A Case Study In How Infographics Can Bend The Truth

These remarkable charts from Hyperakt are all "true," but each one presents a very different picture of reality.

We’ve made the point time and time again that charts and graphs, though they feel official and true, can lie. Rarely do you get to see that at work, but the good folks at Hyperakt have sent us a prime case study in infographic deception. The subject, of course, is politics—and in particular, the raging debate over whether the rich should be made to pay more taxes. "Using the same data, very different stories can be told depending on different agendas," says Deroy Peraza, one of the founders of Hyperakt.

A story from the Wall Street Journal's far-right op-ed page gets us started, with a chart showing how much taxable income is made by Americans ranging from the rich to poor:

Looking at that, the conclusion seems glaringly obvious: The rich don’t make so much money! In fact, as a group, they seem to make about as much as the poorest Americans! Why on earth would you tax these poor souls? As Jonathan Chait points out:

The chart most certainly does not demonstrate the Journal’s point. It instead relies upon an optical illusion. Democrats have been arguing that their tax increases should solely effect income over $250,000 a year. The Journal makes that pot of income appear small by diving it up into seven different lines. See, the $100,000-$200,000 line is tall, and all the other lines to the right of it are short. That tall line must be where the money is!

And look closer: The left side of the chart deals with people who make between $0 and $50K. So that’s a $50,000 band of income. Meanwhile, the right side of the chart deals with people who make between $500K and over $10 million. Which is a band of $9,500,000 plus. Those two don’t seem terribly equal do they? Why would you give over equal space representing each band? That’s not an honest approach.

When you look at the same data another way, you’d draw a totally different conclusion. Here’s what the chart looks like redrawn by the left-leaning Mother Jones.

Whoa whoa whoa! The rich make all the money don’t they? We should definitely be taxing those smug bastards. But step back again, and you realize this chart is misleading too. All of those making $200K and over are lumped into a single bar, while everyone else gets broken out into relatively tiny increments. Of course it would look like the rich make all the money. You could actually imagine doing this same chart in reverse, making it look like the poor make all the money, simply by lumping together everyone with less than $50K in income, and separating out as many groups of rich people as you please.

Surely the reality lies between these two extremes. And that’s exactly what Hyperakt has tried to capture, in a redrawn chart that shows how the IRS defines income. Here is the very same data grouped according to tax bracket:

At last, this seems like something close to an objective way of looking at the situation. And indeed, what it suggests is actually quite rational: Sure the rich don’t make all the money in the U.S. But they do make a very large portion of it. Even still, the chart does still fail to capture a couple more facts.

For one, basic economics tells us that a dollar made by someone making $30K a year means a lot more to that person than a dollar made by someone making $1 million a year. Ideally, you’d want a chart that would explore that feature by examining, for example, what exactly the rich and the poor are buying with their income.

And another point: The chart doesn’t show you how many people lie within each bracket—and if it did, you’d realize how very concentrated that right-most bar is. The fact is, the topmost one comprises less than 10% of the population. Which is to say that among the roughly 140 million American taxpayers, over 126 million fall within the two brackets at the left, while less than 14 million make up the bracket to the right.

"As designers it’s our responsibility to find honest ways of representing data so it isn’t used to mislead," Peraza points out. But likewise, we should all recognize that finding the truth of a situation is an iterative process. It takes time, and trial and error. Our first few attempts at capturing what’s true are almost never right.

Top image: S. Chiariello/Shutterstock

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