Last week, veto-proof majorities of the House and Senate rejected President Trump’s demand that they use a defense-spending bill to repeal liability protections for social media companies. The demand arose from Mr. Trump’s frustration with platforms like Twitter for taking more assertive measures against misinformation and disinformation, including his own.
Yet the chorus of angst over misinformation has focused too sharply on the channels supplying it. The bigger problem is the public’s appetite for consuming it.
That demand has been evident recently in the fantastical beliefs of Mr. Trump’s most ardent supporters that not only did he win the presidential election, he also won by a landslide. At a demonstration in Washington, D.C., on Saturday, the crowd was egged on by Alex Jones, the conspiracy theorist who has claimed that the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School did not occur. Michael Flynn, Mr. Trump’s first national security adviser, chose the unlikely setting of the steps of the Supreme Court to tell the protesters that there were “still avenues” for a Trump victory. Yet the court closed off those avenues the night before when it refused even to allow, much less decide, Texas’s last-ditch challenge to voting procedures in other states.
Those who believe such claims, like others across the political spectrum, occupy an ecosystem of unreality that social media enables. But the bigger project is not to prevent lies. It is figuring out how to educate citizens so they are more resistant to them.
Treating misinformation as much as a problem of demand as one of supply will not solve immediate crises. But it may be a more powerful means of addressing the underlying and long-term dynamic of a nation divided not just by ideology but also by perceptions of reality itself.
We often speak of disinformation, propaganda and conspiracy theories going “viral.” If that is the case, platforms are unlikely to be able to treat every case. Viruses replicate and evolve. When Fox News turned out to be insufficiently loyal to Mr. Trump, in his view — by which the president meant that the network would not fully validate his fantasy world — he directed his followers to the friendlier confines of One America News Network and Newsmax. In the three weeks after the election, according to Bloomberg Intelligence, Fox News lost 29 percent of its prime-time viewership. Newsmax nearly tripled its audience. Lies will always find an outlet.
In a free society, the best response to viral misinformation is to fortify our immune systems against it, informationally speaking, by developing citizens who are motivated and able to distinguish truth from fiction. Perhaps more important, these citizens must be able to deal with the nuance in between.
In educational circles, this goes under the name “critical thinking.” The term’s foundations in criticism as careful analysis are noble. But critical thinking as taught today is often more criticism than thought, with criticism amounting to the parlor trick of deconstruction. Holes can always be poked in even the best arguments, but the technique is better at establishing what is fiction than what is true.
It can also become the academic equivalent of the tactic of disinformation that Jonathan Rauch of the Brookings Institution has described: “Unlike ordinary lies and propaganda, which try to make you believe something, disinformation tries to make you disbelieve everything.” Understandably disoriented, many people conclude they might as well believe what they prefer to believe.
That is compelling as an explanation of how disinformation works. But it should not let consumers of lies off the hook. There is a difference between being uncertain of what is true and being uninterested in finding out. It is in that second area — the ability to find our way, however incompletely, amid chaotic and clashing information — that education has failed us most.
Over the last generation, education has focused increasingly on skills and, among those, prioritized the ones that are empirically measurable. By contrast, the venerable tradition of liberal education gets its name from the fact that it is undertaken for its own sake. Often it does yield better workers, but it does so precisely because it does not set out to achieve that goal.
Rather than skills, liberal education emphasizes habits of mind. Habits is the key word. Education is often too literal an enterprise: If we want skilled workers, we instruct students in, well, skills. If we want informed citizens, the literal approach holds, we should just teach the basics of government. But Aristotle observed that most virtues result from cultivating habits, not from telling people what to do.
That is why liberal education seeks to foster intellectual virtues. One is humility, which is the foundation of curiosity. It opens us to ideas that challenge our own. Education that seeks to affirm rather than unsettle students is fundamentally incompatible with inquisitiveness.
Yet citizens content in their comfort zones are uniquely susceptible to disinformation. The irony of the modern media environment is its ability to bring the entire world onto our screens while limiting it to those parts we actively choose to see. Many of those claiming voter fraud are probably insulated from supporters of President-elect Joe Biden, just as many Biden voters have never met anyone they regard as a thoughtful supporter of Mr. Trump. It is a short leap from assuming that no one could possibly vote for the other side to claiming that fewer people actually did.
Another intellectual virtue is the ability to embrace nuance — the fact that most of life occupies a realm of opacity that is neither stark truth or fiction nor obvious right or wrong — without collapsing into nihilism. The rejection of nuance is perhaps the most compelling explanation for the rise of disinformation. In a Manichaean worldview that sees everything as wholly true or entirely false, a patina of plausibility leads to an extreme conclusion. A nuanced view of electoral fraud is that it occurs in isolated instances in every election, but that there is no evidence that it decided this one. A Manichaean view is that some electoral fraud — a Trump ballot in a dumpster, or a get-out-the-vote call to a dead person — proves that the whole election was fraudulent.
But these virtues cannot be taught in the sense of a teacher standing in front of a classroom and conveying information. Edmund Burke characterized the result of liberal education as “moral imagination,” the ability to derive virtues and sympathies from settings and sources whose explicit purpose was not to inculcate them. Plato’s dialogues — based on a method of conversation that resists pat conclusions — require not only active engagement from the reader but also a recognition that answers in life are not always clear. Literature opens us to a range of experiences and relationships that most of us never have the opportunity to encounter personally. Reading Frederick Douglass teaches us more about the moral ambiguities and enduring aspirations of American history than most lesson plans on race in America could.
Liberal education is a generational rather than an immediate solution to the legitimate crisis of misinformation. That is not a reason to reject it. Citizens formed in this tradition of education will still be exposed to and susceptible to disinformation. But they will have the capacity and, equally important, the motivation to confront it. Nor does it excuse media companies from responsibility for transmitting disinformation.
We need to match our focus on the supply of misinformation with a focus on the demand for it. A society of information consumers, content in their padded and custom-built realities, cannot be rescued merely by reforming social media. That is the equivalent of responding to a pandemic of viral disinformation by treating each infection only as it occurs. The goal should be herd immunity, achieved by educating citizens capable of — and interested in — careful thought.
Greg Weiner (@GregWeiner1) is a political scientist at Assumption University, a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of “The Political Constitution: The Case Against Judicial Supremacy.”
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