Resolute Square

Misinformation Part 6: How to Hold on to Facts

Teri Kanefield's concluding piece discusses countering misinformation, diversifying representation, and resisting demagogues. Plus, how we can stay informed, engage, and protect democracy through evidence-based decision-making.
Published:November 9, 2023

*Published with the generous permission of Teri Kanefield. Read all of her writing here.

By Teri Kanefield

Part 6: How to Hold on to Facts

Well, Teri? Can democracy work in America?

I don’t know because I don’t know the answer to these three questions:

  1. Do enough people want democracy with all of its flaws and frustrations? 
  2. Can enough people who want democracy hold on to facts (and reject baseless conspiracies)?
  3. Will enough people who want democracy do the actual work required of citizens in a democracy?

Maintaining a democracy is never easy. Here are just a few of the perils facing any democracy:

  • Democracy always contains the seeds of its own demise. At any time, a majority of voters can elect officials who promise to dismantle democratic institutions.
  • Democracy is in constant danger of tipping toward oligarchy if groups within the democracy give in to the temptation to consolidate power and pass laws that benefit themselves. When one group or individual accumulates too much wealth or power, democracy itself is threatened.
  • Liberal democracies—defined as rule of law governments in which the majority is held in check by constitutional checks and limitations—guarantee individual freedoms, but unscrupulous people can exploit those freedoms for personal gain.
  • Democracy is messy and always uncertain. Spreading around power and creating systems of checks and balances designed to prevent any one person from accumulating too much power naturally leads to gridlock, which can be frustrating and discouraging. Thus the appeal of a demagogue or strongman who promises to cut through the rules and get things done is perennial.

Here’s the thing to remember about democracy in America: We’ve never had a truly representational multicultural and multi-racial democracy. During the past few decades, we have been moving toward one and this has triggered a powerful backlash.

Knowing our history helps put the current era into perspective. The founders started with some pretty good ideas: The idea of a government based on rule of law instead of the whim of a king. The idea of an independent judiciary. A government that represents “we the people.”

The problem was that they left out a lot of people. In fact, they included only white, well-educated, mostly landowning men.

Each time we have taken steps toward a true multi-racial democracy that seeks to include all people, there has been fierce pushback. The Civil War amendments moved us forward. The era of racial segregation moved us backward–but not all the way back to the era of slavery.
The Nineteenth Amendment gave women the right to vote, but they remained largely excluded from most of the professions.

Until the 1950s, all of our institutions (governor’s mansions, Congress, industry, universities, major media) were dominated by white men. Because women were dependent on men for their sustenance, men had no trouble “getting” women. Incel wasn’t a thing. Because women and minorities were kept from the professions, white men faced less competition in the job market.

🎶 Those were the days. 🎶

By the 1950s, the work of activists who had been chipping away at the segregation laws for decades paid off: The US Supreme Court, in 1954, held racial segregation unconstitutional, thus kicking off the modern Civil Rights movement, which in turn sparked the women’s rights movement.

The pushback was immediate and fierce. We are still riding the backlash as a small segment of the population tries desperately to hold on to the America of yesterday when white men held dominance. The intensity of the backlash, alone, would be enough to put democracy in danger.

The push toward democracy is helped now by the fact that, since the 1960s, the electorate has become more diverse, which means that the people who want to return to a bygone era are becoming outnumbered. That’s why Republicans are having a harder time winning national elections.

The problem is that democracy requires adherence to facts, and because of the current information disruption, droplets of facts get lost in a firehose of lies, misunderstandings, speculations, and opinions, creating misinformation-outrage cycles, which in turn activates authoritarian impulses in ordinarily pro-democracy people.

So what do we do?

Now I’ll put on my Ann Landers hat and start dispensing advice.

See this list and get busy. There is a lot of work to do. If you don’t have time to volunteer, make sure you vote in every election at every level, and get the people around you to vote. (Once again, in the next election cycle, I will do volunteer legal voter protection work.)

Nobody (except journalists) needs to be on a 24-hour news cycle. If you watch a lot of cable news and find yourself scrolling continually through news social media sites, get away from the Internet and read books that will offer you perspective. (See my book recommendations at the end.)

