ll tend to be less susceptible to misinformation. If you are higher in need for closure, which means you want to make decisions quickly, you use heuristics, you generally rely on emotions to make decisions, you’ll tend to be more susceptible to misinformation. What’s most interesting to me though are these what are called epistemic beliefs. That is how people will value intuition and emotion on the one hand or how they’ll value evidence and data on the other hand. And all of us value both, right? All of us use our instinct and our emotion and evidence and data all the time. But there are some kinds of people who are more reliant on and value intuition and instinct and emotion more. And they see evidence and data as kind of unnecessary. They’re like, no, I feel it in my gut. I don’t need.

I don’t need that additional information. And we have found some of the work that I’ve done with my colleagues at the University of Delaware, we have found that propensity to value intuition and emotion and to devalue evidence and data is correlated with greater belief in conspiracy theories and misinformation. And most fascinating to me is it’s also correlated with political beliefs.
It is more likely that if you are culturally conservative, you are going to value instinct and emotion and maybe devalue evidence and data. And so we find that it’s correlated with support for Donald Trump. It’s correlated with identifying as Republican. Some political scientists like Oliver and Wood suggested this is kind of an artifact of the courting of Christian evangelicals by the right. That, you know, that it’s created this chasm in how people come to truth across the two parties with cultural conservatives who tend will be more likely to be evangelical Christians prioritizing faith over evidence and data. Really fascinating work.

Eric Schurenberg (16:03.858)
That is really fascinating. I would guess that you and I, and many of the listeners too in reality, would identify as on the need for cognition end of the spectrum and the more factually driven rather than instinctive or evidence driven rather than instinctive. So let me take a step back.
While we may say that about ourselves, in reality, we base a lot of what we believe on trust. And in a way, it’s a kind of version of identifying with the community that we believe in. So you and I may believe that the COVID vaccine is effective, but not because we’ve done tests, double blind tests on vaccine efficacy, but because people we trust have told us that. So in a world in which there are conflicting interpretations of factuality, you personally, Dana, what tests do you use to decide whether something is true or not when it’s contested?

Danna Young (17:16.249)
That’s a great question. If I can just go back, because you highlighted something that I think is so important, and that is that, you know, for folks who say that they come to truth through evidence and data, it really, when you kind of peel back the layers, you realize, no, actually what they’re doing in a lot of cases is they’re putting trust in people they perceive as experts who come to truth through evidence and data.
So in that case, individuals themselves, even though they say that they are evidence-based, data-driven, what they’re actually doing is being trust-driven, putting trust in other people who they have faith that those individuals are themselves, doing those double-blind studies, doing them in an honest way, et cetera. I just find that so crucial because I think a lot of times… liberals will be uppity and say, oh, you know, I believe science. I, you know, I come to truth through evidence and data. And I’m like, you’re not wearing the lab coat in the lab doing the studies. You’re coming to truth through trust. Trust is a heuristic. Trust is a shortcut. So don’t judge folks who use other shortcuts. You are also using a shortcut. So in terms of how you ask what I do. I admittedly am high in trust in institutions. Probably not a surprise because I work in higher ed, I’m a faculty member. You know, I also, I grew up in New Hampshire, which was really important in shaping my political identity because we were the first in the nation primary state. And so I got to see a lot of candidates campaigning and.

I don’t know, I just came to really trust the process. And I admittedly am high in trust in institutions. I don’t think that they are all working perfectly and I think that they are flawed, but I think that they are improvable. That being said, because I trust institutions, I tend to trust the information that comes from them. Not a blind trust, obviously, because you always have to be open to the possibility that there is new information on the horizon.
This is what I love about science, but I also hate about science. As a scientist, we never remove ourselves from doubt, ever. So you can never say we’ve proven something. And if a scientist says this is proven, that actually is antithetical to science, right? You have evidence consistent with a proposition, perhaps. Maybe the preponderance of evidence points in one direction.
Maybe there’s general consensus that something is true, but we never remove ourselves from doubt. That being said, when we’re talking in a public forum about something like vaccines or masks, I think the public really has a hard time with those shades of gray. And I think it is important that we find ways to communicate the level of certainty that we have in certain outcomes being true. While still… maintaining that concept of intellectual humility, which is I’m open to the possibility I could be wrong. And it’s fascinating to me that it is this construct, being open to the possibility we might be wrong is actually something that can make it more likely that we will be empirically accurate because we’re always willing to update.

