I’m still mulling over that screenshot I referenced a few days ago–the one from the pro-Trump website showing the names and pictures of four people identified as Democratic Senators who were switching to the GOP in protest of the President’s Impeachment.
As you’ll recall, none of them were real Senators–or, probably, real people.
Whoever created that website clearly operated on the assumption that visitors would be partisans so civically-ignorant that the phony names and stock photos wouldn’t trigger doubts or send them to a fact-checking site.
It was probably a well-founded assumption.
We occupy a fragmented media environment that increasingly caters to confirmation bias. As I’ve frequently noted, Americans no longer listen to the same three network news shows and read the same daily newspapers; the ensuing intense competition for eyes, ears and clicks has spawned a treacherous information terrain.
A post at The World’s Most Dangerous Beauty Salon, Inc. is enough to curl your hair. (Sorry–couldn’t resist.) It even has graphs showing how Right-wing hoaxes and Trump’s tweeted lies proliferate.
Yesterday I talked about how Trumpists flocked to their latest article of faith that Trump isn’t really impeached because the House hasn’t transmitted the articles of impeachment to the Senate. There is no basis in law or fact for that belief, but it’s there anyway, virally spreading throughout Trumpland.
Another profoundly stupid message that has evidently convinced those who want to believe: now that Trump is impeached, he’s automatically eligible to run 2 more times.
With rampant propaganda proliferated over social media facts or truth no longer matter. Worse, Trump’s Twitter account amplifies these lies. Every time he tweets one of his insults, childish taunts, threats, or lies, it goes out to millions or users, retweeted thousands of times. In the hands of an immoral politician like Trump, social media is weaponized for the dark side. You can see it, but can also measure it.
The above-referenced graphs of Google trend lines show searches for these “facts.”
When I first practiced law, an older lawyer in my firm told me that there is really only one legal question, and that’s “what should we do?” That maxim applies more broadly; it absolutely applies to the absence of what has come to be called “news literacy.”
Every so often, one of my more naïve students asks why the government can’t just pass a law requiring media outlets to tell the truth. As I try to explain, truth and fact are often honestly contested—and of course, there’s the First Amendment. But we aren’t powerless just because government is prohibited from censoring us.
There’s no reason the private sector cannot develop tools to help citizens determine who they can reasonably rely on—and who they can’t. (The current criticism of Facebook for allowing campaigns to post dishonest political ads is based upon that company’s legal and technical ability to eliminate them.)
What if a nonpartisan, respected nonprofit—say the Society for Professional Journalists—developed an analog to the “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval,” attesting to the legitimacy of a media source? The award of that seal wouldn’t indicate the truth or falsity of any particular article, but would confirm that the organization was one that adhered to the procedures required of ethical, reputable journalists.
It would take substantial funding, of course, to develop and maintain the capacity to monitor the practices and procedures of media outlets claiming to be “news.” And that “seal of approval” wouldn’t mean that any given report wasn’t flawed in some way—genuine reporters are human and make mistakes. But it would allow citizens who actually care about accuracy and evidence-based reporting to be reassured about the journalistic bona fides of sources they encounter.
Those bona fides are important, because in the new information world we all must navigate, each of us is our own “gatekeeper.” The days when editors and reporters decided what constituted verifiable news are long gone.
And that brings me back to the screen shot shared by my friend.
I know I’m beating a dead horse, but propaganda flourishes when only 26% of adults can name the three branches of government, fewer than half of 12th graders can define federalism and only 35% of teenagers know that “We the People” are the first three words of the Constitution. When politicians make claims that are blatantly inconsistent with America’s history and form of government, widespread civic ignorance virtually guarantees the uncritical acceptance of those claims by partisans who desperately want to believe them.
Adequate civic knowledge can’t guarantee that visitors to a website will know fake Senators when they see them–but it’s an essential first step.