Opinion

Political choices fuelled by startling ignorance

By Gwynne Dyer, Special to Postmedia Network

Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto delivers a speech during the welcoming ceremony in honour of Australian Governor-General Sir Peter Cosgrove (out of frame) at the National Palace in Mexico City on August 1, 2016. Cosgrove arrived in Mexico on an official visit. / AFP / ALFREDO ESTRELLA (Photo credit should read ALFREDO ESTRELLA/AFP/Getty Images)

Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto delivers a speech during the welcoming ceremony in honour of Australian Governor-General Sir Peter Cosgrove (out of frame) at the National Palace in Mexico City on August 1, 2016. Cosgrove arrived in Mexico on an official visit. / AFP / ALFREDO ESTRELLA (Photo credit should read ALFREDO ESTRELLA/AFP/Getty Images)

The five most ignorant countries in the world are Mexico, India, Brazil, Peru and New Zealand. And the five best informed are South Korea, Ireland, Poland, China and the United States. Ignorant about what? About the realities in their country.

Every year the London-based polling group Ipsos Mori does its Perils of Perception poll, asking people in many countries what they believe about, say, the proportion of the population who are immigrants, or overweight, or over 65, and comparing their answers with the true numbers.

Ipsos Mori then comes up with its Index of Ignorance. The level of ignorance is startling -- and yet these mistaken beliefs can play a big role in the political choices countries make.

Take immigration. Almost every country over-estimates the number of immigrants in their population. The Chinese believe 11 per cent of their population are immigrants. The real number is 0.1 per cent, so their guess is 110 times too high. Brazilians think 25 per cent of the population are immigrants; it's 0.3 per cent.

Americans think 32 per cent of their population are immigrants, when only 13 per cent are. The Japanese think it's 10 per cent, when it's only two per cent. And the Poles recently elected a right-wing nationalist government in large part because they fear being overrun: they think 14 per cent of the population are immigrants, when it's really less than half of one per cent.

Take the number of Muslims living in countries historically non-Muslim. The highest proportion of the population is in France, where eight per cent are Muslims, but the average guess of French people was 31 per cent. One per cent of Americans are Muslim, but Americans believe it is 15 per cent. In Canada it's two per cent, but Canadians think it's 20 per cent.

These over-estimates are driven in part by the fear of Islamist terrorism, which is driven by the media's fascination with the subject. It's striking that while Americans guess three times too high when asked about the proportion of immigrants in the country, they guess 15 times too high when asked about Muslims.

How much do these misperceptions affect politics and policy? Not much, probably, when we're talking about religion or obesity or the share of the population over 65 years old. But it's pretty clear a huge popular over-estimate of the number of immigrants in Great Britain contributed to the "Leave" victory in last June's referendum on British membership in the European Union.

But the ignorance often gets a lot of help. London's population, for example, is more than a third foreign-born: almost 37 per cent. But Londoners voted strongly for "Remain." In fact, almost all of the big English cities voted "Remain," whereas in suburban and rural parts of England, where immigrants are rare or entirely absent, people were so panicked by immigration that they voted equally strongly for "Leave."

For years a big chunk of British media have exaggerated the scale of immigration and its problems. So in parts of England where immigrants are scarce, people don't believe the evidence of their own eyes; they believe the media instead.

The phenomenon helps Donald Trump. When he talks about building a wall to stop hordes of Mexican rapists pouring across the border or banning Muslim immigration, the misconceptions of Americans about immigrant and Muslim numbers make his lies easier to believe.

Are the media pandering to existing popular fears, or are they creating them? A bit of both.

In the century and a half when there have been free mass media (and now social media), nobody has solved this problem. "Free" includes free to make mistakes, and free to distort facts and tell outright lies.

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.