Reason Roundup

Misinformation or Political Dysfunction—Which Comes First?

Plus: Trafficking visas, a new no-fly list?, and more...


Is misinformation a supply problem or a demand problem? Over the past few years, politicians and pundits have coalesced around the narrative that "misinformation"—be it from Russian bots, random conspiracy theorists, your grandpa's Facebook feed, or professional media—is both a growing problem and a root cause of current political dysfunction. Social media companies have routinely been taken to task for allegedly propagandizing people and for failing to stop misinformation's spread.

These ideas are politically convenient for the left and the right. Didn't win an election? It was that misinformation about your candidate! Can't gain support for a ballot initiative or bill? Misinformation. People won't comply with public health measures? Have feelings you wish they didn't? Promote the "wrong" political values or inconvenient analysis? Misinformation!

There are many reasons to doubt these narratives, some of which we've covered before. Misinformation online is certainly widespread. But there's evidence that…

"Demand for fake news is a far more serious problem than the supply," Ilya Somin suggested at The Volokh Conspiracy in 2019.

The misinformation demand/supply debate is once again simmering, thanks to this Slow Boring post from Matthew Yglesias. After challenging the idea that there was some pre-internet golden era of better journalism or public awareness, Yglesias delves into whether people believe false things because they're uninformed or because these false things jive with emotions, prejudices, and ideas they already have:

A normal person can tell you lots of factual information about his life, his work, his neighborhood, and his hobbies but very little about the FDA clinical trial process or the moon landing. But do you know who knows a ton about the moon landing? Crazy people who think it's fake. They don't have crank opinions because they are misinformed, they have tons and tons of moon-related factual information because they're cranks. If you can remember the number of the Kennedy administration executive order about reducing troop levels in Vietnam, then you're probably a crank — that EO plays a big role in Kennedy-related conspiracy theories, so it's conspiracy theorists who know all the details.

More generally, I think a lot of excessive worry about "misinformation" is driven by the erroneous belief that more factual information would resolve political disputes. Both David Neumark and Arin Dube know far more than you or I do about the empirical literature on minimum wage increases. Nonetheless, they disagree. It is simply a heavily contested question. Relative to Neumark, the typical progressive is wildly misinformed about this subject; relative to Dube, the typical conservative is wildly misinformed. And lots of political disputes have this quality — most people don't know that much about it, but you can find super-informed people on both sides of the question. That's why it's a live debate.

Two main thrusts of Yglesias' post are that a lot of what's coded as "misinformation" really isn't factually wrong so much as a difference of opinions, values, or ways of seeing the world, and that it's prior agreement with misinformation driving its spread rather that people finding it online and becoming convinced. As Somin put it earlier, it's a problem of demand, not supply.

The Cato Institute's Julian Sanchez agrees. "It's mostly not that people are being tricked, really; it's that when any view can find validation online somewhere, people give themselves permission to adopt the belief they prefer," Sanchez tweeted. "I'm pessimistic about most efforts to combat online misinformation for the same reason I expect the 'War on Drugs' will continue being won by the drugs: You can't fix a demand-side problem by targeting supply."

What does all of this have to do with political polarization? The idea that "bad information —> dysfunctional polarization story is probably backwards," suggests Yglesias.

In this view, it's American polarization that is driving the demand for false information, not the other way around.

But whether we start with polarization driving misinformation or vice versa, the problem is that these things become self-reinforcing, suggests Sanchez. "We believe false things that fit our identities because we're polarized.  But the false things we believe also magnify that polarization."

Which once again gets us back to the idea of demand. A polarized people want to believe the worst about the other side, incentivizing politicians and pundits to play up rumors and provide the worst possible analyses, even when these border on—or simply are—misinformation. A polarized people want to believe the worst about their "enemies," so they do.


