Fact or Fiction: How Misleading Statistics Contribute to Polarization and What We Can Do About It

Fact or Fiction: How Misleading Statistics Contribute to Polarization and What We Can Do About It

FACT: 100% of people reading this will continue to read beyond this sentence.

Perhaps the above statement isn’t true, but how would you, the reader of this blog, be able to test its validity and reliability anyway?

Simply labeling something as a “fact” and citing a statistic can have an enormously persuasive influence on audiences; not even professionals, journalists or those with excellent statistical reasoning skills are immune to what are commonly referred to as statistical fallacies.

One of the biggest problems with statistics shared by news stories, blogs, podcasts and other outlets of information is that it’s not only difficult to determine how accurately the author interpreted the data but we also don’t know whether there were issues with the study’s methodology that might have produced misleading data.

After all, some scientists have admitted to falsifying or fabricating data, which may be due to the fact that researchers feel enormous pressure to produce statistically “significant” findings in order to receive grant funding for their work or get published (which is often a requirement for tenured researchers at academic institutions). Furthermore, the ​​Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard’s survey of 1,118 journalists in 2015 found that while 80% of respondents agreed that knowing how to interpret statistics from sources is important, just 25% of respondents said they felt “very” well-equipped to interpret data on their own.

So what does all of this mean?

In short, most of us are not well-equipped to interpret statistical information. No human being is completely free from cognitive biases, and the processes of motivated reasoning often lead us to quickly accept information that aligns with our preexisting beliefs while taking more time to scrutinize and criticize information that contradicts our beliefs.

None of us have the time or energy to double-check all statistics we encounter on a regular basis. However, for moments where those numbers really matter to you – such as different efficacy rates among Covid-19 vaccines or job salary ranges – there are some useful, time-saving strategies for evaluating the accuracy of statistical information.

For starters, go to the original source of the information to confirm that the author of whatever you’re reading or listening to is interpreting the data correctly. You don’t need to be a data scientist or mathematician to understand the basics of statistical findings. Some things to be on the lookout for in the original study include:

Who Supported the Research: Did this information come from a peer-reviewed academic journal funded by grants or was it produced and funded by a company with a financial conflict of interest? In other words, what is the purpose or incentive for the organization(s) involved to contribute to the study?

Let’s unpack this with an example.

PLOS Medicine* published an article in 2013 entitled, “Financial Conflicts of Interest and Reporting Bias Regarding the Association between Sugar-Sweetened Beverages and Weight Gain: A Systematic Review of Systematic Reviews.” The review of the research found that studies with financial conflicts of interest (funded by companies like Coca-Cola and PepsiCo) were 5 times more likely to report there was no significant link between the consumption of sugary beverages and weight gain or obesity, compared to studies with no conflicts of interest.

*To practice what I’m preaching here, I originally found the study cited in a New York Times piece but went to the original study to confirm that the NYT’s depiction of this study was accurate.

Who Were the Participants and How Many: In academic and scientific research, you can typically find information pertaining to the background and number of participants in the “Methods” or “Methodology” section of an article. Participants’ demographic information (e.g., gender, race, age, income level, geographic location) and the study’s sample size (number of participants surveyed/studied) can help you determine whether the researchers’ inferences are accurate.

One example of a study that produced misleading data is LendEDU’s survey of 1,217 college students (2017), which found that “nearly a third of Millennials have used Venmo to pay for drugs.” A major problem with this survey is that it did not clearly define its participants (there’s no universal definition of who a “Millennial” is and even if we were to define Millennials as born sometime between 1981 and 1996, this would fail to account for the fact that not all college students are in this age bracket). While the study claimed that its sample size of 1,217 survey respondents was representative of the population of college students in the U.S. (roughly 20.5 million at the time), the Pew Research Center says there are approximately 72.1 million Millennials.

