Harvard Kennedy School professor Archon Fung (left) and Nieman Fellow Amanda Becker discuss polarization, partisanship, and mistrust

Harvard Kennedy School professor Archon Fung (left) and Nieman Fellow Amanda Becker discuss polarization, partisanship, and mistrust

Archon Fung is the Winthrop Laflin McCormack Professor of Citizenship and Self-Government at the Harvard Kennedy School, as well as a co-director of the Transparency Policy Project at HKS’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation. His research explores the policies and practices that deepen the quality of democratic governance, with a focus on public participation, deliberation, and transparency. He has written several books, including “Full Disclosure: The Perils and Promise of Transparency” and “Empowered Participation: Reinventing Urban Democracy.”

Professor Fung spoke to Nieman Fellows in February about partisanship, mistrust, and the media’s role in democracy. Edited excerpts:

On how and why mistrust forms

We seldom have direct access to the truth. The only way that we know whether these things are true or not, is by people that we trust helping us to find out.

There are many, many pieces of disagreement on what is true and what is not, that has this fact pattern of being highly polarized. One is, who won the election? Another one is whether climate change is happening or not, and whether it poses a significant risk. Democrats and Republicans are highly polarized about that. Of course, Democrats and Republicans remain highly polarized about how much of a threat Covid-19 is and was to society, and to them personally. These are facts out there, one way or another, but people are very, very polarized about them.

We can’t act very effectively on solving huge social problems like how to move forward on climate change because we have fundamental disagreements about whether it’s happening, how much risk it poses, how to deal with a pandemic, and how to reasonably debate among different perspectives about how to deal with the pandemic.

I think an even deeper problem than partisan polarization about truth is partisan polarization about the institutions that we used to rely upon to tell us what is true or not.

About 10 percent of Republicans have a great deal of trust in the media, whatever that means to them. About 30 percent of Democrats have a great deal of trust in the media, whatever that means to them. It is very, very polarized, but the levels for both are pretty low.

Somewhat more surprising to you, maybe, that hits close to home for me is that Americans are very, very polarized about whether colleges and universities have a net beneficial effect on the country. Right now, a little bit more than 30 percent of Republican identifiers think that colleges and universities — higher ed — has a net positive effect on the country as a whole. Whereas, Democrats double that: High 60s think that colleges and universities have a net positive effect.

Another important truth-generating institution in our society is science. Republicans and Democrats are very polarized on whether they can trust the scientific community a lot or not. About 32 percent of Republicans think that they can trust the scientific community a great deal, whereas, 70 percent of Democrats think that they can trust the scientific community a great deal.

If you’re a professional journalist, you might be outraged about the media statistics. If you’re left of center generally, you might be outraged because we feel like we live in such a post-truth environment, and who are these people that are discarding the truth and truth-generating institutions?

I have much more sympathy for people who distrust these truth-generating institutions even though I am a tenured professor in one of them. A reason is that people have been misled a lot by truth-generating institutions. Right now, we think of the big lie as that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald J. Trump.

I invite you to make a list of other big lies that have occurred in our recent lifetime. One big lie is that people disagree about whether climate change is happening.

Another big lie is that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. That big lie cost untold treasure. That is actually a good reason to distrust the mainstream media.

Another big lie was the economic consensus before the financial crisis. That there’s nothing really to see here. Don’t worry about this huge run-up in housing prices. I don’t know whether that one was willful or not.

A medium size lie, [which] was a good reason to distrust the scientific community, was the WHO and Anthony Fauci at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic saying that masks won’t protect you. There’s a generous version of that, which is that they were trying to get the science right and they didn’t think it was an airborne disease and so on.

There is a big lie version of that which is they thought it might be transmitted, but they thought they couldn’t trust you not to hoard masks because first responders and frontline medical people needed them, so they couldn’t trust you and me to do the right thing.

I’m really trying to pick a scab here and be provocative by saying part of the reason is that we have been culpable in perpetrating many prior big lies, and so people are right to have a fair amount of skepticism about us.

