Democracy at Risk: How to Overcome Fear, Bias and Modern Media

Democracy at Risk: How to Overcome Fear, Bias and Modern Media
AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
Democracy at Risk: How to Overcome Fear, Bias and Modern Media
AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
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How can otherwise intelligent, decent people -- neighbors, friends and business acquaintances -- see the same news events, hear the same facts, and yet come to entirely different conclusions?

The answer: It is the product of fear and self-deception.

Primal fear is re-emerging in this country after decades of relative dormancy. Over millions of years, evolution developed in human beings three existential fears, originally designed to keep us safe.

The fear of others – danger from those of a different tribe – activated today by unprecedented global migration.

The fear of being left behind – losing the acceptance and protection of the group – activated today by economic inequality and social dislocation. 

The fear of social disruption – losing the security of social touchstones and traditions – activated today by a tsunami of job- and culture-shattering new technology and changing social norms.

A resurgence of these three existential fears, inflamed by modern media, has driven us to the safety of tribes of the similar and the like-minded, to absolutism in our thinking, and the conviction that “the other side” is determined to destroy all that we hold dear. Understanding and compromise are the casualties and ever-deepening conflict is the inevitable outcome.

In America that primal fear is playing out as hyper-partisanship and zero-sum politics in which success is defined solely as beating the other party. In its most extreme, this tribal behavior spills over into violence.

But this tribal fear alone was insufficient to get us to today. That required an accelerant in the form of 24/7 modern media -- interactive and customizable – often targeted to foment conflict and exploit common psychological traits by inflaming ancient biases.

It is here where self-deception plays a pivotal role. Long-standing, very human psychological traits have provided the fertile soil necessary for media to shape how we receive, retain, and process information. But it is only in recent years that scientists have discovered the capacity of customizable and interactive media to exploit these psychological phenomena in unique and powerful ways.  

One phenomenon is perceptual bias, which acts as an interpretive lens through which we receive and digest information. We see what we want to see. For example, supporters and detractors of Donald Trump can be exposed to the same news stories about the Mueller report, yet one group concludes it provides “total exoneration” while the other argues that it calls for impeachment. We may all be working from generally the same facts, but not from the same biases.

A close cousin of perceptual bias is confirmation bias, in which we look selectively for facts that support our preferred position, skipping over the inconvenient facts that challenge our view, often with no conscious awareness that we were even exposed to an alternative view. We instinctively mine for data that proves we were right all along. We select media outlets that make us feel more comfortable, support our views and resolve our cognitive dissonance.

Ratings-hungry media and determined demagogues play those traits of self-deception like a Stradivarius, enhancing our fears and driving us to tribes of the like-minded. 

What a mess, and the solution is neither simple nor likely to be quick. It requires immediate action by our political leaders and a long-term commitment by individual Americans.

Our political leaders must address the three primal fears that lie at the heart of today’s divisiveness, the media need to re-establish higher standards of truth and accuracy, and each of us must accept the personal responsibility to seek that truth and to better understand the “the other side.”

To have a meaningful impact on our nation’s divisiveness, our elected officials must find a way to work together to address: (1) the fear of others, by enacting comprehensive immigration reform; (2) the fear of being left behind, by creating a long-range economic plan to reduce inequality and increase opportunity; and (3) the fear of social upheaval, by bringing together federal, state and local officials to help communities anticipate and adjust to the disruption caused by accelerating technological and social change.

Then we must create a stronger bulwark against “alternative facts” and conspiracy theories by vastly expanding and improving the amount and quality of civic education in our schools – elementary through graduate studies. We must understand what is at stake if we indulge our worst instincts.

Finally, every American citizen -- and the citizens of other democracies -- must do their part to build bridges to those in opposing tribes. This will require immense effort for many of us in trying to reach out and understand the views of those with whom we disagree. 

Fortunately, evolution has provided us with the tools we need to succeed. Recent discoveries in neuroscience have revealed that not too far from where fear resides in the brain lie mirror neurons, which permit humans to feel what other people feel, to walk in their shoes. 

We know it today as empathy, the most direct path to understanding. To aid in the survival of humanity, evolution gave us both fear to alert us to danger and empathy to help us manage that fear and create social relationships for survival.

Now it is up to us, to harness our powers of empathy to break down tribal walls and replace them with bridges of understanding, cooperation and compromise.

Over the course of 35 years, Robert Smith founded three strategic communications companies whose clients included several dozen congressional and four presidential campaigns as well as 30 Fortune 500 companies.

Les Francis served as Rep. Norman Mineta’s first congressional chief of staff before moving to Jimmy Carter’s White House as deputy assistant to the president and eventually deputy White House chief of staff. He remained active in national politics and public affairs from offices in Washington, D.C., for four decades before returning to his native California in 2016.

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