“A nation of sheep will beget a government of wolves.” --Edward R. Murrow
At the core of our democracy, there is a powerful group. This group is, and always has been, the most important piece in our democracy-machine. The group--We, The People. We, The People is You, Me, the person at work you don’t like, the guy with the funny accent, the lady with the Trump/Pence bumper sticker, etc. The power of this group is measured—in part—by understanding how information is obtained, and the actions that are taken after that information is received. Now, I’m not going to get into the corruption of our government. What I am going to talk about is the pathetic nature of how We, The People have had our ignorance exploited.
“So, what is this ‘obtaining information’ stuff you’re talking about?”
Let’s take a trip back to the 19th Century: Before television, before radio, and obviously before social media, how did we know—well—anything? People with access to the ‘technology’ of the day—newspapers and other printed media—would be subject to knowing, as Lawrence Lessig describes, “many sources which would filter out knowledge to the public that was fragmented and diverse.” Before fact checking was part of the vocabulary, each publication outlet of the 19th Century wanted to put out stories that would put papers in the hands of the public, but this information was empty and thin. Sure, it provided common knowledge to the people, but it didn’t give them the opportunity to understand WHY this information is relevant to them nor HOW to implement the information received towards improving their understanding. In 1800s America, there was a major disconnect between the people and the policy makers, and in turn, the actual policies that were being put in effect. If members of the general public were to approach their representatives and ask if they knew what their constituents cared about, I’m sure they would be met with inextinguishable laughter. This “common knowledge” that was reported was good enough for the general public.
Fast-forwarding to the mid-20th Century, I went to a trusted source to gain knowledge of the process of information sharing—my dad. He told me how when he was a kid in the late 1940s and 1950s, broadcast television captivated everyone in America and millions of families tuned in to listen to one anchor tell them the news of the day. The same information being sent in simultaneity to homes and families across America began a new wave of receiving information. My father told me that people would gather around the TV and watch Edward R. Murrow on CBS (and later Walter Cronkite) tell everyone what was happening. Growing up in the 1940s and 1950s, my dad remembers that the news was given in a direct manner for all to understand, and in a politically neutral tone so to build a level of trust with the American people. There weren’t many options to receive the news through broadcast in those days, so building a trusted network is what made the news so attractive. You knew exactly what you were getting, and what you were getting was unvarnished journalism.
As our technology evolved, three major networks turned into hundreds of channels on television, countless publications, and an infinite number of web-based information dumps where one can get their ‘news’. In the 21st century, a danger in this age of mass information is that many of these vats of online information have no editors. There is little-to-no fact checking. There is a lack of trust in the networks we’ve built for ourselves. As emerges technologies makes our world smaller, our ignorance becomes greater. We aren’t necessarily stupid, but we have become pathetically ignorant to the point where we can no longer, with confidence, identify what we are seeing or hearing is true. In a way, we have reverted back to the fragmented and diverse methods of the 19th Century information sharing techniques.
“The Government you fight for is the Government you get.”
The following is a paraphrased statement made by Neil DeGrasse Tyson: I don’t care about politicians. I care about who voted for them. Politicians are making policies that the people elected them to make. You have to understand the consequences of decisions and the absence of decisions. Understand what the basis of the information being provided is. There are major consequences in not understanding what platforms politicians run on. I will not beat a politician over the head if they are duly elected by the democratic process. We can’t have a functioning democracy with an uninformed electorate. Our ignorance is being exploited by those who wield policy and legislative power. Laws apply to everyone, and something else that applies to everyone is objective truth. If you are going to rise to power and have power over the ways we live in a civilized society and bring mistruths to the foreground—that is essentially the beginning of the end of an informed democracy.
“How do we move forward?”
It is up to us—We, The People—to be able to call bullshit when we see it, when we read it, and when we hear it. Here are my options for you to combat the misinformation en masse we are experiencing:
If you don’t know something, it is OK to plead ignorance. Saying “I don’t know” is far more ethical than spreading a mistruth.
Conduct research through reliable/reviewed/edited sources. Do that research with others to help spread proper information that is based on objective reasoning.
When information you receive doesn’t make sense challenge those who make the claim.
Be curious. Be understanding. Be open.
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