Simple Data Visualization Techniques of Racial Demographic Change Sharply Increase Propensities Toward Violence

May 19, 2023

Research Square

Data visualization has direct political implications. Across four experiments which slightly vary the visualization of data about projected racial demographic change in the United States, the researchers find that particular displays of racial demographic change strongly alter the inferences that Americans make about the future of the U.S. These inferences lead to threatened sentiments, which increase support for political violence. they conclude that more detail than less is needed when using data visualization because of the potential for misinterpretation that could unintentionally inflame anti-democratic political sentiments.

The current information environment of the United States is becoming increasingly politicized. Misinformation about a series of political issues is rife online and even in major mainstream media outlets. Understanding these complex, politically potent issues has developed into a problem for studying knowledge among Americans. Misinformation is proliferating throughout American society.

Scholars have given rightful attention to the rising spread of misinformation (Hameleers and van der Meer 2020; Hochschild and Einstein 2015; Jerit and Zhao 2020; Li 2020), but they argue that this focus has led to an undervaluing of misinterpretation. In this project, they focus on how misinterpretation can occur specifically in the realm of data. They argue that data interpretation is a crucial component of public attitude formation; specifically showing that misinterpretation of data can lead to increasingly violent attitudes. Through four experiments, they test how visualizing projections about future racial demographic change in the United States affect Americans’ interpretations of the political future. Then show that simple changes to data visualization can elicit threat which increases support for violence and anti-democratic ideas.

Read the preprint.