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Discerning truth and vetting facts is the only way to preserve our democracy

Discerning truth and vetting facts is the only way to preserve our democracy
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It’s time we stop acting like truth still matters. It doesn’t. 

I’m not saying it shouldn’t. It should — especially in an election year — but somehow along the way it stopped mattering and we’re facing potentially severe consequences. 

Take the revelations from Wednesday that the president knew COVID-19 was a significant threat to human life in February and that he purposely downplayed the threat. The information comes directly from the president’s words and he has acknowledged them. Yet this information will change nothing for many of his supporters. Many won’t believe it is true. The truth, the overwhelmingly factual evidence, simply does not matter.

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Revelations like Wednesday’s have played out almost daily during the past few years. They do not move the needle. Many will not accept a version of reality that does not align with their beliefs.

Democracy was constructed with the assumption that people are rational and capable of understanding the world around them. It placed immense faith in each person’s ability to engage with information and adjust their views accordingly. It assumed that when the government stays out of the marketplace of ideas, truth will win and falsity will fail.

At some point, most likely during the rise of social media and networked communication, we stopped building our worlds around facts. We stopped viewing facts and truth as something of value and started to see truth as a system of beliefs. Truth has become a synonym for belief. Where we once argued we know because we have the facts, we now say we know because we believe — facts be damned.

Much of this shift can be attributed to our media environment. When Americans generally had access to only one daily newspaper and three networked television newscasts, we shared a set of facts. From those facts, we could go forward and debate and discuss it with others. The key, however, was we shared agreed-upon facts. We disagreed with what to do about the facts, but we at least respected there were certain truths. 

The networked era has allowed us to choose our facts, as well as our information sources and those we associate with. Saying we choose our facts almost makes it sound like a good thing. It’s not. We’re not choosing facts by evaluating them. We are choosing facts based on which ones we like best or which ones fit the picture of the world we want.

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Democracy can’t function in this environment. You might have noticed; it’s not going well. Democracy requires we evaluate and agree upon facts and work together as a community or as a nation to resolve the problems we face. We can’t resolve problems because we can’t agree on any facts. We’ve lost our handle on the truth.

A virus has killed nearly 200,000 Americans since March and we have no plan. Conspiracy theories have people drinking bleach and organizing protests against wearing masks. Racial injustice is fueling massive protests, but we seem incapable of agreeing upon facts, even while presented with overwhelming evidence regarding the causes of these problems.

Our democracy will not continue if we remain incapable of encountering facts and recognizing them as building blocks for shared truths. There’s always room for people to interpret facts differently, but we must do so based on the merits of the facts, not on whether they align with the identity we have selected.

One of my teachers once defined democracy using the question: “what can we do together?” Democracy is defined by action. The solution to this problem requires exactly that. We have to do something together. 

  • First, we have to take a hard look at our information diets. We need to consume information that is gathered and reported by trained journalists — those who research, report, verify and organize information for audiences. You might say, “but they’re biased.” Maybe. Their information, the facts they gather and present, are still more likely to inform us with truthful information than QAnon or our misguided Uncle Frank’s Facebook page.

  • We must also go to news sources for information. Often information we encounter on social media is not true. It’s intentionally incorrect or misleading or is used to confuse or enflame us.

  • We need a starting point of facts that we can build from. We must make it a habit to read news from organizations that expend resources on reporters and reporting each day. Social media outlets are not good news sources. They’ve proven to be quite the opposite.

  • Finally, we need to devote time and resources to news literacy. The information environment has become exponentially complex in the past two decades. We have to teach ourselves and our children how to evaluate information. We have to learn how to spot a deepfake or spam from bots. We have to learn to be skeptical of pretty much everything we encounter online and to check fact-checking sites about information. We also have to teach our children these same techniques.

All of these options ask us to reassess how we encounter information. They take more work. They require more time. Democracy is worth it. The truth should matter.

Jared Schroeder is an associate professor of journalism at SMU Dallas, where he specializes in First Amendment law. He is the author of “The Press Clause and Digital Technology’s Fourth Wave.”