Americans can agree that misinformation is bad. Stopping it, however, is not so easily accomplished. There are no simple fixes to the spread of misinformation in a free society in which expression is constitutionally protected.

Further, reckless or ill-advised efforts to bring a stop to misinformation could be more harmful to American democracy than the misinformation itself.

An Associated Press/NORC poll released this fall indicates that nine in ten respondents say misinformation is a serious problem in American society. Three-quarters of Americans say misinformation leads to more extreme political views and polarization. Interestingly, however, only 28 percent report they regularly fact-check the news they consume.

Thus, it appears Americans aren’t all that worried about the information they absorb for themselves. They are mostly worried about misinformation in the minds of fellow citizens.

The effort to control misinformation is rather futile, an effort to manage the unmanageable. Misinformation gets spread routinely in the establishment media, in the social media, by governments both foreign and domestic, by big corporations and kooks on YouTube. Presidents, too, have been famously fact-challenged. Topics of misinformation include the economy, elections, COVID, and civil disturbances from the summer of 2020 and Jan. 6.

For many people, misinformation is just somebody else’s information that they don’t like. Yelling about misinformation stirs up the public sphere and provides a rhetorical club to discredit and even shut down sociopolitical opponents. This “hair on fire” approach to misinformation doesn’t lead to reasoned debate and correction of error, but instead to fear, confusion and anger.

Misinformation is now a supposed threat to democracy itself, in the eyes of some alarmists, and therefore must be eliminated by any means. Of course, if misinformation were a threat to democracy, America would have disintegrated long ago.

While Americans agree that misinformation if harmful to the political culture, nobody has a great idea for how to stop it. Social media companies are surely not up to the task, either logistically or ideologically. Big tech’s efforts to manage misinformation have been unevenly applied and shrouded in the mystery of the basements in Silicon Valley. Establishment media, likewise, have so little credibility these days that news consumers have no confidence in big media as information referees.

The government can’t possibly be in charge of managing the broader information landscape because it is self-interested. Governments that control the flow of information aren’t doing journalism or providing education. They are, by definition, disseminating spin, at best — propaganda at worst.

The nation of Turkey has recently imposed its “solution” to misinformation. Like other authoritarian nations, Turkey has adopted a law to simply imprison anybody who disseminates “false or misleading information.” Of course, there is no clear definition of what constitutes misinformation, leaving enforcement decisions to President Erdogan and his police force. Essentially, political opponents who express disagreement with administration positions are now subject to being jailed.

The United States isn’t yet in Turkey territory, but it is clear that big government wants to intervene in the information marketplace. The Department of Homeland Security announced a Disinformation Governance Board earlier this year. The plan was eventually scrapped because of confusion over its mission and concerns about the board’s reach. Still, based on recent reports, it appears DHS hasn’t abandoned its overall goal of trying to control information on a range of matters, including COVID, the withdrawal from Afghanistan, racial justice, and the war in Ukraine.

A bill just proposed in Congress would create an ombudsman in the Department of Health and Human Services whose job it would be to root out “reproductive and sexual health misinformation.” The application of this bill, if it were to become law, would be quite different depending on the party of the HHS Secretary appointing the ombudsman.

The solution to misinformation rests not in government or big corporations, but with individual citizens.

People need to fend for themselves and do the hard work to sort out reality from nonsense. If misinformation is a threat to democracy, it is only because citizens collectively failed to demand and identify reasoned arguments. A culture that becomes so gullible and easily duped is the threat to democracy, not any particular batch of misinformation.

The nation must have confidence that truth can prevail and that fellow citizens can figure it out, even if some crazy stuff floats into the national dialogue. The 20th Century philosopher, G.K. Chesterton once wrote, “Truth can understand error, but error cannot understand truth.”

Fearing misinformation is a danger in itself.

Jeffrey M. McCall is a media critic and professor of communication at DePauw University. He has worked as a radio news director, a newspaper reporter and as a political media consultant. Follow him on Twitter @Prof_McCall.

You Might Like
Learn more about RevenueStripe...