Misinformation Threatens Democracy

“Democracy in the United States is in serious trouble,” the authors of a study on misinformation’s toxic impact on the voters of America say.

They cite a National Public Radio survey that nearly two-thirds of Americans think our representative democracy faces a crisis that could lead to its failure. The rise of anti-democratic movements based in racism, grievance for the loss of white male dominance in American culture and politics, the desire by some for an autocratic leader focused only on their causes, and Christian nationalism all contribute to the erosion of democratic values.

Sixty-four percent of those surveyed believe our democracy is on the edge of failure. That is an astoundingly high number. Among those surveyed, an even higher number, 70 percent, believe we are closer to that failure this year than we were last year.

Today, we fear each other more than we fear foreign terrorists or countries seen as America’s enemies.

“In a sharply divided country, Americans agree on this: the bigger danger to the United States comes from within,” a Quinnipiac University survey found this past January. “Seventy-six percent say they think political instability within the country is a bigger danger to the United States compared to the 19 percent who think other countries… are the bigger danger,” it found.

Divisions in America have deepened, and more than half of American citizens expect those divisions to worsen rather than heal in the coming years. Why are we becoming more fractured and what is behind the force propelling us into angry camps unwilling to listen to one another, or compromise to work toward an inclusive future for all Americans? 

“One of the drivers of decreased confidence in the political system has been the explosion of misinformation deliberately aimed at disrupting the democratic process,” Gabriel R. Sanchez, Keesha Middlemass, and Aila Rodriguez of the Brookings Institute write.

“This confuses and overwhelms voters,” they write. “Throughout the 2020 election cycle, Russia’s cyber efforts and online actors were able to influence public perceptions and sought to amplify mistrust in the electoral process by denigrating mail-in voting, highlighting alleged irregularities, and accusing the Democratic Party of engaging in voter fraud.

Russia, Iran, and North Korea, all enemies of democracy, constantly work to inflame our fears and drive divisions deeper by creating misinformation pushed on the internet. We are both willing victims participating in our own deception and the victims of sophisticated manipulation.

Our distrust of one another and of our elections has deepened over the results of the 2020 presidential elections. Despite Trump’s loyal Attorney General Bill Barr saying the election wasn’t stolen, despite his campaign chair Bill Stepien telling him on election night there were no grounds for Trump claiming he won, and despite multiple Republican governors and secretaries of state saying their elections were fair, allegations the election was stolen remain truth for many Trump Republicans. Distrust in our electoral process remains strong among white Americans, according to the survey.

Lies and deception on the internet have caused us to lose trust in our elections, news media, courts, and government at all levels. As our discontent grows, you would think we would be more motivated to vote; the opposite is true for too many. A Howard University study shows that when people believe their vote doesn’t matter, they drop out of elections. That leaves the motivated extremes with greater power to shape government from the local to the national levels.

Misinformation about election security has infected not just national politics but reaches into school district, city and county board elections. Misguided zealots spurred on by false information about the security of voting machines and the honesty of election judges have made the jobs of local election officials unnecessarily stressful. Even more disgusting, election judges and clerks have faced threats of physical harm – all based on lies and misinformation.

Fighting foreign misinformation is made more challenging when its impact fits the political strategy of a domestic political party’s campaign. Creating fear in our voting process that leads to greater restrictions on voting, lowering voter turnout, especially in minority areas, serves a political purpose. “The enemy of our enemy is our friend” even if that enemy is also an enemy of American democracy and is a political strategy that drags our country down. 

Misinformation doesn’t only influence voters; it shapes candidates making some more reactionary and more strident in their views and proposals. It makes them less willing to compromise.

“The Digital Informers at Howard University think that the best way to combat misinformation is through community engagement and educational efforts, including using trusted sources in the community to talk to individuals about what they believe,” the Brookings study authors write.

In New Mexico, North Carolina, Connecticut, and California, state governments are working to create programs and staff to combat misinformation. They are promoting their efforts to their citizens, hoping it will educate them on how to recognize false information on the internet.

Both our federal and state governments have a role in blocking foreign adversaries from spreading false information. We must be ready to combat it through a quick response with the truth or asking social media companies to block foreign actors’ sites.

America needs tools in place to counter the efforts to play us against one another with misinformation.

News literacy should be a required course in every state with their departments of education directed to support and underwrite local efforts.

In California, its department of education is directed to provide “instructional materials on media literacy to help students learn how to “discern legitimate information sources from advertising, political propaganda and falsehoods that abound on the internet,” the Brookings report says.

Adults also need education in news literacy. A national advertising campaign run through community newspapers, social media, television and radio sources that educates the public on how to recognize false information, should be funded.