POLITICS

Why Politicians Rely On Misinformation (And Why We Fall For It)

Misinformation, and the failure to contest it, is deeply embedded in democratic elections.

26/09/2016 4:02 PM AEST | Updated 27/09/2016 7:40 PM AEST
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Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton gesture during the presidential debate in New York.

You just can't beat Donald Trump when it comes to falsehoods and hyperbole.

The Republican U.S. presidential candidate walked away from his first presidential debate with rival Hillary Clinton into a storm of fact checkers, with one count showing the New York billionaire made 16 falsehoods during the 90 minute debate.

As observers call the errors out (on both sides, Clinton let some slip too), we ask why politicians rely on misinformation so much. And why do we fall for it when they do?

Lucas Jackson / Reuters
Donald Trump at the first presidential debate of the 2016 U.S. Election. Harvard's Professor Jennifer Hochschild told The Huffington Post Australia misinformation and the failure to contest it is unsurprising, because it is deeply embedded in the nature of a democratic electoral context.

Professor of Government at Harvard University and president of the American Political Science Association, Jennifer Hochschild, told The Huffington Post Australia before Tuesday's presidential debate that the use of misinformation is deeply embedded in the nature of the democratic electoral process.

Hochschild this week delivered the keynote address -- Do Facts Matter: Information and Disinformation in U.S. Politics -- to the UNSW Australian Political Studies Association annual conference in Sydney.

"Somebody who wants to get elected to office doesn't have much incentive to tell people 'well, actually, you're wrong and all the people whom you like and admire and respect and live with and talk to are also wrong, so you should give up your beliefs and... follow me," she told The Huff Post.

"Once you set up a democratic electoral system, you know, politicians are mostly going to pander to their constituents, rather than try to correct them."Jennifer Hochshild

"That's not a winning electoral strategy. So politicians have a very strong incentive either not to challenge mis-information or even to re-enforce it among those people who tend to agree with what the politician believes.

"The fact of misinformation, and especially the use of it or the failure to contest it, is deeply embedded in the nature of a democratic electoral context. So we shouldn't be surprised that it occurs."

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Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton listens to Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump during the presidential debate.

People tend to seek out ideas and others that agree with their own perceptions, Hochschild said. This is reflected in the people we choose to speak to, the media we consume and that fact we tend to support political leaders who agree with us.

"We all tend to live in fairly self-contained information bubbles," Hochschild said.

"From a politician's perspective, there is very little incentive to try to change that."

So are Trump's falsehoods just that -- false, but part of the democratic process?

Sort of.

The Republican nominee's use of more overt political language over the past year may have altered the democratic conversation for the near future.

Hochschild points to scholarly works about the political art of dog whistling -- getting your message out while using coded language.

We are now in an era of overt political discourse that simply didn't exist over a year ago. Jennifer Hochschild

Trump doesn't bother with coded language.

"Until relatively recently, at least the late 20th, early 21st century, politicians felt the need to be more covert -- perhaps wanting to send the same message, but not as explicitly," Hochschild said.

"Trump has kind of pulled the cover off of all of that.

"In some ways the election is the final decider, but the phenomenon is so strong, he has done so well and continues to do so well... in some sense even if he loses the election, the genie is out of the bottle."

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