So what are we supposed to believe: almost ⅓ of college students use Venmo to buy drugs or almost ⅓ of Millennials? The two terms are not synonymous and this goes to show why number of participants and how they’re defined are critically important issues for evaluating whether a study accurately portrays the attributes, attitudes and/or behaviors of a given group of people. Unfortunately, a Google search about this study reveals that dozens of journalists and bloggers hastily shared these findings without scrutinizing how the research was conducted in the first place. This is just one of many examples of how reporters lacking scientific backgrounds or statistical reasoning skills can (often inadvertently) spread misinformation to their audiences.

Additional Resources for Developing Your Knowledge of Data Journalism and Statistical Reasoning Skills:

  • This 10-minute video from Crash Course Statistics is one of the most beginner-friendly tutorials on the subjects of scientific journalism and how data might be misrepresented by news publications.
  • The Challenge of Developing Statistical Reasoning: This article was published in the Journal of Statistics Education (2002) and offers an eye-opening glimpse at the variety of correct and incorrect forms of statistical reasoning you’ve probably seen before.
  • Data Journalism, Impartiality and Statistical Claims: This BBC Trust-commissioned study was published in Journalism Practice (2017). While the researchers acknowledged that the “use of data is a potentially powerful democratic force in journalistic inquiry and storytelling, promoting the flow of information…enriching debates in the public sphere” (p. 1211), the study revealed politicians and business leaders in the UK often cited statistics in media, but few journalists or members of the public questioned or verified those claims.
‘Cancel Culture’ and the First Amendment

‘Cancel Culture’ and the First Amendment

As the Freedom Forum Institute points out, the First Amendment protects freedom of speech but not without some key exceptions, such as obscenity, defamation, blackmail, and perjury. With this in mind, it would be reasonable to view cancel culture as a multifaceted issue that cannot be clearly divided into two categories of “always good” or “always bad.” The issue is that sweeping generalizations in favor or against cancel culture – often in the form of brief, emotionally charged social media posts or polarizing rants from news commentators – tend to distort what could have been constructive conversations about what someone did, why it might be interpreted as offensive, and how common ground may be achieved. 

To better understand what cancel culture is, why it has become such a prominent issue in the U.S. and what the potential/actual consequences are, let’s explore how this controversial concept is typically understood by others and how it relates to the First Amendment. 

What is Cancel Culture?

Similar to other hyper-politicized phrases like “fake news” or even “essential workers,” there is no clear definition of what exactly “cancel culture” refers to. There are countless articles analyzing what it is, how people leverage the term in social media discourses to silence dissent or demand accountability, and what the positive/negative implications of cancel culture may be, but as of 2021, we have yet to come to a common understanding of what cancel culture means and whether it’s more of a beneficial or harmful thing for free speech. 

In one such article arguing that cancel culture does not actually exist, The New Statesman describes cancel culture as “a mob mentality, a series of mass movements seeking to end the careers of public figures whose thoughts or opinions deviate from a new set of left-wing norms.” 

If there’s not a readily agreed-upon definition of “cancel culture,” what influences different individuals’ and groups’ understanding of the term?

An in-depth study from the Pew Research Center in 2021 found that roughly 44% of the American population has heard of “cancel culture” and, perhaps unsurprisingly, individuals’ interpretations of cancel culture varied by political affiliation as indicated in this graph:

Pew Research Center bears no responsibility for the analyses or interpretations of the data presented here. The opinions expressed herein, including any implications for policy, are those of the author and not of Pew Research Center.

The aforementioned Pew Research study is well worth dedicating some time to read through yourself. It quotes several different perspectives on cancel culture and analyzes the most common rationales of those who believe cancel culture unjustly punishes people (e.g., context considerations, people are overreacting, “offensive” is a subjective concept) and those who believe cancel culture is important for holding others accountable (e.g., people should be more mindful of the consequences of what they say and social problems like racism, sexism and homophobia are brought to light).

To recap what we’ve covered so far: there’s no singular definition of “cancel culture,” and there’s little agreement among even politically-similar individuals/groups as to whether cancel culture poses more advantages or disadvantages, though it’s generally agreed that it poses some implications for freedom of speech.