Eric Schurenberg (21:28.916)
I love that. In your book, you quote Karl Popper, who’s kind of mnemonic for truth, if I could put it that way, or factuality, is that it is a claim that has not yet been disproven. And so… That assumes this kind of never removing oneself from doubt, as you put it so articulately, and that of all of us, to subscribe to the idea that we are being intellectually humble, must hold our beliefs loosely and be aware that they can always be overridden. And that, in fact, that sort of the… continual challenging of accepted reality is part of living in a fact driven world. Let’s move on to the, if I may Dan, I’m sorry, go ahead, go ahead.

Danna Young (22:20.161)
Yeah, and if I may- I was just gonna say something that I find most fascinating about intellectual humility, the promise of intellectual humility, and that can kind of serve as a bridge to a conversation about journalism and media and political elites is that we really don’t see intellectual humility performed by elites. We do not see intellectual humility performed on cable news. We don’t see it performed by political leaders very often. And when we do, it is often criticized or it is equated with being wishy-washy or someone who is hypocritical because they’ve changed their mind. I think that we have room to grow as a society in terms of valuing intellectual humility as something we want to see embodied by our leaders and performed in public spaces.

Eric Schurenberg (23:22.742)
That is a perfect bridge to a discussion of media. I would point out that media has always been drawn to the most extreme voices. Years ago, I read Philip Tetlock’s Expert Political Judgment, and even then, I think it was the 80s or 70s, chronicled the attraction of people in my profession for voices that were the most assured or the most dramatic or the most charismatic for whatever reason, but were, as it happened, more often wrong than right, for which there was no accountability.
One of the things that your book points out though is that the current media business environment has made that tendency much worse. How?

Danna Young (24:15.093)
That’s a that was such a like quick question that has such a complicated answer. Um, you know Part of the issue here is that there has been a synergy between the social sorting of our political parties with the fragmentation of our media environment and these two things really feed off of each other in a lucrative way for stakeholders if you have two political parties that are increasingly homogenous along socio-demographic dimensions. It means that the individuals whose identities align will tend to be more readily engaged, more readily outraged, more readily threatened. That combined with a fragmented media environment where media products are designed for niche audiences, right? For small audiences that share a certain small set of traits together, this means you’re going to be able to make really successful outrage-oriented content that is rooted in identity threat. And that is going to drive that engine and reward those kinds of voices, voices that constantly remind you of who we are as a team and how our way of life is threatened by members of the out.
I’d also say in journalism in particular, because of the economics of journalism, because of the demand for profit, and because of the consolidation of ownership of our news institutions in the United States, the drive to cover stories in a way that is really gripping and engaging and outrageous.
It is going to necessarily reward the Marjorie Taylor Greens for outrageous, outlandish behaviors because those performances of identity and identity threat are super riveting, super engaging, and so naturally fit into the media’s need for conflict. They need personality, right? They need conflict.

Danna Young (26:39.653)
All of those are embodied by those displays of identity threat. So as you know, my hope is that journalists can find ways to think differently about how they cover those things. We can talk about that more too.

Eric Schurenberg (26:57.006)
But we definitely will. There’s a metaphor that you use a lot in wrong of distillation of political identity, like distilling whiskey, a kind of feedback loop between people’s identity, their political identity and the kinds of performances that are rewarded by media.
Would you explain the distilling of political identity?

Danna Young (27:28.045)
Well, I don’t know if it says something about political scientists, but I was like, I think that an alcohol metaphor is gonna work really well here. And I’ve been told that it does work well. So, when you think about what it is that political elites and partisan media are offering up to the public, they’re offering up observations of the world that then the public can use to update their beliefs or not. But the issue is political and media elites are not just offering up observations out of nowhere, they are trying to tap into those social identities, tap into that identity threat, to mobilize, to engage viewers or voters. So now, as they’re sort of tapping into their sense of what our social identities are and what will threaten our social identities, they’re then delivering those on a platter in the form of speeches and media content, which then we look to, to inform how we think of ourselves in our world. So as that happens and we go to use that information to update our perception of the world and our social identity, it’s already been drawn upon us in anticipation of what we want and what we fear. So that creates a cyclical process. And I’m not a distiller of whiskey, but my understanding is that when you create whiskey, there’s an evaporation process where the alcohol itself evaporates and then is used in a second round of distillation to become purer and purer. So you’re drawing upon the already distilled content and then distilling it even more. And that’s what they’re doing with us.

