Too many Americans can’t tell fact from fiction

Timothy Egan writes: It would be much easier to sleep at night if you could believe that we’re in such a mess of misinformation simply because Russian agents disseminated inflammatory posts that reached 126 million people on Facebook.

The Russians also uploaded a thousand videos to YouTube and published more than 130,000 messages on Twitter about last year’s election. As recent congressional hearings showed, the arteries of our democracy were clogged with toxins from a hostile foreign power.

But the problem is not the Russians — it’s us. We’re getting played because too many Americans are ill equipped to perform the basic functions of citizenship. If the point of the Russian campaign, aided domestically by right-wing media, was to get people to think there is no such thing as knowable truth, the bad guys have won.

As we crossed the 300-day mark of Donald Trump’s presidency on Thursday, fact-checkers noted that he has made more than 1,600 false or misleading claims. Good God. At least five times a day, on average, this president says something that isn’t true.

We have a White House of lies because a huge percentage of the population can’t tell fact from fiction. But a huge percentage is also clueless about the basic laws of the land. In a democracy, we the people are supposed to understand our role in this power-sharing thing.

Nearly one in three Americans cannot name a single branch of government. When NPR tweeted out sections of the Declaration of Independence last year, many people were outraged. They mistook Thomas Jefferson’s fighting words for anti-Trump propaganda.

Fake news is a real thing produced by active disseminators of falsehoods. Trump uses the term to describe anything he doesn’t like, a habit now picked up by political liars everywhere.

But Trump is a symptom; the breakdown in this democracy goes beyond the liar in chief. For that you have to blame all of us: we have allowed the educational system to become negligent in teaching the owner’s manual of citizenship. [Continue reading…]

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Comments

  1. Yes, too many can’t tell fact from fiction. And yes, a little more knowledge of the world, a little more widespread, would be a good thing. But I suspect the problem is deeper than education. Is there any doubt that the baseline cognitive stance is to rely on authority and to seek or construct information that confirms what you wish to believe?

    The miracle of human development in the last thousands of years is the rise of ways of thinking that go beyond this, leading to (a healthy obsession with) criteria of correct argumentation and evaluation of evidence. But these thrive in enclaves and in a minority of individuals who are that way inclined. Journalism, which is devoted to telling stories —
    and the same stories over and over — is not one of these enclaves.

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