A new poll shows that New Jerseyans are not only not immune to the political polarization gripping the nation, but also that the more knowledge a political partisan has, the more likely he will be to believe “fake news.”
That’s one conclusion from the Fairleigh Dickinson University PublicMind Poll released on Wednesday, which asked New Jersey adults their opinions on four popular unproven theories, three related to political figures and one nonpolitical. Dan Cassino, a professor of political science at FDU and an analyst for the poll, said a deep read of the responses shows that Democrats and Republicans with the greatest political knowledge were among those most likely to believe conspiracy theories that portray a leader of the opposite party in a negative light.
Put succinctly, political views distort the ability of people to tell fact from fiction.
“In politics, what people want to believe is almost more important than the facts at hand,” said Cassino. “When politics motivates people to believe something, people with more information do a better job of finding ways to justify that belief.”
Introducing the conspiracy theories
The political theories are well-known ones that divide people by party: Donald Trump is not releasing his tax returns because they would show his ties to Russia; Barack Obama is hiding information about his background; and Democrats committed voter fraud in the 2012 presidential election. The nonpolitical belief asked if it has been proven that
childhood vaccines cause autism.
Higher levels of political knowledge — a measure of attention paid to the news and world events — does not help individuals sort fact from fiction on political beliefs. Among Republicans, for instance, higher levels of political knowledge correlate with greater certainty that Obama is hiding information about his background and early life. Among Democrats, higher levels of political knowledge match up with more certainty that Trump’s taxes would show his links to Russian interests.
Overall, 69 percent of New Jerseyans said that Trump is definitely or possibly hiding his tax returns because they prove his ties to Russian politicians and businessmen. About four in 10 Democrats were positive that the theory is true, with only 5 percent saying it definitely was not. Nearly two thirds of Republicans said that statement was definitely false, with only 4 percent saying it was absolutely true.
On the other hand, about 30 percent of New Jersey adults said they believed that Obama was hiding information about his background — among the most common theories are that he was not born in the United States and that he is a Muslim — and that Obama supporters perpetrated significant voter fraud five years ago. Just 3 percent of Democrats found each definitely true, with 84 percent saying they are definitely false. Between 20 percent and 25 percent of Republicans termed those definitely true, with about a third sure they were untrue.
Propping up partisan beliefs
“People tend to hold false beliefs because it helps them reinforce their own partisan beliefs,” he said. “When people are motivated to believe something, facts just don’t matter very much.”
The role politics plays in beliefs was fortified by a sort of control question: that the alleged, unfounded link between autism and childhood vaccines has been proven. More than a third of New Jerseyans agreed that such a link definitely exists or may exist, while 55 percent said vaccines definitely have not been proven to cause autism. On this issue that is not politically charged, adults who paid more attention to the news were more likely to know that no link has been proven. On average, individuals who said that there is “definitely” a link answered 2.7 out of the five knowledge questions correctly. Those who said that the link was “possible” answered 3.1 questions correctly. Those who said that there was “definitely not” a link answered 3.7 questions correctly.
“This is the pattern we’d generally expect to see for false beliefs,” said Cassino.
But it’s not the pattern that was revealed for the political questions.
“When politics doesn’t get in the way, people who pay attention to the world are pretty good at sorting fact from fiction,” Cassino added.
No surprises for some analysts
These results were not surprising to some New Jersey political observers.
“I think it is pretty clear that our polarized politics leads us to polarized news intake,” said Benjamin Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University. “The vast expansion of media outlets, the Internet, and television channels was supposed to give the American consumer better choices, lower prices, and a wider array of alternative opinions. In many ways, these goals were accomplished. But we’ve also seen a general sorting of news consumers as they gravitate towards outlets that reinforce their existing views.”
John Weingart, associate director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University, however, said the results are not quite as clear as portrayed. Both of the questions about Obama have been proven false — Obama released his American birth certificate and fact checking sites have pronounced the voter fraud allegations to be false — while the question of what Trump’s tax returns will show is still unknown because they have not been released.
“The Republicans who hold those beliefs about Obama are wrong by almost any objective standard, while the validity of Democrats’ view about what Trump’s tax returns will show can’t be proven one way or the other until the returns are public,” he said.
However, there is no question that Democrats and Republicans, or liberals and conservatives, more and more are turning to very different sources of news, and this “threatens to further the political polarization,” continued Weingart.
“I know this needs to change, but have no idea how to even begin,” he added.
Cassino’s answer was what has been the basic standard of journalism for at least the last 70 years: that news be presented in an unbiased manner.
“News should, in fact, be non-partisan,” he said. “That may be difficult to do at a time when you have one party talking about ‘alternative facts.’ But it’s the only way to get everyone to believe the truth.”
Matthew Hale, a professor of political science and public affairs at Seton Hall University, had a different prescription.
“The way to combat this is not by trying to change partisans beliefs,” he said. “It is by informing the people without political knowledge about the issues better than we are currently doing. That isn’t easy, but that is what needs to change.”
FDU’s poll of 816 adults was conducted between March 22 and March 26 and has a margin of error of +/- 3.8 percentage points.