On the internet and the mass media era

I certainly was one of the techno-utopians earlier on in the ’90s. The techno-utopian part was the part that really didn’t like [the media]. You guys are the gatekeepers. I was a techno-utopian, [thinking], “These people shouldn’t be gatekeeping. Let’s crash through it.”

And we got that. That’s what the Internet did. The gates are wide, wide open. Before social media, in the glory days of mass media, in media and in politics, the aperture of debate was very, very narrow.

If you look at the years roughly from Carter to Obama term one, the choices on offer in mainstream political debate and among the two parties are between vanilla and French vanilla ice cream. There’s massive agreement on the desirability of globalization, that the welfare state should be much smaller than it is. There just wasn’t much debate. Then the gates get crashed open, and the aperture of debate becomes very, very wide.

From the techno-utopian perspective, I think what we got wrong — very, very wrong is —  at least from the MIT precincts and Silicon Valley precincts, a big part of the underlying ideology is a kind of libertarianism. If you crash through the gates, if you liberate people, good stuff will happen. What we didn’t anticipate and what a libertarian can’t really deal with very easily is the problem of individual responsibility.

There’s many, many bad parts, I think, of the mass media era, but the good part is not freedom of expression, it’s you guys. It’s a set of professionals who have a professional ethic and a set of skills that really compels you to get things right to try to understand all of these different perspectives, put it together, and tell your readers and viewers a story in which they can understand the arc of the day’s events in society.

The main effect of social media is that you guys are speaking a little bit less and all of us are speaking a little bit more. We don’t have those norms, and we don’t have that sense of responsibility.

The libertarian doesn’t have really a way of thinking about, what if 90 percent of the speakers out there are just irresponsible? They don’t care about truth. They care more about amplifying messages that make them feel good. They don’t care about harm that results from the things that they say or that they amplify.

A super important strategy for a democratic society is for everyone who’s participating in the public sphere to become more responsible participants and more responsible citizens in the public sphere.

On the media’s role in democracy

After World War II, in the first part of the 20th century [there] was another revolution in communication. Radio, soon to be television, a little bit later, but film.

Many people in Europe and the United States were absolutely persuaded, and they probably were right, that these new communication technologies were terrible for democracy, and indeed, that they’ve given rise to the fascist powers — Mussolini, Hitler [were] very adept users of the new media, much like some of the popular or populist authoritarians today.

They said in Europe and in the United States, what are we going to do? Can we bend the arc so that these super-dangerous technologies, dangerous for democracy, become conducive to democracy?

Henry Luce, who’s the owner of Time [and] Life magazine, creates this Hutchins Commission. Luce thought that the commission would say, “Well, freedom of speech is the American way,” and that’s what we need to double down on, but they didn’t say that.

They said that it’s the job of media organizations and concentrated media in the United States, but probably also other Western societies, to do what they need to do to inform citizens so that they can be responsible citizens and support democracy rather than mislead them, or confuse them, or polarize them.

In order to do that, it’s going to cost these companies a lot. They’re going to have to facilitate the creation of a whole profession called journalism. If it’s a profession, you’ve got to pay people a fair amount of money so that they can make a living.

Your primary responsibility, even though you’re a capitalist corporation, is to tell the day’s events in ways that support democratic citizenship.

When the profit motive comes into clash with doing that job, you got to do the job and subordinate profits. If your best reporters write a story that’s very critical of your largest advertiser, guess what? You got to run the story. That’s the norm obviously violated a lot in the breach, but that was the norm and everybody understood it to be so.

Where’s our Hutchins Commission? Where’s our commission that says that when the large search platforms and media platforms maximize on profit, it tends to generate these toxic effects for democracy, and these guys have to take one for democracy?

I don’t know what that would look like. I think it might look like a thousand engineers [at] each of these companies saying, “How can we tweak our algorithms to be good for democracy, and truth-seeking, and fostering civility and pluralism, rather than toxic, polarized conflict?”

And enough people in the management suite to back those guys up so that when they come up with the technology solutions and it costs a fair amount of money, the company takes the hit. We just do not have that right now.

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