One of the most unnverving aspects of the recent health reform debate was the extent to which opponents of various Democratic plans (usually lumped together as “ObamaCare”) embraced and promoted outright falsehoods, most famously the idea that the legislation would encourage euthanasia-by-rationing.
Brendan Nyhan now has an important article at The Forum that not only looks at the role of deliberate misinformation in the “ObamaCare” debate, but compares it to a similar Big Lie that “stuck” during the earlier debate over the Clinton administration’s health reform proposal (i.e., the claim that the proposal would eliminate the ability of Americans to choose doctors). He notes the seminal role of pseudo-wonk Betsy McCaughey in both episodes of disinformation, and the importance of partisan conservative media in reinforcing fabricated claims.
Nyhan’s conclusion is sobering:
The evidence presented in this article suggests that misinformation played an important role in the two most recent debates over health care reform. While some critics have faulted the response of the Clinton and Obama administrations to these charges… the argument presented in this article suggests that political myths are extremely difficult to counter. For instance, proponents of reform might attempt to address concerns in the bill-writing process, but Betsy McCaughey’s 1994 article suggests that such disclaimers can be distorted or ignored. And false claims with no actual basis in legislation such as the “death panel” myth are especially insidious precisely
because they cannot be addressed in the bill itself. As a result, until the media stops giving so much attention to misinformers, elites on both sides will often succeed in creating misperceptions, especially among sympathetic partisans. And once such beliefs take hold, few good options exist to counter them—correcting misperceptions is simply too difficult.
A particularly depressing finding of Nyhan’s is that belief in Big Lies about health reform actually increased among those Republicans who thought of themselves as well-informed on the subject. This reflects the experience many have had with conservative talk radio or Fox News fans who feel “empowered” by the “truth” about liberal policy ideas or politicians, and are exceptionally resistant to contrary facts or “objective” referees of the facts. Any progressive who’s done conservative call-in shows (or had extended discussions with conservative-activists friends or family) and dealt with inquisitors who perpetually suggest they are “on to you” and have divined your secret plans and motives, knows exactly what I am talking about.
It’s almost certainly unfair and counter-productive, and in any event a waste of time, to criticize consumers of deliberate misinformation as ignorant. When it comes to complex topics like health care, even extremely well-informed people filter information–or misinformation–via ideological presumptions, partisanship, and the “trust factor” of where they turn to become informed.
The better course, as Nyhan argues, is to focus on the elites who invent and disseminate misinformation, and relentlessly undermine their bogus credibility. Serial offenders like McCaughey should be hooted off the public stage when they pop up again (as did, to some extent, happen during the ObamaCare debate). And politicians who retail misinformation should be held accountable just as much. Personally, I wish that much of the vast progressive sea of contempt for Sarah Palin’s rhetoric and mannerisms would instead be channeled into a relentless focus on her huge and unrepentent role–via a Facebook post, no less–in turning the lie about government-encouraged euthanasia into the Big Lie of “Obama death panels.” This despicable act, aimed at terrifying seniors and the families of those with disabilities, not her general lack of intellectual curiosity or her inexperience in governing, is what should disqualify her from any elected office at least until she confesses and seeks absolution.