Cancel Culture: Online and Offline Consequences

The aforementioned article from The New Statesmen pointed out how in spite of public hysteria surrounding cancel culture, it “rarely has real-world consequences: instead, it might result in names trending, take-down threads, and more replies to a tweet than likes.”

When former President Trump was banned from Facebook and Twitter in January 2021, the Internet was in an uproar over whether such actions were part of a larger cancel culture movement or simply another instance of non-governmental entities (in this case, publicly-traded corporations) denying access to their platforms to those in violation of their terms of service. Ten months later in October, the former president launched his own social media platform called TRUTH Social, which presented some interesting implications for current discourses about cancel culture.

On the one hand, getting “cancelled” (banned from traditional social media platforms, in the case of former President Trump) makes it more challenging for these individuals to maintain the same level of public visibility as they enjoyed previously. On the other hand, the trend of well-known “cancelled” people making successful comebacks into public life suggests the consequences are not nearly as dire or permanent as the fear appeals embedded in anti-cancel culture rhetoric make them seem. 

Concerns over the potential consequences of cancel culture aren’t limited to social media, of course. At the 2020 Republican National Convention, one delegate resolution explicitly cited cancel culture as a threat to First Amendment freedoms, stating that it has “​​grown into erasing of history, encouraging lawlessness, muting citizens, and violating free exchange of ideas, thoughts, and speech.” 

In February 2021, a state senator in California introduced two bills that would prevent employers, landlords, banks, and educational institutions from discriminating against individuals on the basis of political ideology. Melissa Melendez, a Republican, described her proposal as an effort to combat “cancel culture and the efforts to silence differing opinions and voices.” The senator did not provide examples or data to support the common claim that people have been denied goods or services on the basis of their political affiliations or beliefs, but perceptions of cancel culture remain potent in American political discourse nonetheless.

But what about everyday individuals without the wealth or name recognition that people like former President Trump, Dave Chappelle, Louis CK, Gina Carano, Roseanne Barr (to name a few) have? 

There’s a case to be made for individuals who may be unjustifiably “cancelled” by mob mentalities that sometimes run rampant on social media. What if someone said something deemed offensive without realizing it may be interpreted as such? What if they meant no harm and genuinely apologized after reflecting on how their words may be deeply hurtful to others? Who decides what type of cancellation is appropriate for certain words or actions, assuming cancellation is a justifiable response at all?

These are some of the many difficult questions we must consider when thinking and talking about cancel culture. On social media, debates over cancel culture are frequently laced with anger-laden words and phrases and cherry-picked examples to support “their side” of the issue, but these discussions rarely make room for thoughtful deliberation or genuine attempts to listen to alternative viewpoints. 

Social media and freedom of speech enshrined in the First Amendment permit us to openly publish our thoughts and feelings to global audiences on a 24/7 basis. If a queer liberal activist spends hours on Twitter denouncing Dave Chappelle for being pro-TERF (“trans-exclusionary radical feminism”) in his latest standup special, then they are free to do so. On the flip side, if a conservative Californian wants to spend hours on Facebook venting about Governor Newsom, then they are also free to do so. 

It would be a false equivalence to say that critiquing someone – especially if they’re a public figure with influence over millions of people – is the same thing as “cancelling” them (and, as mentioned previously, cancelling typically doesn’t lead to significant consequences anyway; Dave Chappelle is actively touring with large, sold-out shows and the recall effort against Governor Newsom was unsuccessful). 

However, just because we can do something doesn’t mean we always should. It ultimately comes down to a question of what you deem a worthy use of your time: posting and consuming rage-filled content that reinforces destructive “us” versus “them” divides? Or perhaps it would be a better use of time and emotional energy to pause when we encounter emotionally-charged content online and thoughtfully consider the consequences of engaging with or sharing such content. 

Individuals alone don’t have enough power to combat divisions in our country, especially when it involves a vague, undefinable yet influential phenomenon like cancel culture. However, by being willing to listen to others’ perspectives, recognizing which of the infinite social media battles are worthy of your time, and using your First Amendment-given right to speak freely in ways that heal rather than divide, we can collectively reach a point where the only thing to be cancelled is cancel culture itself. 


