Why a misinformed public is a risk to democracy, and a public policy issue
Some of you may have seen the report by Ipsos Mori and Kings College London. (Click here if you haven’t – their top ten is eye-watering).
The first thing I want to start with is a word of caution. Just because the headlines show the things tabloids scream about are over-exaggerated does not automatically mean liberal-lefties have got everything right – if only the masses would listen. That would over-emphasise the impact that official statistics have on the decisions people make when it comes to voting (if at all) or if and how they choose to engage in politics and/or civic society.
What patterns emerge from those headlines?
Actually, it’s worth looking through the tables. Some of the outliers seem comical – for example the individuals who thought that over 90 in every 100 people in the UK were Black/Asian, or over 65 years old. Troll responses or living in such a small bubble for so long that they have little idea of what is beyond it?
From the headlines, you could say that the public believes that more bad stuff is happening than actual bad stuff happens. But you only need to scan through your average news website to find the tone of stories is bad news-related. Sporting achievements aside, how often do you find good news sensationalised? “Good stuff is happening, someone else is paying for it, you benefit!!!”
I stumbled across this snippet from a very long digital video from ages ago – which refers to a book from the 1920s. What’s interesting about this point from my perspective is how the points made resonate now just as they did back then. In one sense, some of the issues I blogged about on too much choice also resonate here. This is especially the case with knowing what to believe and what not to believe. In particular:
- Availability & accessibility of information – & knowing where that info is
- Knowing how to use/interpret said information
- Having the time to interpret said information
A tabloid newspaper or a TV news report is far more accessible to more people than a website. It may well be that more affluent, educated and mobile types access a greater variety of media to source their news compared to those at the opposite end of the scale. You then have the issue of knowing how to use that information – and having time to interpret and scrutinise that information. Take a very recent Parliamentary debate where in the grand scheme of things I didn’t have a clue. It was former Prime Minister Gordon Brown talking about radioactive contamination of a beach in his constituency. I was lost on the detail – the last time I did physics was in 1996 at GCSE level. All I could do was go ***Eeeek!*** – because I didn’t know anything about Radium 226 – even though I knew people that did. But even crowd-sourcing didn’t really give me the answers because none of us had the details. And that was me having time to scrutinise this.
Now, switch my ***Eeeek!*** response to a headline along the lines of “Bad stuff is happening and you’re paying for it!” being read by someone who left school at 16 with few qualifications and poor literacy/numeracy skills. It’s a bit like that.
Why it is a public policy issue
Given that we are moving towards a world of open policy, there is a greater need to educate the public. Not because they might put pressure on Whitehall for one policy or another, but because of the nature of some of the correspondence that will inevitably come through resulting in it being ignored. When I was in the civil service I spent a little bit of time in my department’s correspondence unit despairing at the nature of the letters that had been sent. Remember that departments receive several hundred pieces of correspondence a day that need to be given consideration on how to respond. That someone has felt angry enough to write to the department – we’re talking snail mail here, told me that there is a wider ‘political literacy’ issue. Yes, you’ll get your conspiracy theorists and ‘Mr Angrys’ writing in, but many people writing in have genuine concerns that deserve a considered response.
The other thing is that once you put ‘the public’ in a context of ‘individuals’ then how they respond is different. Go to community consultation events – as I did with Puffles in 2012 where people are invited to interact with each other, and things change. How people respond instinctively versus how they respond when considering the information in front of them. Do MPs get paid too much? Knee-jerk reaction is that they do. When you look the duties, responsibilities and the hours an MP generally puts in – especially if they are not in ‘safe’ seats, and compared with other jobs with comparative responsibilities, then people often change their opinions. (Not all though). If the response was “Yeah – they get paid too much! Look at all their expenses!” then you have the issue of people not being aware of the difference between the take-home pay vs which are the things that are needed to do their jobs. The separate question arises on what should and what should not be included in expenses. I don’t have a problem with MPs renting in London, but do take issue with their food bills being paid on expenses. That was political cowardice by successive parliaments hiding pay rises through an expenses regime rather than making the case for rises in salaries in the first place.
