At the conclusion of the recent legislative session a reporter asked senators to describe the session in a single word. I chose “misinformed”. The Legislature addressed a number of extremely complex policy topics, including a major tax reform package, developing a new budget in light of slowed revenue growth, several programs that made changes to existing property tax authorities and deductions, as well as education issues. A shocking amount of misinformation was disseminated to voters through email, social media, and even inaccurate content in some mainstream media.
It would seem logical that the myriad of ways we now have to communicate electronically would improve the information voters receive. However, the mass quantity of information has come as the cost of accuracy. Politicians are well known for rhetoric, but special interest groups have become adept at using social media, email, and the press to distribute their talking points. Voters need to critically evaluate information, assessing both the source and validity. Newsmedia must carefully fact check statements and press releases before repeating them.
Data is frequently misrepresented to voters with the intention to create opposition to a bill. To illustrate, a message sent to many taxpayers by lobby groups was that LB 461, the tax reform bill, “provided $10 in income tax relief for every $1 of property tax relief”. This claim relied upon a series of assumptions that were unknowable and highly improbable. The income tax number was based on the unrealistically optimistic assumption that state revenue growth would exceed the rate required to trigger the income tax rate reduction every single year for ten consecutive years. The property tax number assumed relatively stable increases in ag lang property values over the same time period, so the valuation growth cap would appear to have little effect. By using two opposing projections, inflating one figure and discounting the other, the comparison was not logically valid. The data was skewed to make the point of the paid special interests and accomplish their agenda, not provide accurate information to voters attempting to objectively evaluate the legislation.
Unless specifically told about the details of the methodology used to arrive at the numbers, voters cannot make an informed decision based on accurate information. Do not assume data is being presented to you by special interest groups in an objective and unbiased manner. That is not their purpose. They are paid to achieve a political result. A folk saying frequently attributed to Mark Twain, “figures don’t lie, but liars can figure”, is particularly relevant when evaluating political messages.
When asked to sign an online petition, cut-and-paste or forward an email, or participate in patch-through calls generated by purchased call lists, ask for the source of the data and evaluate it critically. Misinformation and bad data can go viral almost instantaneously via email, twitter, and other social media platforms. It is not uncommon for my office to receive several hundred identical form emails about a topic, all with the same inaccurate information and special interest talking points. The senders are all well intentioned and acting based on information they think is factual. Frequently it is not.
Voters also must discern between editorial content and factual reporting. Editorials are not intended to be unbiased, nor do they represent objective, fact-based reporting. Few clearly identify the names of their authors. Statements without evidence are mere opinions. In my experience as a state senator, far too much policy is “eminence based” rather than “evidence based”. In other words, who makes the statement is given greater weight than facts. History is littered with examples of eminent individuals being really wrong, from science and medicine through policy and business, when their reputation was given greater value than the evidence presented.
From the first day of the session to the last, theories about coalitions, political pressure, and partisanship were rampant in media coverage and the political gossip mill. It was based purely on speculation and sensationalized conspiracy theories. In reality, the unique circumstances of this session were pretty basic and and not clandestine. Senators talked to each other, sought objective facts outside of special interests and lobbyists, intentionally cooperated to achieve common interests, and actively listened to constituents outside of the echo chamber of the Capitol environment. It is what we are supposed to do. I encourage voters to do the same.