Eric Schurenberg (29:21.93)
Yeah. We should probably talk about social media because everyone does when they talk about misinformation. One thing that I thought was refreshing in Wrong was that you don’t see the social media platforms as a root of all evil information. The filter bubble phenomenon is well rehearsed and everybody knows what that means, but I get the impression that you think that overstates the idea and understates the role of other sources of information and other sources of social support for identity. Could you tell us about that?

Danna Young (30:01.397)
I love that this question is coming up this late into the interview because you read the book, Eric. Yeah, so look, I am not an apologist for social media platforms. There’s a very long paragraph where I talk about all of my issues with meta. However, it is very clear to me that to place all of the blame in the lap, of social media platforms for what’s going on right now misses the point and lets a lot of very crucial factors off the hook, lets a lot of very influential elites off the hook. I think to think that individuals fall from the sky and jump on Facebook and join a flat earth group, it’s not how it works, right?
And as I say in the book, people don’t fall from the sky in Google critical race theory. Doesn’t happen that way. This is complex and synergistic. And yes, social media, sure, they exacerbate these issues because of the logics of in affordances of the technologies, right? By having information that is political and engaging and having it embedded within these social networks and having recommendation algorithms that are based on whatever has made us more angry or more excited based on our clicks. Obviously that is going to drive this engine even more, but in order to truly capture what is driving identity-driven wrongness, we have to look upstream. What are the factors that are shaping our social identity and why is it that we look to comprehend, control, and have community in these particular ways.

Eric Schurenberg (32:03.011)
One of the things that worries me going into election year is the fact that many of the social media platforms have pulled back on their investment in content moderation and fact checking. Now, you said earlier that your work focuses on the demand side of misinformation rather than the supply side, and fact checking is all about constraining the supply side of false information.
How do you feel about the platforms pulling back on their investments in this area? Does it worry you or do you think it’s beside the point and that there are other things that will be more effective than that kind of whack-a-mole game?

Danna Young (32:46.329)
Yeah, it worries me, but I also think that focusing exclusively on content moderation can be a distraction. I also think that when we talk about content moderation, I think the public has a skewed view of what content moderation is. I think that they will tend to overestimate taking down accounts and taking down posts.
Experts and the platforms, I think, agree that should be a last resort, right? That what we want is to create friction, to provide context, to diversify people’s information environments. We want to create speed bumps. We want to encourage people to process information with accuracy in mind and not with, you know, what’s going to get, you know, the most clicks in terms of my response.
So it is the content moderation piece is necessary, especially when it encourages individuals to, the work from David Rand and others looking at accuracy prompts as a real, I know that you’ve had David on here. And that is really fascinating work. And I think it’s crucial to try to find ways to get people to think in terms of accuracy.

Eric Schurenberg (34:06.818)

Danna Young (34:16.445)
But imagine now, imagine if we could create a culture that valued intellectual humility and how our social media spaces would look if we valued intellectual humility and rewarded intellectual humility. I feel that some of these questions in the weeds with content moderation, they’re necessary, but I love to zoom out. And say, what are some really large factors that are driving this? But I have a lot. OK, go ahead. Let’s zoom out.

Eric Schurenberg (34:52.45)
Good, let’s zoom out then. Yeah, let’s zoom out. Let’s zoom out to media. So in the, you know, in the, Dana has won the 2024 election, you have all sorts of power. What should media do to create a more healthy, factually accurate, pro-democratic information environment?

Danna Young (34:59.073)

Danna Young (35:21.781)
Number one, invest in robust, independent public journalism. Number one.
Without the pressures of profit and ratings, they are able to deliver a kind of information that is less subject to the pressures we’re talking about today. Number two, invest in robust, independent, local community journalism. My friends Josh Dahr and Joanna Dunaway and Matthew Hitt have done… amazing work looking at the power of good local community news, not just to inform people, but to actually reduce political polarization, to reduce feelings of animosity towards people’s outgroups, simply because you are changing the social identity that community members are tapping into, rather than thinking in terms of political mega identities, left and right.
You’re thinking about your identity as a member of your community, your neighborhood, you’re rooting for your local sports teams. You’re thinking about the success of the local businesses on main street. That is powerful. And our, you know, America’s local journalism has had a very rough couple of decades and it needs to be infused with cashflow. Um, the Knight foundation is, is doing some amazing work in that space right now. But, um,

Eric Schurenberg (36:54.99)
That is true.