“Americans and ‘Cancel Culture’: Where Some See Calls for Accountability, Others See Censorship, Punishment.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (May 19, 2021) https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2021/05/19/americans-and-cancel-culture-where-some-see-calls-for-accountability-others-see-censorship-punishment/.

Overcoming Fearmongering: What Research Really Says About Immigrants

Overcoming Fearmongering: What Research Really Says About Immigrants

In 2010, Stephen Colbert of the satirical news show, The Colbert Report elevated the United Farm Workers of America (UFW)’s “Take Our Jobs” campaign to the national spotlight by applying to work alongside migrant farmworkers during the summer. A major goal of the campaign was to disprove the rhetoric of “immigrants stealing our jobs” by offering 1.8 million UFW jobs back to American citizens (14.9 million of whom were unemployed at the time).

Despite the immediate availability of work opportunities in a tough job market, just 9,000 Americans applied for the program and only 7 people lasted more than a couple of weeks working long hours in the fields. Stephen Colbert lasted just one day and later shared his experiences while testifying before Congress’s Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship and Border Security. The “Take Our Jobs” campaign may not have succeeded in employing many American citizens, but it certainly succeeded in showing a large disconnect between rhetoric and reality when it comes to immigrants.

Media and politicians using fearmongering tactics against immigrants is not a new phenomenon in the U.S., but it became more explicit in recent years, such as former President Trump’s infamous comment on the campaign trail about how some Mexicans are “rapists” who bring drugs and crime across the border (three years later, he said “These aren’t people. These are animals”). 

Racism and xenophobia play significant roles in anti-immigrant sentiment, but what do the facts actually say about immigrants in the U.S.? Here are just some of many studies that demonstrate why anti-immigrant rhetoric has little basis in reality:

Notable Findings from the 2020 Pew Research Center’s Study

The Pew Research Center’s new report on immigrants in the U.S. produced several interesting findings, including:

  • Immigrants presently comprise 13.7% of the U.S. population 
  • Approximately one million new immigrants arrive in the U.S. each year, predominantly from China, Mexico and India
  • Roughly three million refugees have settled in the U.S. since the creation of the Refugee Resettlement Program in 1980
  • The Obama Administration deported more immigrants (3 million) than the Bush Administration (2 million) and in 2017, the Trump Administration deported only 295,000 people, the lowest figure since 2006
  • Public opinion about immigrants has vastly changed over time; whereas 63% of Americans viewed immigrants as a “burden” on the country in 1994, nowadays 66% of Americans believe immigrants “strengthen” our country

FBI Study on “Lone Wolf” Terrorism

An FBI report published in 2019 found that, out of the 52 “lone wolf” terrorist incidents on U.S. soil between 1972 and 2015, all of the perpetrators were male, 90% were born in the U.S., and 65% were white (just 13% were of Middle Eastern descent, highlighting a disparity between reality and the “Islamist extremist” stereotypes we’ve seen in media over the past 2+ decades). 

Immigrants’ Economic Contributions

A 2019 study from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that immigrants without college degrees make up anywhere from 24-36% of the workforce in vital industries like farming, construction, manufacturing, and hospitality. Without migrant labor, our economy could suffer serious consequences like skyrocketing inflation or mass shortages as production slows due to a scarcity of “low-skill” labor. This isn’t to suggest that immigrants lack education or skills, of course; like other Americans, immigrants are a diverse group with a wide range of knowledge, skills and services to offer those who value their unique contributions.

In a similar vein, immigrants fill a disproportionate share of elder care and home health jobs in the U.S., according to a June 2019 study published in the journal Health Affairs. Given that the U.S. is expected to face a shortage of 151,000 professional caregivers by 2030 and 355,000 caregivers by 2040, our nation’s elderly citizens need more immigrants to come to the U.S. Without more immigrants (especially in wake of declining birth rates in the U.S.), we won’t be able to provide adequate care and dignity to some of society’s most vulnerable people within the next decade. 

