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Tuesday
Dec182018

How to Combat Russian (and Others') Misinformation

Russian meddling with the information consumed by many Americans on social media has raised issues about how to combat misinformation and deliberate  attempts to disrupt our social system by planting divisive information on the internet. At the same time, the mainstream media is concerned about so-called “fake news” and “alternative facts,” promulgated by the president, by political partisans, by corporate lobbyists, or by the media themselves. The picture that emerges from all of the revelations about this type of meddling, either from Russia or domestically, is of a public that is swayed in different directions by manipulative entities with nefarious intentions. The question becomes how to protect ourselves from this threat.

Besides the Russians themselves—or the New York Times or CNN if one agrees with the president—the culprits in spreading misleading or untrue information and the entity on which the burden of correcting the problem falls are the social media outlets such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. Many politicians and political commentators have called for increased government surveillance and regulation of the content of these social media outlets, including stepped-up methods of identifying untrue news posts.

Social media began as a way of connecting friends via the internet. It has become a major communication channel for information about the world and the society, and as a source of news. A recent Pew Research survey found that 68% of Americans get at least some of their news from social media.

Censoring news and deciding what news is truthful and what is not is a difficult task in a nation that guarantees free speech and freedom of the press. Deciding what is misleading, even if it is true, is an even harder task. Choosing to ban posts on the basis of the country of origin (e.g. Russia) runs counter to the worldwide web philosophy and purpose, and resembles something an authoritarian county might do, not one that guarantees freedom of expression. There is wide room for disagreement on what is true and what is not as well as what is misleading and what is not—just ask CNN and FOX News viewers about each other’s favorite news outlet. The president thinks Saturday Night Live should be investigated for what he calls its “one-sided coverage.”

As I said, censoring news and informational posts is a very tricky business, especially if done by the government, but also if done by private media sources we all rely on. The latter, however, do not fall under our laws guaranteeing free speech, although many people expect them to honor that concept in what they allow to be posted.

It’s important to remember that misinformation and outright lies as well as all other methods of manipulation of attitudes and belief  are most successful when the person being manipulated is deficient in his or her own knowledge base. A maximum amount of freedom of expression is healthy in the context of a well-informed public, who can weigh information against what they already know to be true. In this regard Americans appear to be poorly informed easy prey (to be honest, this is also true in many other countries). 

Here are a few of the results of reputable surveys on what Americans know or don’t know about their world:

Science

81%  of Americans can’t identify a single living scientist.

48% believe evolution is true.

39% know what the big bang is.

20% believe the sun revolves around the earth.

History:

23% of Americans don’t know from which country the U.S. achieved independence.

41% don’t know what Auschitz is (66% of millennials)

22% of millennials haven’t heard of the Holocaust or don’t know what it was.

86% of Amercans can’t identify where Iraq is and 82% don’t know where Afghanistan is.

Politics and the Constitution:

70% of Americans don’t know that the constitution contains the Bill of Rights

55% believe that Christianity was written into the Constitution. 

52% can’t name a single Supreme Court justice (57% under age 35)

 

37% of Americans can’t name a single first amendment right

33% of Americans can’t name a single branch of the government

26% can name all three branches of government (down 12% since 2011)

53% believe that undocumented aliens have no rights under the U.S. constitution

18% believe that Muslims don’t have the same rights as other U.S. citizens

15% believe that atheists don’t have the same rights as other U.S. citizens

38% of American-born U.S. citizens fail the citizenship examination given to new citizens.

 

Americans are woefully lacking in knowledge about world history, U.S. history, geography, and their own political system, including the constitution and the government. This makes them easy prey for misinformation, since they don’t possess correct information in the first place. Sometimes this lack of information can make people view the exercise of guaranteed freedoms as a threat to our democracy and system of government. Younger Americans are less knowledgeable  than older Americans, by and large. This should be troubling for those who are looking to our younger generation to make better decisions about issues such as climate change, tolerance, and equal rights than the older generation.

It is not clear why Americans are as uninformed as they are, but the tendency to obtain information from social media probably adds to this, and certainly a poorly functioning educational system does also. This also means that efforts by the government to regulate information will not be scrutinized in as informed a way as it should be by citizens who lack basic knowledge about our first amendment rights in the first place. Effort to silence divergent opinions may be applauded by those who are unaware that expression of such opinions is a basic right guaranteed by our constitution. Again, this is especially troubling if those who are least informed are our younger citizens whose energy on behalf of their political interests is most easily aroused.

In addition to our country’s efforts to identify foreign sources of information manipulation designed to affect our society’s well-being, I would urge that we focus on educating our citizens to allow them to assess information for themselves and decide what sounds true or makes sense from a position of a sound knowledge base.

 

 

 

Reader Comments (1)

Having been in the field of education for over 45 years, having had a mother who taught high school, having a husband who taught at the university level, and having had two children go through the public-school system, I can say with some authority that there are two principal causes for the downfall of the U.S. public-school education, a system that used to be the envy of other nations. The first was the Brown vs. Board of Education decision; it incited bigots, who constituted a large majority of the population, to say, "If 'they' can have it, let's make it worthless," and many of them began shoving their children into private schools, most of them religious. They also began to fight school desegregation in all kinds of ways, from outright harassment of black children to emptying the cities of white families so as to avoid cross-district bussing. The second cause is more insidious: education, like healthcare, "public" utilities, and public transportation, began to be run as a for-profit enterprise, with more and more "managers" in the guise of presidents, deans, deanlets, VPs, principals, vice-principals, etc., and board of education began to be infiltrated by the right wing that demanded "fiscal responsibility" when the issue was educating the nation's future. At the college and university level, public universities were defunded by right-wing state legislatures, so they began competing for students and accepting any warm body that brought in tuition money from home or from Pell grants, thereby defrauding the students, many of whom were not prepared by K-12 for successful academic work, and lowering the quality of education for the students capable of doing well.

When the driving force of education is clientele satisfaction (including keeping "undesirables" out) and bean counting, we end up with an uneducated populace unable to withstand the crudest, let alone the more sophisticated, propaganda.

December 18, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterAnca Vlasopolos

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