Danna Young (36:56.849)
Also in journalism, focusing on democracy-centered reporting. Democracy-centered reporting is reporting that emphasizes citizens, institutions, and processes over political elites, drama, scandal, and conflict. There’s a wonderful group that I was a part of, the Election Coverage and Democracy Network.

Eric Schurenberg (37:02.358)
What is that?

Danna Young (37:25.021)
In 2020, created all kinds of information to help journalists think about ways to cover elections that are pro-democratic, right, that are actually always prioritizing democracy. And the drum that I will continue to beat until I don’t have to beat it anymore is calling upon journalists to stop strategy-framing coverage.
Stop strategy framing coverage. Everything is covered in terms of a battle, left versus right, Republican versus Democrat. All that does is reinforce our partisan identity salience. It gets us to think more and more in terms of us versus them, left versus right. There are other ways to cover these complex issues, and the American public is smart enough to make sense of those things in more nuanced ways.

Eric Schurenberg (38:22.382)
Good. Let’s move on to ordinary people, stepping away from professional journalism and what can we do in our lives, interactions with fellow citizens and neighbors to minimize polarization, turn down the temperature.

Danna Young (38:38.637)
My favorite of all of these is the idea of giving the benefit of the doubt. And it’s really easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the other side is the enemy. Okay? However, we know that people will tend to misperceive the extremity of the viewpoints of the other side.
When we think about the average Republican, if you’re a Democrat, you think of the average Republican, you’re probably misperceiving what the average Republican is like. You’re probably equating them to someone who is far more extreme, far more participatory than they really are. And when we do that, we tend to dislike them more. And we’ll tend to wanna curtail their democratic rights because we see them as dangerous. The reality of most…
Partisans in the United States is far more average than that. In fact, even if someone looks like a Republican or looks like a Democrat, chances are their issue positions are a lot more complicated when you get in under the hood. And we have a lot of examples of that. And so giving the benefit of the doubt, always challenging yourself and saying, just because this person drives this truck, is wearing this t-shirt, has this bumper sticker, whatever, doesn’t mean that all of their issue positions are looking a particular way. Always give the benefit of the doubt, always make a seat at the table, always allow for the reshuffling of the deck. And that also means us having to be willing to be honest in our own performances of our partisan identity.
Because chances are, even if you are someone who sees yourself as, you know, super left progressive, chances are you’ve got some views that don’t comport with your party or your team. And chances are you’ve been kind of quiet about that because you fear some kind of blowback or social isolation. Well, imagine if, in the interest of democracy, you threw a wrench in the works and decided to be honest in the complexities of your political views. I think we all owe it to the information space to be more honest and to disrupt those identities.

Eric Schurenberg (41:07.902)
I love that. Given all you have done researching this field, all you have read, are you optimistic or pessimistic about the outlook for the next decade?

Danna Young (41:26.358)
I am optimistic. I’m a tireless optimist. I am a tireless optimist. Some of my dearest friends in the field find it exhausting. But especially because I think that there are a lot of folks, especially in journalism, who really want American democracy to thrive. I think that there are individual people who are recognizing aspects of the system that are problematic.

All it takes is individual people to recognize and make those changes. Systems are made of people. Institutions are made of people. We have the agency to make these changes. We just need to decide to do it.

Eric Schurenberg (42:12.118)
That is a great place to leave it. Danak O’Young, thank you for being on In Reality. This was fascinating. I love the work that you’re doing. Your book is called Wrong, and it’s out in the middle of this month of September. I recommend everyone read it. October 17th. And I recommend everyone give it a read. Thank you so much.

Danna Young (42:28.772)
Yeah, October 17th.

Danna Young (42:36.449)
Thank you so much, Eric. This was a joy.

Created & produced by: Podcast Partners / Published: Sep 12 2023

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