Want to learn more about the role of immigrants in the U.S. and the pervasive influence of fearmongering in public discourses about immigrants? Click this link to register for our free National Symposium immigration panel on Thursday, September 23rd at 1:30pm EST.

Fascinating Facts About Religious Freedom in the U.S.

Fascinating Facts About Religious Freedom in the U.S.

First Amendment Voice’s annual National Symposium is just around the corner, and this year, we have two incredible, virtual events centered on freedom of religion. Our keynote conversation on religion and reconciliation will take place on September 22 at 2:30pm EST (click here to register) and our panel, “Bridging Divides: The Role of Faith Leaders” will take place right afterwards at 3:30pm EST (click here to register).

To give you a sneak peek at the exciting information you’ll discover from these discussions, here are some fascinating facts about freedom of religion in the United States:


Two Key Clauses in the First Amendment

Did you know that religion was only mentioned once in the Constitution before the ten amendments comprising the Bill of Rights were added a few years after the initial ratification? Before the First Amendment was enacted, the only reference to religion in the U.S. Constitution involved the prohibition of religious tests to determine whether someone was qualified to run for public office. Thus, people of any (or no) religious affiliation could run for election in the United States, which was not a common freedom in the world in the late 1700s. 

After the First Amendment was ratified on December 15, 1791, our nation’s understanding of freedom of religion was clarified through both the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause. As implied by the name, the first clause prohibits the federal government from ‘establishing’ a state religion, similar to what happened with the Church of England. 

Meanwhile, the free exercise clause refers to citizens’ freedom to practice their own religions as long as they don’t violate public morals and/or conflict with a “compelling government interest,” per Supreme Court precedent on the issue. A recent example of this was seen in numerous court battles over Covid-19 restrictions on religious congregating, such as South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom


References to God in Constitutions 

Another interesting fact about the U.S. Constitution: there are no references to any divine figures in the federal government’s Constitution, but every U.S. state’s Constitution contains at least one reference to God or the divine, according to the Pew Research Center. Pew’s analyses further revealed that the word “God” is mentioned a total of 116 times across 50 states’ constitutions, in addition to other religious or spiritual language such as “almighty,” “Supreme” or “Sovereign” Being, “Creator,” “divine,” “providence,” and “Lord” (though this last one is typically used in the context of the phrase “the year of our Lord”). 

Furthermore, as of 2021, seven states’ constitutions still prohibit atheists from holding public office, including Arkansas, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas. The state of Pennsylvania’s constitution doesn’t explicitly prohibit atheists from serving in public office, but it does include the clause, “No person who acknowledges the being of a God and a future state of rewards and punishments shall, on account of his religious sentiments, be disqualified to hold any office or place of trust or profit under this Commonwealth.” Of course, most of these state’s religious belief requirements are largely unenforceable due to the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution, as well as prior Supreme Court precedents. 

For more of the Pew Research Center’s insights and data on freedom of religion in the U.S., check out their Religious Landscape Study, article on 10 facts about religion in America, and report about religion and the government in the U.S.


The Role of the Bible in Presidential Inaugurations

According to WhiteHouseHistory.org, George Washington was the first president to take the oath of office by placing his hand on a bible during his inaugural ceremony. Most other presidents since then have followed suit, placing their hands on a special family bible and repeating the oath typically administered by the Supreme Court’s Chief Justice, “I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

Since George Washington’s presidential inauguration, only Theodore Roosevelt (1901) and John Quincy Adams (1825) did not take their oaths of office by swearing on a bible; notably, Adams swore on a book of law meant to symbolize his oath to the constitution.


Don’t Miss Our National Symposium Discussions

Ready to learn more about freedom of religion and how faith leaders across the country are striving to bridge divides and revive constructive engagement in our nation’s public discourse? Click on the registration links in the first paragraph of this article to secure your spot in more thoughtful discussion opportunities at our National Symposium this year!

Polarization and the Press: How Can We ‘Depolarize’ Destructive Media Discourses in the U.S.?

