Truth decayResponding to Truth Decay: Q&A with RAND’s Michael Rich and Jennifer Kavanagh

Published 19 January 2018

Winston Churchill is reported to have said, “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth can get its pants on.” Experts say it is worse now. With social media, false or misleading information is disseminated all over the world nearly instantaneously. Another thing that’s new about Truth Decay is the confluence of factors that are interacting in ways we do not fully understand yet. It is not clear that key drivers like our cognitive biases, polarization, changes in the information space, and the education system’s struggle to respond to this sort of challenge have ever coincided at such intensive and extreme levels as they do now. Russian disinformation and hacking campaigns against the United States and other Western democracies are the most obvious examples of the amplification – and exploitation – of Truth Decay. Garry Kasparov, the chess master and Russian dissident, said about Russian disinformation efforts: “The point of modern propaganda isn’t only to misinform or push an agenda. It is to exhaust your critical thinking … to annihilate truth.”

RAND President and CEO Michael Rich has been talking about what he sees as an erosion of respect for facts and evidence in political life—a phenomenon he calls “Truth Decay.” He asked RAND political scientist Jennifer Kavanagh to help analyze the issue and lay out a research agenda to better understand Truth Decay’s causes and consequences. Last May, RAND’s editorial team interviewed Rich and Kavanagh to learn more about their work. In this edited interview, they talk about the evolution of their thinking on Truth Decay, how they define it, and the ongoing research RAND is conducting to help counter it.

RAND: What do you mean by Truth Decay, and when did you start thinking about the subject?
Michael Rich:
My thinking on Truth Decay grew out of my work on the dangers of polarization, something I’ve been speaking on since 2005. More recently, I have been astounded by the erosion of truth in our politics. I’m using the term Truth Decay because I think it captures a phenomenon that goes well beyond the current outbreak of “fake news.”

Truth Decay describes a syndrome of distrust and disagreement. I see it as a process, not an end state. It has multiple causes and manifestations, some new and some that reach far back in history.

Jennifer Kavanagh: One of the elements we use to define Truth Decay is increased disagreement on basic sets of facts where consensus used to be more widespread, like the science showing the benefits of vaccines.

Another part of our definition is the erosion of what used to be a clear line between fact and opinion. You can see this in news outlets where news stories and commentary often are difficult to distinguish from each other.