Q&A with James O. Freedman Presidential government professor Brendan Nyhan
Nyhan was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in April.
James O. Freedman Presidential government professor Brendan Nyhan was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in April. Nyhan, whose research explores misperceptions about politics and healthcare, is the co-founder of Bright Line Watch, a group that tracks perceptions of U.S. democracy. According to its website, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences “honors excellence and convenes leaders from every field of human endeavor to examine new ideas, address issues of importance to the nation and the world, and work together.” The Dartmouth sat down with Nyhan to talk about being elected to the Academy and his work on misinformation.
Could you talk about the significance of being elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and what your election means to you?
BN: It's a great honor. I'm thrilled about it. It's a historic organization that goes back to 1780 — when it was founded. It has had all kinds of remarkable people elected, across all fields of arts and science. You know, my class includes Lin-Manuel Miranda, along with Shonda Rhimes. So it's quite a remarkable group, and I'm grateful for the honor. I'm looking forward to getting to know the people who are involved, and to learn more about it.
What are some of the issues that you are interested in working on in the context of the Academy?
BN: Groups like the American Academy often put together task forces or committees that try to speak to broad issues of social concern, so perhaps I could help contribute to the work they're doing related to politics in the United States. The state of U.S. democracy, misinformation on social media — the kinds of topics I research — have overlap with the kinds of things that people are concerned about in American society right now. So there may be opportunities along those lines.
Could you explain your work and how it’s evolved over the years?
BN: I've been interested in misinformation for a long time. After college, I helped start a nonpartisan fact-checking website; it was one of the first online fact-checkers. Then, I ended up studying the issue in my academic research, and it's been a big focus of my work ever since. I didn't anticipate that — my Ph.D. dissertation was on a different topic. But concern about misinformation has grown throughout my adult life. It's gone to new levels with the rise of social media in particular, so I've continued to study it, and it hasn't bored me. It's certainly a challenging topic, but it's an interesting and important one, and it's one where scientific research has moved very quickly. It's been fun to be a part of that and to contribute to it.
As the internet has changed with the rise of social media, especially since the pandemic, what are some new issues that have arisen related to misinformation?
BN: COVID misinformation has been a huge issue — both misinformation about COVID itself as well as vaccines. That's an issue with real-world consequences for people's lives. It's one that is still with us today. Maybe the most consequential in my field of political science has been the effort to overturn the 2020 election, which was fueled by misinformation. The false claims of widespread voter and election fraud were the impetus for the unprecedented step of a president trying to overturn the results of an election and ultimately a violent insurrection that tried to stop the counting — the conclusion of the electoral process itself.
What are some of the steps to counter misinformation?
BN: The first thing I'll say is I hope students will take my misinformation class where we study this. I'm teaching it right now, and I teach it almost every spring term. We go deep into these questions about where misinformation comes from, why people believe it and what we can do about it.
I don't think this is an area where public policy is the solution. We should be very uncomfortable with government dictating the terms of political speech. But I do think there's more that civil society can do, that the media can do and that online platforms and technology companies can do in ways that are consistent with our values.
That can take the form of more effectively holding politicians accountable when they make false statements, delivering corrected information in forms that people find more useful or easier to understand, leveraging technology to counter misinformation before it spreads rather than afterwards. There are a number of ideas like that — none of them are a magic bullet. There's no one single defense that's right, that's the single approach that will eliminate misinformation, but we can strengthen our resilience to this information on many different levels.
Is there anything you would say about what individual consumers of media can do to defend against misinformation?
BN: I'm always sensitive to this question because I worry that people blame human beings for being human beings. None of us have time to research every claim we come into contact with –– we can’t all be fact checkers 24/7, 365 days. That's just not possible or reasonable to expect.
At the same time, though, I do think we can do a better job of equipping people with the tools they need to make sense of the information they come into contact with. I think there's a lot more we can learn, for instance, about how to teach media literacy effectively to help people distinguish between low and high credibility sources of information, especially online. It's not a panacea. But it's a good starting point.
Is there anything you're considering, or starting to do work on, in light of upcoming elections in the next year?
BN: I'm one of the co-directors of Bright Line Watch, along with professor John Carey in the government department. That's a group that monitors the state of U.S. democracy. We founded it in 2017, and we've been tracking both expert and public perceptions of U.S. democracy since. It's going to be very important to see if there's another effort to delegitimize the results of the U.S. election.
I'm certainly very concerned about 2024. We saw election denial largely rejected in 2022, but the threat is certainly not over, and we could see a reprise of 2020 in the next election. It's important to not let our guard down.
This article has been condensed for clarity and length.