Attack on Capitol Hill is a desperate sign of a need for media literacy
In maintenance after maintenance, Trump supporters involved in the shameful storming of the United States Capitol on Wednesday have promulgated conspiracy theories and echoed the lies pushed by President Trump and many others. In interviews, the rioters noted: “I am here to protest against this corruption. “We want to stop the theft. “We know how many cheating has taken place.”
While much remains unclear, what has become evident is that the nation must engage in a war against fake news. America has witnessed a cult-worthy denial of the truth. While the insurgency was not entirely new, the event created a clear illusion: that the election of Joe Biden was fraudulent.
In other words, the institutions and norms upon which our political system depends are at risk, unless the country commits to healthier news consumption – and much more media literacy.
Wednesday’s attack was just the culmination of a presidency that has often indulged in disinformation. Even after Trump’s surprise Electoral College victory in 2016, for example, he and his supporters broadcast clearly incorrect information about “millions” of fraudulent votes.
The problem goes far beyond Trump, however. Over the past decade, a toxic ecosystem of disinformation has emerged, well suited to amplify lies and conspiracies. Social media has played a big role with algorithms that prioritize engagement by ensuring that the most extreme, inflammatory content gets to the top of people’s streams. According to Facebook’s own research, “64% of all extremist group memberships are due to our recommendation tools.”
The question is what to do about it. To their credit, social media companies have taken some action. Facebook, for example, announced that Trump’s account would be suspended indefinitely. But these efforts are just the start and should be used with caution. After all, cracking down on the producers of disinformation – whether it be politicians like Trump, foreign hackers, or malicious posters – cannot go further. They will always find channels to “flood the area” as Steven Bannon puts it.
In addition, the effort to eradicate completely the producers of disinformation risks running counter to important values such as freedom of expression and an open competition of ideas. In addition, efforts to close these channels can create a sense of discontent among extremists. This gives them another complaint to rally around.
What is needed, therefore, is to focus more on the consumer. If we can curb the demand for lies and conspiracy theories, the supply will dry up on its own.
It requires an educational revolution that emphasizes media literacy practices such as analyzing sources, seeking opposing points of view and avoiding emotional reasoning. In research conducted by my organization, it is clear that young people do not learn these skills in school. One of our studies found that more than a third of college students in the United States report that they learn “rarely” or “never” by judging the reliability of sources.
Adults also need more media literacy and critical thinking support, and studies show that only about a third of people predict where they get information. In short, at all levels, the country must re-engage in the principles of inquiry and argument on which our political system is based.
In this regard, education alone will not be enough. Politicians and other leaders must also move forward and rebuild civic engagement. Conspiracy theories and half-truths are often the product of alienation and a sense of helplessness. Their increasing prevalence reflects a loss of part of our civic culture. They fill an emotional and even spiritual void in the lives of those who subscribe to them.
Once again, however, reasoned debate will be central. When Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about American democracy early on, he marveled at the spirit of public debate, how average Americans valued their own contribution to democratic debate and were eager to express and debate their ideas. More and more Americans have lost this spirit and have split into alienated and mutually suspicious bubbles where bad and even delusional ideas can fester.
Getting informed is a necessary step in discussing and debating public issues with our fellow citizens. It is one of our democratic responsibilities – and our privileges. To fight conspiracy theory and misinformation, America will need to relearn why information is important in the first place: We need information not to entertain us, distract us, or make us feel better, but to make us feel better. we can govern ourselves.
Helen Lee Bouygues is President of the Paris-based Reboot Foundation, an organization dedicated to elevating critical thinking and promoting richer, more reflective forms of thought in schools, homes and businesses.