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Preference Falsification

wess10th June 2020 at 8:13am

I came across the concept of preference falsification from Lee Drutman of the Five Thirty Eight blog in an article looking at how and why Republicans haven't turned on 45 yet and what it would take to make that happen.

Preference falsification comes out of political theory and Timur Kuran’s classic work "Private Truth, Public Lies: The Social Consequences of Preference Falsification." In the book, Kuran seeks to understand why a regimes - though extremely unpopular and untrusted - are able to persist over time and when the overthrow happens, it seems to happen rapidly, almost like a tipping point.

Drutman writes:

"The logic is straightforward: In social and political situations, people often have private preferences that are costly to express. So they keep quiet to maintain social status or sometimes personal safety. They say and do what they think they are supposed to say and do to get along. Hence, the “Public Lies” part of [Kuran's] title. But sometimes the calculus changes. Sometimes a critical mass expresses a dangerous opinion. This empowers others to speak up. Then even more folks feel empowered. And then even more. And then there is a social revolution."

The idea involves demonstrating that there is a cascade effect. If there are a couple in the regime who are willing to break rank - even when it is costly to themselves - it makes it a little safer for others to do so. It makes things a little more believable. The more that share the more there is an exponetital growth in the real "preferences" - or in often truth - being aired. The more people who have information from more and different sources the more likely change will occur. This can happen rapidly as Drutman points out with things like the Arab Spring:

Consider the Arab Spring, which began with one Tunisian vendor, who protested being mistreated by government officials by setting himself on fire. His death triggered a series of events, and a month later, the long-unpopular authoritarian Tunisian president fled the country after more than 23 years in power. A few weeks later, protesters in Egypt ousted their own long-serving authoritarian leader. What looked like ironclad power collapsed in a matter of weeks. Why?

Kuran argues in his book that protests need a critical mass of supporters in order to force change. The logic is that there’s safety in numbers, so if multiple citizens rise up in protest of a regime, it signals that it’s OK to protest — which can cause decades-old regimes to collapse all at once.