Why Trump’s determination to sow doubt about data undermines democracy

It’s said that data speaks for itself. And ahead of the U.S. election, there was a lot of data from scientists, economists and pollsters that pointed to an uphill struggle for President Trump.

The outcome wasn’t as clear cut, with no sign of the predicted blue wave sweeping the nation. But then, it is hardly surprising after a sustained campaign by Trump and his allies to undermine and discredit both the sources of the data, and the media reporting on it.

The ability of the public to make informed, conscientious and balanced decisions, an ideal at the core of deliberative democracy, has been consistently destabilized by the misinformation super-spreader formerly known as the president of the United States.

More broadly, the election cycle of 2020 highlighted how the contested media ecosystem of the 21st century has evolved much faster than the institutions of state, the academy and the media have been able to respond.

What the data said

In the months and weeks leading up to November 3, data was making itself heard loud and clear. By the time Americans went to the polls, the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 was edging towards 10 million, as tracked by John Hopkins University. As daily cases rose, Trump continued to falsely claim the country was “rounding the corner.”

More than 226,000 people had died from during the coronavirus pandemic. That’s almost four times the American lives lost in the Vietnam War and edging close to the 291,557 American lives lost in battle in World War II.

GDP was hit hard, down by 9.1 percent in the second quarter of 2020. According to the Brookings Institute, it was the steepest decline since record keeping began in 1947.

It meant that millions of Americans lost their jobs as the pandemic hit in early 2020, with more than 20 million claiming unemployment insurance by May. Though that figure had dropped to 7.3 million by October, it was still well above pre-pandemic numbers. The economic shutdown hit women, non-white workers, lower-wage earners and people with less education hardest.

Against such a backdrop, national polls point to a sweeping victory by Joe Biden. Learning their lesson from 2016, most media organizations handled the polling data with care. These ranged from offering qualifiers about variations from state to state or digging into the electoral college system to explain the scale of the challenge facing the Democratic contender.

There were even warnings ahead of November 3 that the results may not be clear on election night, as indeed turned out to be the case.

I want to believe (in Trump)

While millions of Americans listened to the data, millions more were deaf to what it was telling them. They chose not to listen to, and believe in, the message, be it scientific or economic reports from reputable institutions, or the messenger, the mainstream U.S. media.

Instead they wanted to believe in the man in the White House. It is astonishing to note that Trump has made more than 22,000 false or misleading claims since coming to office.

It is less astonishing that millions of Americans didn’t believe the data or the journalists reporting it. After all, these are the journalists labelled as “enemies of the people” by Trump, reporting on inconvenient facts written off as “fake news.”

The persistent strategy of Trump and his allies has been to cast doubt on what have traditionally being respected and reputable sources of data. It is not just about sowing uncertainty about what is true and what isn’t, but also about undercutting the sources of the data.

This is a leader who has dismissed journalists as “enemies of the people”, denounced inconvenient truths as “fake news”, and has repeatedly lashed out at the country’s top infectious diseases expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci.

The clarion call from Trump to his supporters has been that you can’t trust the source, and you certainly cannot trust the messenger. Rather, you can only trust the plain-speaking, tell-it-how-it-is leadership of me, Donald Trump.

Data faces a tough fight in the arena of public opinion. Data is always shaped by where it came from, who provided it, how it was communicated and by whom.

In this election cycle, data designed to inform the public was discredited, demeaned and doubted in political discourse. It was an attack on the message, as well as on the messenger – the “fake news” media of Donald Trump.

Data cannot have a voice when there is no trust in where it is coming from, who it is coming from and who is disseminating it to the public.