Capitol attack is a bad sign of the need for media literacy
Being informed is a necessary part of discussing and discussing public issues with our fellows … [+]
In interview after interview, Trump supporters involved in the shameful storming of the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday spread conspiracy theories and repeated lies spread by President Trump and many others. In interviews, rioters stated: “I am here to protest this corruption.” “We want to stop the theft.” “We know how much fraud has taken place.”
While many things remain unclear, it is evident that the nation must wage a war on fake news. What America witnessed was a cult-like denial of the truth. While the uprising wasn’t entirely new, the event resulted in a clear deception: the choice of Joe Biden was a fraudulent one.
In other words, the institutions and norms on which our political system depends are at risk unless the country commits itself to healthier information consumption – and far more media literacy education.
Wednesday’s attack was only the culmination of a presidency that has often dealt with misinformation. Even after Trump’s surprising election victory in the 2016 electoral college, for example, he and his supporters spread clearly false information about “millions” of fraudulent votes.
The issue goes well beyond Trump, however. A toxic ecosystem of misinformation has emerged in the past decade that is well suited to augmenting lies and conspiracies. Social media has played a huge role with algorithms that prioritize engagement to ensure the most extreme and inflammatory content gets to the top of people’s feeds. According to Facebook’s own research, “64% of all extremist group joins can be traced back to our recommendation tools”.
The question is what can be done about it? Social media companies have taken some steps in their credit. For example, Facebook announced that Trump’s account would be suspended indefinitely. But these efforts are just the beginning – and should be used with caution. After all, cracking down on the producers of misinformation – be it politicians like Trump, foreign hackers or nefarious posters – can only go so far. You will always find channels to “flood the Zone,” as Steven Bannon put it.
In addition, efforts to completely eradicate the producers of misinformation are running against important values such as freedom of expression and an open competition for ideas. Efforts to close these channels can also make extremists feel resentful. It gives them another complaint to collect.
So what is needed is a stronger focus on the consumer. If we can dampen the demand for lies and conspiracy theories, supply will dry up on its own.
This requires an educational revolution that emphasizes media literacy practices such as analyzing sources, seeking opposing views, and avoiding emotional thinking. Research by my organization shows that young people do not acquire these skills in school. One of our studies found that over a third of middle school students in the US say they “rarely” or “never” learn to judge the reliability of sources.
Adults also need more support with media literacy and critical thinking, and studies show that only around a third of people plan where to find information. In short, the country needs to reaffirm at every level the principles of inquiry and reasoning on which our political system is based.
Education alone will not be enough in this regard. Politicians and other leaders must also take a step forward and rebuild civic engagement. Conspiracy theories and half-truths are often the product of alienation and a feeling of powerlessness. Their increasing prevalence reflects the loss of part of our bourgeois culture. They fill an emotional and even a spiritual void in the lives of those who join them.
But here too, an in-depth debate will take center stage. When Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about early American democracy, he marveled at the spirit of public debate, the fact that average Americans valued their own contribution to the democratic debate and were eager to voice and debate their ideas. Americans have progressively lost that spirit and are fragmented into alienated and mutually suspicious bubbles in which bad and even delusional ideas can fester.
Being informed is a necessary part of discussing and debating public issues with our fellow citizens. It’s one of our democratic duties – and privileges. To combat conspiracy theories and misinformation, America needs to relearn why information is important: We don’t need information to entertain, distract, or feel better, but rather to help us govern ourselves.
Helen Lee Bouygues is president of the Paris-based Reboot Foundation, an organization dedicated to promoting critical thinking and promoting richer, more reflective thinking in schools, homes and businesses.