The five most ignorant countries in the world are Mexico (a world leader at least in this), India, Brazil, Peru and New Zealand. And the five best informed are South Korea, followed by Ireland, Poland, China and the US. Ignorant about what? The realities in their countries.
Every year London-based polling organisation Ipsos Mori does its “Perils of Perception” poll, asking people worldwide what they believe about, say, the proportion of the population who are immigrants, or overweight, and comparing their answers with the true numbers.
Putting all the results together, Ipsos Mori then comes up with its famous Index of Ignorance. The level of ignorance is startling – and yet these mistaken beliefs can play a big role in the political choices that countries make.
Take immigration. Almost every country over-estimates the number of immigrants in their population. The Chinese, for example, believe that 11% of the people in their country are immigrants. The real number is 0.1%, so their guess is 110 times too high (and maybe just a little paranoid). Brazilians are just as bad: they think 25% are immigrants, but it’s only 0.3%.
Most countries do better than that, but not that much better. Americans think 32% of their population are immigrants, when actually only 13% are. The Japanese think it’s 10%, when it’s only 2%. And the Poles recently elected a rightwing nationalist government because they fear being overrun: they think 14% of the population are immigrants, when it’s less than half of 1%.
Or take the number of Muslims living in countries that are historically non-Muslim. The highest proportion of the population is in Monday 12 8 August 2016 France, where 8% are Muslims – but the average guess of the French people polled was 31%. Only 1% of Americans are Muslim, but Americans believe it is 15%.
These huge over-estimates are driven in part by the fear of Islamist terrorism. It’s striking, for example, that while Americans guess three times too high when asked about the proportion of immigrants in the country, they guess fifteen times too high when asked specifically about Muslims.
One could go on about how wrong people get things. Saudi Arabians think 28% of the population are overweight or obese, when actually 71% are (the highest of all 35 countries polled).
But the more interesting question is: how much do these misperceptions affect politics and policy? Not much, probably, but it’s pretty clear that a huge popular over-estimate of the number of immigrants in Great Britain contributed to the “Leave” victory in June’s referendum on British membership of the European Union.
The same phenomenon has played a big part in the rise of Donald Trump in the US. When he talks about building a wall to stop hordes of Mexican rapists pouring across the border, or promises to ban all Muslim immigration to the country, the media-fed misconceptions of Americans about immigrants, and particularly Muslims, make his lies easier to believe.
Are the media pandering to existing popular fears, or are they actually creating them? The inevitable answer is: a bit of both.
In the century and a half when there have been free mass media (and now social media as well), nobody has come up with a solution for this problem. “Free” includes free to make mistakes, and free to distort facts and tell outright lies.