Democracy Dies in Darkness
With universal information platforms, we all become exposed (literally) to the dangers of misinformation. A recent article in Health News Daily addressed some public-health threats associated with the vulnerability of contemporary media:
People who believed conspiracy theories in March were less likely to be wearing face masks in July, versus non-believers. And their intentions to refuse any future COVID vaccine intensified…distrust is extending beyond the usual "hardcore" conspiracy theory crowd, according to [Dan] Romer, who is research director of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center in Philadelphia…But to sway Americans, health authorities need their trust. And that could be a tall order, Romer said -- considering the confusing "mixed messages" that have come from government and the abundant misinformation spread via social media and certain media outlets.
As the “information age” blossomed in the 1990s, there was a great excitement about the impending democratization of data. For centuries museums, universities, and a host of plutocratic organizations owned the storehouses of knowledge.
With the explosion of digitization projects, scholars and students could access an unprecedented trove of primary materials and data sets from around the globe at any time of the day from the comfort of their own homes or a terminal in their local public libraries.
Perhaps the most exciting elements of these new information resources was that in many cases anyone could use them. Access to these intellectual luxuries was no longer the sole domain of members of elite institutions. Even the unaffiliated soon had full membership in the treasury of learning, breaking what John Adams referred to as the “temper of mankind” that had kept knowledge exclusively in the hands of the powerful.
Now that imbalance has been inverted — we all have too much.
It didn’t take long for educators to recognize a new, desperate need for training in “information literacy.” When I was a student researching some arcane subject, I might have been lucky to find five good sources over the course of weeks. Now a Google search may yield a couple of million sources in less than a second, but there still may be only five good ones. Knowing how to find the wheat among all that chaff requires real skill.
Forty years ago, information literacy meant being able to track it down, once you found a source, the probability of it being useful was very high compared to today’s odds, because the choices had been curated: librarians, archivists, publishers, and editors each had a chance to vet what was available. The process was far from infallible, and probably more important material was lost to the sifting process than kept, but there was some justification for our confidence that what we found had applicable meaning.
Some of that same vetting continues out of a hive approach. I am often surprised by the detail and sophistication of many Wikipedia pages, and the scholar version is truly valuable, as are tens of thousands of new-media sources. The challenge today is that these sources cohabitate the internet with countless unlegitimated neighbors, and there is little to differentiate them.
The challenges this places on scholarship are miniscule in comparison to sifting through the comparisons of valid and manipulated news, opinion, and social media.
On college campuses it is remarkable how many of our challenges are tied to social media. Rumors become propagated as fact, individuals post insensitive or hateful messages, and viral campaigns erupt without rhyme or reason. That scourge is all the greater in the broader community.
Much of our contemporary rancor and divisiveness has been bred and cultivated through misinformation. Some of that decline has been the result of a steady onslaught upon the validity of legitimate news sources by those who wish to insert alternate narratives.
The best practices of journalism have depended upon corroborating sources, fact checking, and rigorous editorial oversight. As the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote in the Washington Post, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” The Post’s motto is “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” A free and open democracy depends upon a free, open, and independent press.
Effective citizenship requires being an informed member of society. Voting is a remarkable privilege that deserves to be exercised responsibly. Being a member of a free state is a privilege that also deserves responsible participation.
Our local and national news sources are struggling mightily to shape good public behavior, yet, every day, we see our neighbors flouting the recommendation of the CDC and the federal and state governments to abate the pandemic. When confronted, many of these scofflaws respond with conspiracies they have read on social media or “alternate news sites” that thrive on delegitimizing the bona fide press.
The democratization of information has created great opportunities, but it has also helped to obscure the truth, and in that darkness, our democracy is literally dying — 313,000 and counting.
As we prepare to emerge from this dark year, I hope that we begin to find a way to regain our shared possession of facts and govern ourselves in light of them.
 “Conspiracy Theories are Helping Fuel Rejection of Masks and Vaccines,” Health Daily News, 25 September 2020.
 John Adams: A Dissertation on Canon and Feudal Law, 1765.
 In a column in the Washington Post, 18 January 1983.