Opinion | The Politics of Delusion Have Taken Hold

Persily wrote, however, that his analysis falls into a second school of thought:

I do not think most of affective polarization is driven by a misunderstanding of facts. Indeed, I think many in this field make the mistake of thinking that the line to be policed is the line between truth and falsehood. Rather, I think the critical question is usually whether the truth is relevant or not.

In this context, according to Persily, “partisan polarization resembles religious polarization. Attempting to ‘disprove’ someone’s long-held religion will rarely do much to convince them that your god is the right one.”

Viewed this way, partisan affiliation is an identity, Persily wrote, “and displays dynamics familiar to identity politics.” He continued:

People root for their team, and they find facts or other narratives to justify doing so. Remember, most people do not spend a lot of time thinking about politics. When they do so, their attitudes grow out of other affinities they have developed over time from signals sent by trusted elites or friendship networks.

Jay Van Bavel, a professor of psychology and neural science at N.Y.U., shares Iyengar’s view on the key role of the changing media environment. In an email, he wrote:

A good chunk of affective polarization is delusion or based on misperceptions. For instance, people have exaggerated stereotypes about the other party (and what members of the other party think of them), and when you correct those false perceptions, they quickly become less hostile.

People are motivated, he continued,

to affirm evidence that confirms their beliefs and affirms their identities. For committed partisans, they are often more motivated by these social goals than the desire to be accurate. People also share misinformation for social reasons — it can signal loyalty and help people gain status in some partisan communities.

A significant component, Van Bavel said, “is based on misperceptions they’ve absorbed from their social network on (social) media stories. It suggests that if we could simply provide accurate and diverse portrayals of other groups, it might reduce the growing trend toward affective polarization.”

But, he cautioned, “correcting misinformation is extremely hard; the impact tends to be pretty small in the political domain, and the effects don’t last long.”

In a 2021 paper, “Identity Concerns Drive Belief: The Impact of Partisan Identity on the Belief and Dissemination of True and False News,” Andrea Pereira, Elizabeth Harris and Van Bavel surveyed 1,420 Americans to see which of the following three alternatives best explained the rise and spread of political misinformation:

The ideological values hypothesis (people prefer news that bolsters their values and worldviews), the confirmation bias hypothesis (people prefer news that fits their pre-existing stereotypical knowledge) and the political identity hypothesis (people prefer news that allows them to believe positive things about political in-group members and negative things about political out-group members).

Their conclusion:

Consistent with the political identity hypothesis, Democrats and Republicans were both more likely to believe news about the value-upholding behavior of their in-group or the value-undermining behavior of their out-group. Belief was positively correlated with willingness to share on social media in all conditions, but Republicans were more likely to believe and want to share political fake news.

There have been a number of studies published in recent years describing the success or failure of various approaches to reducing levels of misperception and affective polarization. The difficulties facing these efforts were reflected, in part, in an October 2022 paper, “Interventions Reducing Affective Polarization Do Not Necessarily Improve Antidemocratic Attitudes,” by Jan G. Voelkel, a sociologist at Stanford, and eight colleagues.

The authors found that even when “three depolarization interventions reliably reduced self-reported affective polarization,” the interventions “did not reliably reduce any of three measures of antidemocratic attitudes: support for undemocratic candidates, support for partisan violence and prioritizing partisan ends over democratic means.”

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