“The Misinformation Crisis” is Not New.
The comments I offer here were spurred on by the 13 January 2018 episode of The Open Mind podcast (Misinformation Crisis), hosted by Alexander Heffner.
As the title implies, the discussion centered on the perceived flood of ‘Fake News’ that may have impacted the 2016 US Presidential election and could have implications for elections worldwide ever since. The comments I offer here are just that, comments of a private citizen and not a scholarly treatise on the subject. Wikipedia links are provided for young readers to acquaint themselves with events I experienced first-hand.
The first matter concerning ‘misinformation’ (I want to avoid the currently acceptable adjective of ‘fake news’) is that it is new or rare. Having been born in 1960, I have had the opportunity to witness significant events within the United States and abroad. In all honesty, I can’t remember any moment when those events did not generate a barrage of information that was questionable at best, false at worst. Immediately coming to mind as I’m typing this was the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan in March 1981. I vividly recall network news anchormen chastising their own staff in real time on live TV for passing on questionable information. That same network reported that Alexander Haig, then the Secretary of State, had stated that he “… was now in control…”. What did that mean? Was there a coup? Is the President and Vice President dead?
Another event that made for riveting news coverage was the bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building in April 1995. The first bit of news I received via television news networks regarding the culprit was that Muslim terrorists were suspected. An accident, or the possibility of domestic terrorism, was entertained. By this time in our ‘Information Age’, our society had already migrated to accusing enemies, real or imagined.
Yes, misinformation has always been around and will not ever be eradicated in a democratic society without accusing the government of censoring. Information, in any society, is a valuable ‘thing’. Having access to it was always important. Let’s turn to an area that was touched upon in the episode: the impact on the 2016 US Presidential election.
The guest interviewed by Mr. Heffner was Mr. Claes de Vreese, from the University of Amsterdam. Mr. de Vreese makes a statement that information has been increasingly “polluted” and this, paired with the nature of US presidential elections, puts our system at particular risk when compared with other systems in Europe. Mr. de Vreese targeted the peculiarities of the Electoral College system as contributing to a scenario where ‘polluted’ information could (and probably did in 2016) sway an electorate and award a political office to a candidate without a majority vote total. I could not keep from entertaining the sneaky notion that Mr. de Vreese was politely criticizing US electoral procedures. It’s been my view that I would never exchange our constitution for anything Europeans have to offer. I do, with all humility, accept the thought that the Electoral College is a remnant of a bygone era in the formation of our republic. An era where information was predominantly accessible to, and controlled by, a tiny (elite) class of citizen. The mass of citizens were never expected to have sufficient mastery of information to make a credible choice for President of the United States. Those who had the access would choose the electors who then made the presidential selection.
The Electoral College is from a world that no longer exists. It’s constitutional repeal would be in keeping with an electorate that has access to the information necessary for a sound decision. Such a move would place greater emphasis on the wishes of a majority or plurality voters. This does not directly address the misinformation crisis, but it does remove an electoral peculiarity that may be overly impacted by misinformation, as expressed by Mr. de Vreese. Combating misinformation can become a targeted initiative without side-tracking into political frameworks.
Since the advent of the Internet, information has been ‘democratized’ by giving vast numbers access to it via devices and services that have become increasingly affordable (Personal Computers, Internet Connectivity, and Handheld devices). This development happened to accelerate during my teaching career, 1987 – 2018. Prior to 2016, there had always been efforts within the classes I and my colleagues taught to show students how to research historical content. The researching process, as I was shown in college and I taught in class, was to arrive to the closest semblance of truth (facts as understood at the time and place of focus). This process emphasized primary documents, multiple sources, and understanding the impact of context on the material (Time, Place, and Circumstance). Never is the process meant to isolate and remove biased content. Such a goal is bound to fail since all human-generated content is, by nature, biased in some way. Instead, the goal is to enhance the decision-making ability of the person doing the research. That decision could be anything from presenting a thesis relevant on an environmental problem to selecting a US President. Since 2016, this process is as valid as it ever was. The dual edge of the Internet is that it has a democratizing effect, but can hurt democracies if citizens can’t distinguish reputable sources from non-reputable sources.
‘Freedom of the Press’ is a Constitutional protection. But, do news outlets have a responsibility to the clients that read their news? I believe they do. The problem, however, goes a bit further because the Internet has created news sources that have traditionally not existed before. This doesn’t alter the distribution of responsibility. Among traditional news sources there have always been periodicals who entertain with their news rather than inform (remember the tabloid papers at the check-out line in a supermarket?). I don’t recall any of my friends ever reading those tabloids for their daily run-down on world events (they were read while waiting on the check-out line for a laugh or two). The professional/ ethical constraints placed on our traditional news sources should also apply on the new, non-traditional, digital sources. The profesionalization of these outlets should be self imposed and monitored by relevant associations. Failure to do so, echoing Mr. de Vreese, invites regulation. Some might see that word as taboo, but to ignore the problem invites greater harm to our democracy.
Being a citizen in the United States, or any democracy for that matter, requires vigilance. Access to information is critical for the political process to function as access to medicine is central for addressing illness. But, like medicine, the information that falls within our grasp has to be understood. The content’s source is as important to know as the content’s veracity. We can subdue this monster-like nature of unfettered information flow. It can start with emphasizing existing school instruction with our younger citizens. The problem is not new and not rare. The goal is not to quell the voices of information, but improve each individual’s ability to turn ‘the monster’ into a valuable decision-making tool. With all due respect to Mr. de Vreese and other European-based commentators of our 2016 Presidential election, my nation has a problem that is part and parcel a symptom of the “Great Experiment” our founders set in motion 250 years ago. It’s incumbent upon our citizenry to notice that something is wrong and initiate appropriate remediation. The 2016 Presidential election and the numerous tentacles that connect it to other matters (need I mention the Russian collusion scandal) is no more than an alert to our citizens that our experiment needs an adjustment.