Americans are awash in a sea of disinformation. We've got to fight back.
“There can be no liberty for a community which lacks the means by which to detect lies,” Walter Lippmann once wrote. The influential commentator, sometimes described as the “father of modern journalism,” was notoriously skeptical of the ability of the average citizen to understand the affairs of state or to make rational political judgments.
And that was before Facebook.
In the wake of last week’s unbelievable election, it has become clearer than ever that our country is facing a crisis. And I’m not talking about our president-elect. If America’s democratic institutions prove strong enough — and they are among the strongest in the world — we may yet survive the reign of Donald Trump. But I’m afraid we face a problem that’s bigger than one man. We have lost our ability to have a coherent national conversation about politics.
Many of us have had the experience, in recent years, of trying to engage in meaningful political debate — whether on the internet or at the family dinner table — and of throwing our hands up in exasperated defeat. Our opponents seem not only to be holding different values. They seem to live in a different factual universe.
I certainly don’t mean to suggest that the two sides are equivalent. Contrary to the popular wisdom, the 2016 election produced a deluge of excellent journalism that made the unique horror of Donald Trump’s candidacy abundantly clear. The New York Times dove into everything from his tax avoidance to his business failures. The Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold earned high praise for his meticulous takedown of Trump’s lies about his charity work, not to mention his disgusting predatory behavior. Editorial boards across the country, no matter their political orientation, came out decisively against Trump. Even the television networks, roundly criticized for providing the candidate with copious free coverage, helped popularize his many outrages, such as the time he openly mocked a disabled reporter.
It made no difference. The biggest collective effort ever undertaken by the nation’s entire journalistic community was drowned out by the clickbait. And if the reverse were true — if Donald Trump were a paragon of virtue, and if Hillary Clinton deserved every bit of mistrust heaped upon her — most voters would be no less in the dark. Stuck in their echo chambers, they have no way of judging. (In fact, a Buzzfeed investigation found that, while right-wing pages had more misleading content, there was plenty to go around on both sides.)
It gets worse. The outright fakery is a problem, but potentially a solvable one. Such content can be deemphasized, maybe even banned. Facebook and Google have already begun to crack down on at least the most obvious abuses. But the problem of splitting voters into self-reinforcing echo chambers is much more pernicious. As more and more people, particularly younger generations, get most of their news online, it’s likely only to get worse.
Thirty-one years ago, in a book called Amusing Ourselves to Death, media critic Neil Postman argued that the nature of a medium determines the messages it carries. He was worried about the rise of television, which, he warned, would transform all public discourse into entertainment.
He was certainly right about that – as our recent presidential election so vividly demonstrates. Yet while television may have degraded our public discourse, at least we still had one. Social media, by its very nature, atomizes discussion. We share stories that signal and reinforce our tribal identities, not those that prompt us to think critically about them. We read what our friends share. We retweet what our favorite journalists tweet. And we seem to have no interest in seeking out alternative views. I don’t see this as a moral failing, exactly. It’s simply in our nature.
We once had gatekeepers that fought against this tendency and grounded us in the same reality — the nightly network news, the major and minor newspapers, the news magazines. But in the age of social media they’ve lost all their power, sending us all spinning off on different orbits. Various fact-checkers have tried to step into the breach. But they’re not having much success replacing the gatekeepers of old. As Joshua Benton points out, a fake story claiming that the Pope had endorsed Donald Trump was shared almost 900,000 times, while the article that debunked it got just 33,000 shares. Fact checkers are for the elites, not for the masses. We are tweeting, facebooking, and snapchatting ourselves apart.
Some entrepreneurial idealists are trying to find technical solutions to this problem. A new site called Burst encourages people to “burst” their information bubbles and talk to people with whose views they disagree. The Washington Post recently described a tool that finds the closest county that voted the opposite of yours, suggesting a reflective visit. And even without special gadgets, we can all cultivate the practice of following smart people we disagree with.
But none of this will be enough by itself. What we need is an all-out offensive of media literacy education. It must be taught in schools, and it must be taught from an early age. How do you distinguish a credible source from one that is trying to con you? Why is it important to look for flaws in your own reasoning? What is context, and where do you look for it? How do you engage productively with people who disagree with you?
Perhaps we need to be more ambitious still. How about a crash course in getting to know one another — a kind of internal “study abroad” — that would bring rural and urban American students together, away from their smartphones, to look at and understand each other’s lives and problems?
A few programs in this vein already exist. The School for Ethics and Global Leadership brings 11th graders from around the country to Washington, DC for a semester of study and interpersonal discovery. “We have students with live-in housekeepers and students whose parents clean homes,” said Noah Bopp, the school’s founder and head. “They do chores together. We have students who are gay and students who think homosexuality is sinful. They live in the same dormitory. We have libertarians and socialists. They write collaborative political speeches together.” Mairéad O’Grady, an administrator at the school, told me about two roommates, both from New Jersey but from radically different backgrounds: “One white, one black; one from a private school, one from a public school; one conservative and one liberal.” Within weeks, O’Grady said, they became close friends.
What if such programs were available to everyone, instead of a select few? What if they were generously funded? What if they were mandatory?
It sounds like a pie-in-the-sky idea, and I don’t pretend to think that it will come to pass anytime soon. But that’s the level on which we’ve got to be thinking. Division through social media should be viewed as a slow-burning emergency. If we don’t do something about it, it will kill us.
Photo credit: DAVID MCNEW/Getty Images