Labor trafficking much more prevalent than sex trafficking on T Visa forms. "The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), an arm of the Department of Homeland Security, recently released a breakdown on 14 years of human-trafficking visas," notes Glenn Kessler at The Washington Post. You can find that full breakdown here. It's a long-undivulged look at T Visas, which are available for victims of sex or labor trafficking who are in the U.S. or at a port of entry "on account of" trafficking. Kessler provides an overview of the data:

The first headline in the fact sheet says "USCIS Has Received More Than 25,000 T Visa Applications and Approved More Than 17,000," but you have to read deeply into the document to learn that the total number of victims who received visas over the 14-year period was just 8,550, for both sex and labor trafficking. The other 8,860 visas were for derivative family members.

Most applications did not specify whether the applicant was a victim of sex trafficking or labor trafficking. Of the cases where that information was collected (about 16 percent of primary applicants), "74 percent listed labor trafficking as the form of trafficking while 39 percent listed sex trafficking; only 8.6 percent — 120 people — reported they were sex-trafficked as a minor," notes Kessler. "Some supplement B forms included both labor and sex trafficking, which is why the total adds up to more than 100 percent."


Republican senators push back against no-fly list for disruptive passengers. The TSA "was created in the wake of 9/11 to protect Americans from future horrific attacks, not to regulate human behavior onboard flights," wrote Sens. Cynthia Lummis (Wyo.), Mike Lee (Utah), James Lankford (Okla.), Marco Rubio (Fla.), Kevin Cramer (N.D.), Ted Cruz (Texas), John Hoeven (N.D.), and Rick Scott (Fla.) in a Monday letter. They said that the list would equate people who refuse to wear masks with terrorists.

"Homeland security is homeland security," said Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, in a response statement. "Our flights are under attack by a small number of people and it has to stop. … This is not about 'masks,' and the worst attacks have nothing to do with masks. You're either for protecting crew and passengers from these attacks or you're against."

"​​Airlines maintain their own lists of passengers who are barred from traveling but don't share information with other carriers," notes The Washington Post. It's unclear why they couldn't simply share this information on their own instead of having the government create a federal list that would legally bar people from any air travel.

The no-fly list idea is being pushed by Delta's CEO, who wrote in a February 3 letter to the U.S. attorney general that he seeks support for "putting any person convicted of an on-board disruption on a national, comprehensive, unruly passenger 'no-fly' list that would bar that person from traveling on any commercial air carrier. This action will help prevent future incidents and serve as a strong symbol of the consequences of not complying with crew member instructions on commercial aircraft."

(Because we all know how well the existing no-fly list has worked out… )

"This is not the first time politicians have touted the no-fly list as a solution to the crisis du jour," C.J. Ciaramella wrote last year in response to calls for a no-fly list to address people participating in riots. "A common refrain during the Obama administration, echoed by both major-party presidential nominees in 2016, was that people in the FBI's Terrorist Screening Database, which includes the no-fly list, should not be allowed to buy guns. But "using the list to abridge civil liberties was a bad idea then, and it's a bad idea now. The no-fly list is a civil liberties nightmare: secretive and nearly impossible to challenge."


Charges dropped against a woman whose DNA collection spurred controversy in San Francisco. We noted yesterday that San Francisco officials were pushing back against the use of DNA collected as part of sexual assault investigations being used to search for criminal suspects among alleged victims. The city's district attorney, Chesa Boudin, said on Monday one woman's DNA collected as part of a domestic violence investigation had been used years later to convict her of a property crime. Boudin announced yesterday that he had dropped the charges against that woman.


• Colorado's Democratic Gov. Jared Polis "formally declared Colorado's emergency over all the way back in July. He allowed local jurisdictions to implement mandates as they saw fit — his hometown of Boulder, for example, still has an indoor mask requirement — but rescinded nearly all COVID-related statewide executive orders." And his "approach appears to be working, both in terms of public health and his own political fortunes," notes New York magazine.

• Robert Califf has been confirmed as commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration.

• "Access to the Capitol is just one part of the pandemic's nationwide disruption of people's interactions with the government," writes Haley Byrd Wilt.

• Another racial epithet story that resulted in a teacher being put on leave.

• Small U.S. donors raised around half of a crowdfunding site's donations to the Canadian trucker convoy protesting COVID-19 mandates.

• Has the idea that Canadians are "moderate, rule-following and just plain nice" been "a myth all along?"

• Biden's antitrust crusade targets alcohol.