Paulina Alvarado-Goldman discusses the destabilizing effects of widespread false narratives.

Producer: Michael Childers
11/06/2021 • 01:25 AM EST

Paulina Alvarado-Goldman, founder & CEO of Capacity Building and Policy Experts, warns about the danger that widespread false narratives can have on public policy-making and problem-solving. She further projects the eventual loss of faith in pubic institutions and the destabilization that can follow, when government and nonprofits are stymied by false narratives from addressing the needs of everyday people. 

0:00: Michael Childers:

With us today, we have Paulina Alvarado-Goldman. She is the founder and CEO of Capacity Building and Policy Experts and an adjunct professor in the political science department at Rider University. Paulina, thank you so much for joining us today.

0:15: Paulina Alvarado-Goldman:

Thank you for having me

0:17: Michael Childers:

Just to start off questions, I'm very curious, when did you start taking an interest in false narratives and combating them specifically?

0:27: Paulina Alvarado-Goldman:

I've been working with nonprofit organizations now close to for about twenty-five years. About five, I would say about five or six years ago, I worked on a couple of projects in which I was working with individuals who I was actually on paper ideologically-aligned with. But I saw for the first-time people shifting facts, to adjust narratives, they wanted to be true, but were not true and did not fall in line with some of the ideas they wanted to be real. And some of the things that I saw on some of those projects really in my mind translated into fanaticism and I'd never seen that unfold live.

And it honestly it just scared me a great deal because of the potential effects that it could have on public discourse, public policy and on democracies. It was honestly frightening. That's really what ultimately ended up inspiring me to be more cognizant, not just of false narratives, but also just try to be mindful to make sure that I am not being a contributor to these kinds of very dangerous scenarios.

Michael Childers:

1:53: You mentioned the refashioning of facts and the effects it has on people. Could you elaborate on this?

Paulina Alvarado-Goldman:

2:01: Yeah, I think there's one precursor that I want to add to the refashioning of facts that I think is essential to keep in mind. And so, the refashioning of facts really blend a combination of public opinion, but it also simultaneously taps into group identity much more so than it does ideology. And so, these are essential tools that can either have a positive effect or a negative effect on the policy process, depending on whether the people who are directing narratives are good faith actors or bad faith actors. And they can have very positive or harmful effects on the general public. And as part of that, I think it's also important to mention that there has been a dramatic increase in political partisanship, but the traumatic increase in political partisanship, isn't exclusively driven by ideology. In fact, a lot of research shows that people are more driven by their group identification. And so, the ideology itself is actually secondary.

And so oftentimes what ends up happening is that the social attachments are what are actually driving the narratives. So, when individuals are confronted with facts and they have to then at that point are placed in a situation in which they have to counteract the narratives, their social identification will lead them to either ignore components of the truth, that challenge the foundation or their affiliation with that group identity, because that would mean separating from that group or reshaping or refashioning how they're interpreting the facts. Or saying that the other people are interpreting a situation in a false manner or that things happened in a different manner. So, they're really, at that point really defending their relationship, their identity, and it's much more so affiliated with essentially their social group, because essentially they would be turning against their social network by espousing a different opinion.

And that's what distinguishes those who are pure of heart versus those who are outside of the group that are not as good as the ones that are in the group. But this ultimately has a lot of terrible effects on communities. The example being COVID. What ends up happening also is that here in COVID, you see that there's these anti-vaccination narratives that are really ultimately resulting in a lot of individuals opting out of life-saving measures that could help them diminish the impact of COVID or the variants or prevent it altogether. And even some individuals, because it would mean that they would have to opt-out of all of the time they've invested in the development of this group affiliation ultimately end up either putting themselves in harm's way or suffering terrible consequences for themselves and their families.

But there's a bigger consequence, or this is really the springboard for describing the bigger consequence for these types of false narratives and adapting them. The result is that people have this general feeling that no one can be trusted. And that everyone who is in the public realm advancing a particular point of view, whether it's public health, whether it's safety, whether it's education, jobs, or whatever fields you want to think about - everyone there is in it for strategic interests not to advance the public good.

And ultimately what happens is that the individuals who are better able to define reality will hold more power. And as a result, sources that are legitimate are smeared as corrupt, trust and institutions diminishes, which destabilizes societies. News organizations, which are essential pillars in preventing corruption and holding government accountable are classified as biased if they express facts. And they're also classified as institutions that are driven by ideology. And more than anything, the existence of objectivity is threatened.