Polarization and the Press: How Can We ‘Depolarize’ Destructive Media Discourses in the U.S.?

Have you ever heard someone say they “don’t know what to trust anymore” when talking about watching or reading the news? Perhaps you’ve had similar thoughts?

If so, you’re not alone. Public trust in the media has been plummeting over the past several years and even though there are many credible sources out there with ethical journalistic standards and genuine commitments to reporting news as accurately as possible, it can be enormously challenging for everyday citizens to separate the facts from the “fake news.”

Considering the many destructive consequences of disinformation, we can’t allow ourselves to become ambivalent about the news by assuming none of it is worth consuming simply because it may or may not be trustworthy. Instead, here are three ways we could depolarize the media for the betterment of all Americans.

If you haven’t already read our free, research-packed white paper on the “pandemic of polarization” happening in the U.S. right now, be sure to get your copy here.

Require Media Literacy Classes in Public Schools

First and foremost, we should recognize that the U.S. didn’t become hyper-polarized overnight and the media industry isn’t entirely to blame, either. Education – or more specifically, critical thinking and media literacy classes – is an essential tool for defending citizens against disinformation campaigns in our daily lives, but as of 2020, just 14 states have either proposed or enacted laws requiring media literacy education in schools (to learn more about what your state has done so far, check out this nifty graphic from Media Literacy Now).

Given just how much influence media discourses have over our socio-political lives, media literacy classes are arguably just as important as regular U.S. government and economics classes. Citizens can start taking action at the state level by urging elected representatives to enact education policies designed to amplify students’ critical thinking skills when consuming media. It won’t completely solve the problem we’re currently in, but teaching K-12 students to be more mindful of information they consume – where it comes from, how it’s presented, how to verify what’s truly accurate – could help us more effectively combat political polarization in future generations.


Renew Emphasis on Local News

Viewership and readership figures for local news have been declining over the past several years and more than 190 local news stations (a market share of approximately 39% of households) across the U.S. are all owned by the same company: Sinclair Broadcasting Group. The problem with this is that researchers found Sinclair reduced local politics coverage and increased national politics coverage in its acquired stations. Additionally, Sinclair appears to be giving the same – or strikingly similar – scripts to local news anchors, which means the “local” news in many of these regions are actually dictated by one large nationwide media corporation with minimal to no actual presence in the communities it provides news for.

To temper the influence of national broadcasting groups taking over local markets, we must support truly local news organizations that have more of a vested interest in the community simply because they are part of that community. After all, research has shown that Americans typically trust local news organizations more than national news groups. There are also many benefits to consuming local news, including region-specific reporting, supporting journalists in your community, and developing your awareness of local issues that may impact you more directly than national issues.


Add Clearer Disclaimers to News Reporting

Have you ever seen the phrase “sponsored content” in a news article before? This is related to native advertising or “advertorial” content, which refers to advertising within what typically looks like an otherwise normal news story. As newspapers and news networks have continued to lose a significant amount of subscriber dollars in recent years, many have turned to native advertising as a means for bolstering their financial viability with minimally intrusive ads for readers and viewers. The problem here is that many people can’t tell the difference between advertorials and genuine news stories.

By increasing the visibility of “sponsored content” disclaimers and directly explaining to consumers what sponsored content means, news organizations can help the public better-understand the purpose of the information they’re consuming (advertising a product/service or reporting a news event?). Companies can also go a step further with other disclaimers, like how Twitter flags potentially misleading tweets with the disclaimer, “Get more information on [public issue like Covid-19 or mail-in ballots]” and how The Washington Post flags some articles as “more than X year(s) old.”


Learn More About ‘Depolarizing’ Media

For more information on the role media organizations play in the polarization of the American public – and what they could do to depolarize discourses and heal divides – be sure to sign up for what’s guaranteed to be a thought-provoking media panel at our upcoming National Symposium on Thursday, September 23rd (4:30pm EST). We will release more information on our exciting roster of panelists in the coming weeks – stay tuned!