Stop giving oxygen to the rage merchants. If their audience dried up, they’d have to find a different way to cash in.

Also, stop giving oxygen to the “reflectors” (“experts” who reflect back and confirm your emotions).

One commenter defended someone I was calling a rage merchant by saying, “He exaggerates but he speaks for a lot of people.”

A person who exaggerates but speaks for a lot of people is one step away from an actual demagogue. (A demagogue is a leader who appeals to emotion instead of rational argument and claims to speak for the “people.”) Beware. One of Plato’s concerns about democracy was that people were gullible enough to fall for demagogues. Stay away from experts who “exaggerate.”

Beware of “experts” who continuously trigger your strong emotions, particularly if you think they are “speaking for you.” Realize that they are manipulating you.

Constant rage and anxiety are counterproductive. (1) Anxiety makes us more prone to believing conspiracy theories, and (2) How can people do the work necessary to strengthen a democracy if their hair is on fire? Even in an actual aircraft emergency, a level head can save lives.

Doomscrolling and leaving furious comments is not political activism. Besides, you’ll never be able to compete with all of the bots.
When you consume news, make sure you distinguish facts from opinion and spin. I am strictly a print-media person because it’s easier for me to distinguish facts from opinions while I am reading.

A reader left an interesting comment on Part 3. I’ll break it into parts and respond.

“I agree with all of this, but I think you are stopping short by not discussing who is turning away from social media. God knows I have spent time immersed in the internet and experienced all the negative impacts you cite. But I’ve really soured on it, and I suspect many others have too.”

People get worn out and drop out, but new people are always cycling in, and the large accounts keep growing. While there is always some attrition, the algorithms boost their accounts so that they experience a steady growth in followers even if others tune out. Also, people who leave social media often leave their accounts intact and don’t go through and “unfollow.” This means that large accounts keep growing, which means they face no accountability if they spread misinformation.

The question is: What happens to the people who leave social media because they’ve soured on all the screeching? Do they become apathetic? Or do they find constructive ways to work to strengthen democracy?

The commenter I quoted earlier went on to say:

“New information technology disrupts, but we eventually adjust. I don’t think it’s going to take 150 years this time around. Maybe Musk’s destruction of Twitter was a good thing, it’s hastening the process.”

Initially, I hoped that something better would arise from the crash of Twitter. So far, it hasn’t. Mastodon is closest, but people are flocking to Threads, which is unlikely to solve the underling problems. (For my thoughts on that, see this post. You will find some overlap with ideas in this series.)

I agree that the adjustment will not take 150 years. Part of the information revolution is that things happen faster now. The long-term solution is to educate the next generation. The short-term solution is to educate people now.

Here are a few good books that illustrate how our laws have developed:

Simple Justice by Richard Kluger purports to be a history of Brown v. Board of Education, the case that desegregated schools in America, but in fact, it is a history of the struggle of Black Americans to achieve equal rights. It also provides an excellent account of how our laws can change. A must-read for anyone interested in racial equality and the legal system.

Make No Law by Anthony Lewis offers an in-depth look at New York Times v. Sullivan and a landmark First Amendment case. After you read it, you will cringe when you hear people asking why the liars are not all put in prison.

I’m putting one of mine on here. A history of women’s rights in America, how they evolved, and how the legal system can be used as a vehicle for change.

I am recommending Heather Cox Richardson’s history books because she makes lots of interesting points including this one: We have had two oligarchies: The era of slavery and the era of robber barons. We are now tipping toward a third. This perspective is vital because people tend to think “OMG nothing like this has ever happened before,” which leads to panic and despair. History offers perspective on our current politics and teaches ways forward.

One of the best books for understanding the worldwide rise in right-wing extremism is Timothy Snyder’s The Road to Unfreedom:

Obviously, there are a lot more, but those should get you started.

Thank you for sticking with me to the end.

And now, I’d better get back to writing the book on the Bill of Rights for ninth graders I have under contract. (For more, click here.) Meanwhile, I promise not to neglect my blog.