Ending the Toxic Cycle of Misinformation

Matt Yglesias points to this excellent Dana Milbank column pointing out that Arizona governor Jan Brewer has been running around telling whoppers about immigrants in her state, including rumors that undocumented immigrants have been beheading people in Arizona’s border towns. This is, of course, complete nonsense, and Milbank points out that it’s not the only vicious rumor being spread by Arizona politicians:

Brewer’s mindlessness about headlessness is just one of the immigration falsehoods being spread by Arizona politicians. Border violence on the rise? Phoenix becoming the world’s No. 2 kidnapping capital? Illegal immigrants responsible for most police killings? The majority of those crossing the border are drug mules? All wrong.

Matt says this creates a “toxic cycle of misinformation”:

Conservative politicians and media celebrities spread these ideas. Their fans believe them. Then when Dana Milbank or I or anyone else tries to set the record straight, that just goes to show that we’re liberals. So anyone who wants to be seen as credible in conservative circles doesn’t want to take these ideas on. So people become even more entrenched in the view that illegal immigration is causing a plague of violence.

This analysis is exactly right, but it’s worth pointing out that this is not a new problem. In decades past, there were people who repeated malicious falsehoods about blacks, Jews, homosexuals, or other unpopular groups of people. And this resulted in exactly the same toxic cycle: cooler heads would debunk the rumors, but the refutations never traveled as far as the original rumors because the rumors confirmed a lot of peoples’ prejudices. So the prejudices got re-enforced, which in turn built support for discriminatory policies. Exaggerated fears of black crime built support for segregation. Unsupported rumors of gay pedophilia led to excluding them from classrooms. And so forth.

The way we collectively broke out of this “toxic cycle” is that we began talking about the process in explicit terms, and we began stigmatizing people who contributed to it. When someone repeated canards about Jewish bankers or homosexual pedophiles, we didn’t just correct the information, we called the person anti-semitic or homophobic (respectively). And those labels began to carry with them powerful stigmas. People who perpetuate malicious stereotypes about Jews or black people now face potentially career-ending backlashes. And that, in turn, causes people to think twice before repeating a negative stereotype or rumor about an unpopular minority group, which slows the spread of misinformation.

Unfortunately, there’s nothing analogous in our national conversation about immigration. There might be enough of an uproar about Gov. Brewer’s comments that she’ll be forced to admit she had her facts wrong. But she won’t face anything like the backlash Mel Gibson is facing. She’s not going to face any serious pressure to resign, or even to go hat in hand to immigrant-rights groups, as Mel Gibson will surely do to the leaders of civil rights groups. We don’t even have a specific term for the kind of bigot Gov. Brewer is, and I’m afraid the “toxic cycle of misinformation” about undocumented immigrants will continue until we have a word, and associated stigma, for people who foster prejudice against them.

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8 Responses to Ending the Toxic Cycle of Misinformation

  1. Anonymous says:

    What about xenophobe?

  2. Anonymous says:

    Woah. I think you have a security issue, Tim.

  3. Why do you say that?

  4. Jamie says:

    Nevermind – it recorded it as anonymous, and dropped the cookie. But your site told me I was logged in at “Timothy B. Lee”. Not sure what that was about.

    “Xenophobe” is good, if perhaps a bit too science fiction-sounding, but the problem with coining words is that it almost never works intentionally. I think we’ll have to stick with ‘lying bigot’ for now.

  5. BlanksSlate says:

    George Wallace gets credit for being ‘not really racist’ (I don’t buy it, but that’s what some say), but a coldly political opportunist. I’m sure we could come up with some label that incorporates this to apply to Ms. Brewer.

  6. Brian Moore says:

    I don’t want to seem pessimistic, but to what extent are people ever even actually convinced by being labeled one of these terms? If someone on the internet/tv/movie/whatever says “you’re a bad person if you believe X,” is anyone who believes X likely to actually believe that? It seems like the only time people might take that seriously is if a family member or friend said it.

    I think, sadly, based on the demographics of people who dislike minorities/gays/immigrants, the best method is just to rely on the Grim Reaper to help even up the polls, while still of course publicly arguing against those views.

  7. Ben says:

    Does this article change your opinion at all on your characterization of Brewer’s claims as nonsense, or do you think the people involved are making things up?
    http://tinyurl.com/2dgyvn6

  8. Tim Lee says:

    Brian,

    The point of stimatizing bigotry isn’t to change bigots’ minds, it’s to make sure bigoted claims aren’t unthinkingly repeated by non-bigots. People who think the world is run by Jewish bankers aren’t going to be shamed into changing their minds, but they might be dissuaded from expounding on their theories in polite company.

    Ben,

    That’s interesting, thanks for posting it. Do you know if the rancher’s claim been confirmed by the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office?

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