How did we end up here?
Virtually every American has asked themselves that question in the last week. Seemingly simple questions like this usually have varying answers. But one undeniable factor is the rise of misinformation.
It’s important to distinguish between misinformation and media bias. Political bias in the media has existed since the dawn of the free press. We know that networks like CNN have a liberal bias while Fox has a conservative one. We know that the New York Times traditionally leans left while the Wall Street Journal leans right.
As humans, we seek news sources that confirm our previously held beliefs and discount information that contradicts those beliefs. Each of us does no matter our political affiliation. There is nothing inherently wrong with favoring certain networks and publications over others if a) we accept we’re likely getting just one version of the story and b) we challenge ourselves to keep an open mind.
But the political climate today is different. What we see now is not simply the result of media bias or policy disagreement. What we see happening in our country is much bigger. So big, in fact, that the United States Capitol was breached last week for the first time in over 200 years by a mob of insurrectionists.
Today, we’re experiencing the impact of years of misinformation, false allegations, and the spread of conspiratorial thinking. This is referred to as post-truth politics, and it is dangerous for several reasons.
First, in the modern era of social media, posts can be shared instantly without a second look. Sources aren’t credited or checked. Photos are easily doctored and viral videos are staged in order to create chaos and confusion.
We either intentionally or unknowingly place ourselves into these virtual echo chambers. We’re left scratching our heads, asking: what’s real?
Internet activist Eli Pariser coined the term “filter bubble” to describe the phenomenon in which our views are consistently validated while contradicting evidence is rejected as part of a larger conspiracy.
Since we’re often protected behind a screen, it feels unimportant or unnecessary to back up claims and opinions with evidence. Facts are no longer required in online debate. Indeed, the absence of fact is what fuels the conspiracy.
The less certain we are of reality, the easier it is for those in power to maintain power. Suspicion grows, anger builds, and, in worst-case scenarios, deadly insurrection attempts against our democracy ensue. Just as we saw on Wednesday, January 6th, 2021.
Fear is a powerful tool of persuasion. If enough of the public is convinced that their rights are at risk (e.g., the right to bear arms, free speech, a fair election), then they won’t just disagree with the opposing side. They will fear the other side. They will hate the other side. If enough of the public is convinced that a globalist, Democrat-run cabal is trying to take over their country, rational logic becomes irrelevant in the face of such a threat.
Politicians know fear and division works in their favor, and technology is a way to expedite the process. This is why we are witnessing rising partisanship, tribalism, and even violence. When we keep those who think and look differently than us at a distance — through the TV or in the comments section — it’s easier for fear, hate, and blame to flourish.
Second, if we reject the notion of fact-based reality, we can trust no one and nothing except for who and what aligns with our worldview. We are then convinced that the journalists, medical experts, scientists, and elected leaders who disagree with us are liars. Or worse, that they’re actively involved in a scheme against us.
As historian and author Timothy Snyder says: “If you want to rip the heart out of a democracy, you go after facts. That’s what modern authoritarians do. Step 1: You lie. All the time. Step 2: You say it’s your opponents and the journalists who lie. Step 3: Everyone looks around and says, ‘What is truth? There is no truth.’ Then resistance is impossible and the game is over.”
Finally, it may be tempting to dismiss those who fall into conspiracy theories like QAnon and misinformation like mass voter fraud as “fringe whackos”. But it’s not that simple.
In many cases, these are our neighbors, family members, colleagues, and Facebook acquaintances. Some are well-educated, well-off individuals who genuinely believe their cause is a patriotic one. They’ve succumbed to the same cognitive fallacies to which every human is susceptible.
For example, the illusory truth effect occurs when repeated exposure to a claim increases our belief it’s true even when it’s false. Later studies have found this effect is maintained even when people know the sources are unreliable or unclear.
Experts are split on whether we will see a rise or decline in the spread of misinformation over the next decade. And although third-party fact-checkers are a viable tool for those who are skeptical or confused, it is likely too late for people already immersed in the online vortex. They will dismiss fact-checking as nothing more than part of the conspiracy.
It seems commenting on social media posts or arguing with family and friends is a futile effort. Real solutions for systemic problems cannot occur only at an individual level. However, this is not to suggest we can’t still make a positive impact.
Staying silent when we witness the spread of lies to “keep the peace” or avoid conflict will only result in our complicity in the lie. We can’t expect to change minds or save the world, but we can certainly hold up the light in a period of such darkness.
One step is understanding the psychology behind this division. Perhaps the most underrated yet powerful solution is basic human compassion. Instead of dismissing those posting myths as willfully ignorant, we might gently guide them to reliable sources (e.g., articles or data) that discredit the false allegations they’re sharing.
We can also encourage people in our circle to consider if what they’re worshipping (e.g., a political leader, an ideology, the need to be on “the right side of history”) is more important than objective truth.
Make no mistake, there will always be people committed to misunderstanding each other and perpetuating division. For example, this article is not meant to encourage empathy of white supremacists and alt-right extremist groups, many of whom were present at the Capitol riot. We can work with confused minds but not with hate-filled hearts. And although not comparable in scope, neither can we ignore the existence of violence on the far left.
The critical issue here is not simply condemning all forms of violence (which we must do). The critical issue is our ability to acknowledge and address the real threat to democracy: misinformation. Not simply politically motivated lies we’ve seen in the past but the wholesale discarding of reality.
Of course, it’s important to look in the mirror and consider how we might be contributing to online chatter. It’s up to us to help break that cycle. Not just whomever we call the other side.
*You’ll notice Trump’s name was intentionally left out of this article. This is because post-truth politics is not just about one man. Too much attention has already been given to him. He is merely an accelerant to an existing fire. A symptom of a problem that has been around long before he arrived on the scene.
It is wise to ensure that no President is immune to the rule of law. But it is foolish to think our country’s problems will disappear along with him.