Why it is a democracy issue
Part of it is an amplification issue – making problems seem greater than they actually are. At the same time this can hide what the real problems might actually be. I’m thinking in a more local context rather than a geo-political one. We had a recent example of this in the local government elections. In the case of Cambridgeshire – my home county, we one councillor who was elected despite doing next to no campaigning. That’s not to say that people did not have any issues with the previous incumbent or the council in general. Clearly they did. But when looking at some of the things that can impact how people vote – as I did in this blogpost – what was it that made people vote for an individual that they had zero knowledge of, in an area that previously had very little history of activism by the party concerned? It was a picture replicated across Cambridgeshire to the extent that the incumbent Conservatives lost their majority for the first time in almost a generation.
“Yeah Pooffles, why don’t you just say educated lefties are better than everyone else?”
Because I’m not in the business of “I am better than yew!” playground spats. ***Takes moral high ground***
The issue for me is how something is over-amplified (a very subjective point admittedly) in the mindset of people. Why was it that prior to autumn 2010 the only organisation that seemed to be making noises about tax avoidance and tax evasion was the PCS trade union? (To the extent they were campaigning at conferences and on the streets). What was the game-changer that put tax avoidance on the agenda at international conferences of government ministers?
One of the things over-amplification can do is drown out some potential solutions. Take for example the issue of unwanted teenage pregnancies – and I’m thinking here in the context of women asserting their individual rights here. Traditionally it has been portrayed as those on the (religious) right saying sex within marriage only & restricting sex education, while those on the left saying hand out lots of free contraceptives in the hope that it will reduce conception rates. It was only in recent years in high-level public administration circles that an acknowledgement was made about the role of educating and empowering women, encouraging them to stay in full-time education as being a means to help reduce unwanted pregnancies. This was one of the examples given as why removing ‘ring fences’ in public spending was/is a good thing. Rather than saying “We need to tackle problem A so we will allocate funds to tackle A” it was a case of “We need to tackle problem A, but allocating funds to tackle problem B seems to have a knock-on benefit in tackling problem A”.
The thing is, how do you communicate to the general public that an indirect method of dealing with an issue is more effective? Is there an instinctive aggressive streak within our nature that says problems should be smashed? Do you burst the balloon violently or do you let it down gently?
Time lags and unpredictability
These are two other issues that often come up on Puffles’ Twitterfeed. There can be massive time lags between when a minister decides on a policy, when there’s movement in local communities and when the results of the policy start to bear fruit – ripe or rotten as they may be. But with such short ministerial life-spans, ministers understandably want results yesterday. Which minister would bring in a policy knowing that they were going to get shredded for it at the time, not be around for it to bear fruit and run the risk of a successor – possibly from a different party – taking the credit for it? Hence politically and tactically, the longer term decisions can be the more difficult ones.
Combine that with unpredictability. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard about ministers, politicians and thinktank types talking about innovation in the public sector. At one event several years ago, asked one minister what his/her tolerance of failure was, because innovation requires more than a fair bit of risk-taking. Bearing in mind the media likes reporting bad news, the failure of an expensive innovative project is a nice front page news story. This is not to say innovation is bad. Rather, if ministers and senior public sector managers want to go down this route, they need to be ready to deal with the inevitable criticism that comes their way. This is exactly the case with public sector social media – where there is lots of innovation going on all over the place. People are having to find out for themselves what works and what does not.
But at the same time, and to conclude on a social media note…
Social media can be a very powerful tool to unpick and tone down the noise. How many times have you thought: “Actually, I know someone who knows stuff about this – I’ll ask them” on a given issue? The more social-media-savvy politicians are also able to use social media to build up some resilience to their public persona simply because newspaper headlines do not reflect the interaction over social media that citizens have directly.
Encouraging people to be curious and to develop critical thinking almost as a habit (rather than as a qualification!)