And this suggestion then results in the undermining of one of the most important functions of both government and nonprofit organizations, which is for it to engage in problem-solving. And the further you move away in the policy process and in policy interventions from problem-solving, the more likely you are going to focus on maintaining group identity. And it's not only a threat to democracy, but it's very destabilizing. And more importantly, the most dangerous component is that not only, when government is not responsive, or nonprofits are not responsive to community needs, the destabilization that comes to as a result of that affects the governance, and if it leads people to invent explanations or interpretations that then make nations or countries or communities vulnerable to true threats of democracy, and people can't tell the difference.  

7:56: Michael Childers:

When discussing the ways we can combat false narratives, your first suggestion is to fight against an "us vs. them" environment. How can we do a better job at this?

8:09: Paulina Alvarado-Goldman:

So this once again, ties into this idea that false narratives, particularly within the public policy realm, really tie into individual group identity, much more so than the political ideology itself. Because a lot of times when you really probe a lot of the individuals who hold certain beliefs, they actually, they know the talking points, but they don't actually know what policies will actually do or are doing.

So I think that there's a combination of things. There's work that we can do for ourselves, because none of us should assume that we are exempt for being impacted by falling victim to false narratives or promoting them. And what we should do with others. So I think for both ourselves and in conjunction with others, we have to challenge assumptions and we have to challenge assumptions that everyone will believes to be true.

We have to encourage debate and diversity of thought, but more importantly, in the policy process, we have to be focused on problem-solving more so than anything else, because that's one of the essential functions of public policy-making. And this requires for us to ask, when people use terminology that is common to a particular cause or a particular initiative, to ask for specific definitions. So we can understand what's included and excluded from that definition. And we can really understand the scope of what is being talked about. And verify, and fact-check information to confirm before we share anything with the public. We also want to be cognizant for ourselves to share the truth, even when those aspects don't support our opinion. We want to make sure that we share sources that others can verify.

But as part of that process, I think it's important for all of us to become much more familiar with methodology. Particularly as more people are increasingly citing that they're doing their research, that they're doing this, they're doing that, to become informed about issues. Not all methodology is the same, not all polls are the same, not all surveys are the same, not all research studies are the same. And I think it's important for people to be able to understand the scope and the limitations and what a study actually means, what an opinion actually means, and how you actually conduct research and what is a reliable source. And it's important in discussions to really distinguish between your own opinion and facts.

And I think it's also important for when we actually hear people that recognize after doing research, and becoming more informed about a particular issue and saying, Hey, I was wrong, when we hear people say that, to really actually commend them, instead of castigating them for having held the wrong opinions since the very beginning. Or when people share true information that people don't want to hear, to defend those individuals, because at the end of the day, true problem-solving must rely on truthful information. And last but not least, I think it's important to align your actions with your beliefs and to put forth to the best of your ability, true and factual information.

Michael Childers:

11:51: What are your thoughts on the public skepticism towards institutions and why does that matter?

11:58: Paulina Alvarado-Goldman:

If individuals begin to doubt the credibility of the institutions, if it's for reasons that aren't reflective of actual problems, this is potentially extremely destabilizing. And also if you mix false narratives with true narratives, as to why maybe government is not, and nonprofits may not be responding to the needs of different communities, at that point, you make it difficult to actually focus on the real areas that need to be addressed.

And this creates a situation in which government is not responding to community needs. And when government doesn't meet the needs of the public, doesn't solve problems again, that are complex, require the mass mobilization of resources, collective action, and the organization of large large-scale logistics, when government is unable to do that, people find solutions on their own outside of systems and they find scapegoats for the challenges that they're encountering.

And the end result can be extremely destabilizing for any community or society that is out there. And that destabilization can happen relatively quickly. And very scary things can occur when government, when institutions are distrusted and when neutral processes, that have really been essential pillars in American government are destabilized. These pillars, the following the law, having checks and balances, following processes that are objective and applicable to everyone equally, or at least the attempt to do so.

All of these elements when they start becoming eroded and when people move away from processes, not because they're not working, but because they want to advance false agendas, it creates the perfect environment for very scary situations that are contingent on a person's willingness to act in good faith or not. And that is not something that that governments should rely on. And it also makes it difficult for people to be able to distinguish between real threats to democracy, and to security and what constitutes real oppression versus again, these fake problems, these faux challenges and conflicts, that are not based on reality, but aren't necessarily threats to democracy.

15:19: Michael Childers:

Okay. It looks like that's all the time we have for today. We've been talking with Paulina Alvarado-Goldman, CEO of Capacity Building and Policy Experts, and an adjunct professor of political science. Paulina, thank you so much for spending time with us today.

15:35: Paulina Alvarado-Goldman:

Thank you so much.