Truth Decay in Europe

Exploring the role of facts and analysis in European public life

The uncertainties of the COVID-19 pandemic have highlighted the need for accurate information to support sound decisions. However, having access to more information can make it harder for people to decide what to believe or not believe.

This report presents the findings of a study on the evolution of the role of facts and analysis in public life in Europe. The research is part of the Countering Truth Decay Initiative, a portfolio of projects completed by the RAND Corporation to restore the role of facts and analysis in public life. After the first report in the Truth Decay series, Truth Decay — An Initial Exploration of the Diminishing Role of Facts and Analysis in American Public Life, was published in 2018, exploring the Truth Decay phenomenon in the European context was a logical next step for RAND.

The COVID-19 pandemic provided many stark examples of the trends characteristic to Truth Decay. In Europe, questions have been raised about access to and the quality of information regarding the pandemic, as well as the use of scientific evidence in policy making. There has been polarisation in the private and public sphere and news avoidance and disengagement from public debate. This report, however, goes beyond a recording of the current climate and explores whether the situation is getting worse, i.e. whether the disagreement about facts and data is increasing, whether the volume and resulting influence of opinion (over fact) is growing, and whether trust in formerly respected sources of information is declining.

Key Findings
There is some evidence of Truth Decay in Europe

Truth Decay is occurring in Europe, but it is less prevalent than in the United States, at least for the time being. While there are similarities (such as increased vaccine hesitancy, and a blurring of the line between opinion and fact due to changing journalistic practices), insufficient evidence was found on the increasing relative volume of opinion over fact. In contrast to the trend in the United States, there is increased trust in governance institutions across Europe since the end of the financial crisis.

What causes Truth Decay in Europe?

Changes to the European information system have driven a rise in the Truth Decay phenomenon and impacted on the cognitive processing and biases that affect Europeans. There has been an increase in polarisation across Europe (whether political, sociodemographic, or social and economic), but the overall extent of polarisation is not as strong as that evidenced in the United States.
The education systems across Europe, however, differ from those in the United States, which perhaps make them less prone to be a driver of Truth Decay, but rather a possible part of its solution.

What are the consequences?

We found evidence of some erosion of civil discourse, political paralysis, alienation and disengagement of individuals from political and civic institutions, and uncertainty about policy in Europe. There is some evidence, though weaker, that these consequences stem from the trends of Truth Decay.

Recommendations
If Truth Decay in Europe is at a less advanced stage than in the United States, there is still time to act and help prevent or slow its growth.

Equip citizens to play their part in democracy and avoid becoming agents of Truth Decay.
Ensure traditional media operate in an environment in which they can remain trustworthy.
Introduce measures that elevate honest political debate.
Improve access to anonymised social media user data.
Expand the Truth Decay research agenda to better understand the phenomenon in Europe.

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