As families across America prepared to send their kids back to school in the fall of 2019, fear plagued many school-aged children. In August, a mother’s story of back-to-school shopping with her children went viral. Her ten-year-old informed her she did not want light-up shoes because they would make her stand out in a school shooting. At about the same time, Sandy Hook Promise released a public service announcement which begins with children seemingly excited about the new items they have purchased for school—“the perfect bag,” “colorful binders,” “headphones”—but quickly transitions when a boy’s new sneakers allow him to run from a shooter, scissors and pencils become weapons, new socks become a tourniquet, and finally a girl with her first phone texts her mom “I love you.” Viral messages like these make it quite clear gun violence is an ever-present problem in America today. But political divisiveness compounds the problem. Political ideology can prevent people from using basic reasoning, or even doing simple arithmetic.
The debate in the United States over balancing the Second Amendment right to bear arms with reducing gun violence endures. On August 4, 2019, Wisconsin state Representative Ron Tusler told his friends and followers on Facebook, “Less mass shootings under Trump! His base doesn’t hate anyone.” This claim appeared alongside a graphic that made it appear that there had been 24 mass shootings under former President Barack Obama and only 4 under President Trump. However, as the fact-checking website PolitiFact reports, the claim is based on outdated statistics originally published by the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute. Not only that, but “the think tank took data from a 2017 report” and added in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, which occurred in February 2018. But they, as PolitiFact notes, “ignored the Texas First Baptist Church massacre in November 2017 that killed more people.” In addition to this, the chart uses a “raw tally of shootings to compare just over two years under Trump to eight years under Obama.” The article concludes stating that if “more comprehensive data” and a better point of reference such as “shootings per year” are employed, “we see that mass shootings have risen steadily in recent decades regardless of who is in the White House.” It is true that there were fewer shootings in the approximately two years of the Trump presidency that were accounted for in the graph than in the whole eight years of the Obama administration. But the rate of mass shootings is not down under Trump—it has actually increased.
Falsehoods like this distract the public and prevent them from understanding the realities of gun violence. This hinders conversation of this serious issue and can have real consequences for human lives. As mass shootings become more prevalent daily, stories such as this continue providing the public with a false sense of security. According to a CBS article, which references data from a non-profit called the Gun Violence Archive, as of September 1, 2019 there were more mass shootings (defined as a shooting in which 4 people, excluding the shooter, are shot) in 2019 (283) than days to that point (244). As each of these days passes, more peoples’ lives are endangered, and questions of what can be done to prevent gun violence become increasingly relevant. According to a PBS report, when Congress went on summer recess in August they left 110 bills which contained the word “gun” on the table. This demonstrates the importance of discussing gun violence, and to do that, overcoming barriers such as the spread of falsehoods, which impede crucial conversations from occurring.
Not everyone who encountered this news story had the ability to recognize it was misleading and based on outdated statistics and/or the willingness to fact check it. Someone scrolling through social media may have caught the tagline, “less mass shootings under Trump,” shared, and continued scrolling. This is especially likely if they support the current administration, in which case their interpretation would have confirmed their existing beliefs.
Political beliefs can inhibit reasoning ability—even when it comes to numbers. Yale Law Professor Dan Kahan conducted a study that tested one group of participants’ ability to solve a complex mathematical problem about the apolitical issue of skin rashes, while another group solved the exact same math problem but based around the heavily politicized context of gun control. As one website commented, “people who are otherwise very good at math may totally flunk a problem that they would otherwise probably be able to solve, simply because giving the right answer goes against their political beliefs.” The same idea applies here. The political ideologies of members of Tusler’s audience clouded their interpretations. People who agreed with his tagline liked and shared it, spreading this misinformation far and wide, until Facebook eventually removed it.
In the face of divisive and controversial conversations like the one surrounding methods of reducing gun violence, among other topics such as the legality of abortion, decriminalization of marijuana, and immigration reform, misinformation has become commonplace. This infographic is just one example of how data can be manipulated and presented in a misleading manner. Unfortunately, this misleading infographic is not an isolated occurrence, but something that happens quite frequently. In the age of “big data,” people search for truth in numbers. But visual representations have the potential to manipulate data and cause it to be misconstrued. In the twenty-first century, media consumers wield a unique and unprecedented power as they interact with media platforms and make decisions about clicking “share” and “like” buttons. This power intensifies and becomes a serious threat when people are unaware of the existence of, and unable to recognize, inaccurate and misleading representations of data all around them.