The line between fact and opinion in public discourse has been eroding, and with it the public’s ability to have arguments and find common ground based in fact. We at RAND call this diminishing role of facts and analysis in American public life “Truth Decay.” Everyone can feel how it affects their day-to-day lives—the family member who has fallen down a QAnon rabbit hole, avoiding discussing current affairs with a neighbor, or the fractious discourse on a television program. But this phenomenon is also degrading U.S. national security, in ways more difficult to observe.
Five years ago, RAND published a seminal document describing Truth Decay, and former President Obama put it on his summer reading list. Since then, our RAND colleagues have examined the intersections of Truth Decay with media literacy, individual resistance, and vaccine hesitancy. In our new report, we examine this phenomenon specifically in the context of national security, finding that Truth Decay adversely affects the day-to-day business of national security and major decisionmaking at every level.
Two core drivers of Truth Decay are political polarization and the spread of misinformation—and these are particularly intertwined in the national security arena. Exposure to misinformation leads to increased polarization, and increased polarization decreases the impact of factual information. Individuals, institutions, and the nation as a whole are vulnerable to this vicious cycle.