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Ignorance Is The Biggest Threat To Our Democracy

Disinformation Is Just An Excuse

By Bonnie Joy SludikoffPublished 2 years ago 8 min read
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Ignorance Is The Biggest Threat To Our Democracy
Photo by History in HD on Unsplash

Full credit to Barack Obama, our 44th US President who took some time to post a long piece online this week on Medium.

I'm not suggesting that Obama's sentiments were incorrect - because I have a lot of nerve, but not the nerve to do that.

But I want to talk about the implication of the title and address something related to these sentiments that I don't see anyone talking about.

In Obama's speech, among other things, he takes a deep dive into some of the dangers of maliciously falsified information and how it can be harmful to us as a nation. The idea of "deep fakes" is particularly frightening to me, and challenges my own concerns…but it's also not something I am concerned about on a daily basis - at least not yet.

On the other side of thinking about false/incorrect/problematic information and how it threatens our country, I think we need to address the real elephant in the room.

Ignorance.

Ignorance feels like such a dirty and divisive word, doesn't it? To call someone ignorant seems mean. But let's be clear that the definition of ignorance is simply having a lack of knowledge on something or being unaware.

Quite honestly, we are all ignorant about more things than we are educated about. Because we are humans and not computers.

As humans living in America (and other free countries) we are regularly faced with significant amounts of what we are intended to regard as "journalism."

If you use Facebook or any other social media platform, you're familiar with scrolling through a newsfeed full of information. But how do you determine which pieces of information are valid?

My mother is 75; She's incredibly smart, but still lacks almost all ability to use any kind of reasonable discernment with the things she consumes. You can say this is a new problem; she's from an older generation and the internet mystifies her. I won't dispute you, but what would be your excuse about TV news? Because she treats that the same way.

Why is that? I don't know. I think part of it might be the way she was raised; The result of being from a different generation. Less of a belief that she has the right and responsibility to make educated choices about what is wrong/right/true.

I remember being a kid and learning to determine facts from opinions.

To date myself, I graduated high school in 2000 and freshman year was my first time having internet access. Around that same time, I had a teacher who would constantly nag our class to use "valid sources."

That's an important note for those new to the internet. I mean, if no one has told you otherwise, what's to help you really understand the difference between quoting a really nice Wordpress site, and an academic journal?

It may seem obvious to most of us, but we've also had the benefit of learning this - of being taught how to manage information and perhaps learning how to be accountable for the validity of our sources by producing term papers and other assignments for our high school and college coursework.

On the other hand… Do we know truly how to get scholarly information or do we know how to get mostly-reliable information?

And on the other end of that spectrum, is it even fair to have this conversation without also addressing the understanding that false information also exists in books?

If you want to understand the spread of incorrect or problematic information, look at what we were all taught about Christopher Columbus -you know, the nice man who stole America from the Native Americans, raped and enslaved them, and became an American Hero with his own day?

I remember a moment sometime several years ago where something really clicked into place for me. It's a piece of information I don't particularly like, but it's been cemented many times over.

How should I say this… How about… Almost no piece if information is 100% infallible.

Full disclosure, I'm on the cynical side for a few reasons. Here's one personal experience I had that keeps me grounded in this and has shifted the way I think about information.

I've spent years maneuvering a debilitating condition about which most doctors seem to be unaware or in denial. As a result of the simple use of topical steroids - basically ointment for mild to moderate skin issues, I have endured major physical distress spanning several years.

But if you go to almost any doctor in America, you can fairly easily get a prescription for a steroid cream. Most doctors will probably hand this off to you casually with little to no instruction. I received this prescription from several different doctors and pharmacies over a 15 year period without one single word of warning or caution.

While there is finally a slow leak of info being released on this subject, topical steroids have been prescribed for at least 5 decades and will continue to reign as a popular low-to-no-risk treatment for eczema.

Topical Steroids are considered safe. And because this information comes from a trusted source, why would anyone believe otherwise? And why would anyone take my word for it? Some unknown freelance-writer with less than 1,500 Medium followers?

Honestly, you can't consider me a "scholarly" source here. Perhaps a good anecdotal source? But should you care about that? If you look at "science" you might not see my story - just the idea that I represent a smaller statistic. What good is one story, even a gut-wrenching one. What good are the 30,000+ stories from the facebook groups I'm in where people have shared their own experiences with TSW?

According to best practices for information and how to prove validity, I won't be able to convince you.

So how do we determine what's what?

Information is complex.

Something may be scientifically sound or factual, but an exception can arise that makes it worth a second look. For instance, the understanding that steroids might not be safe.

Something may have happened as described, but there may be an important detail left out of the story. For instance, millions have heard that Mike Tyson just punched a guy on a plane this week, but we haven't confirmed whether the guy threw a water bottle at him first.

A man might be accused of raping 30 women, but he might walk free. That doesn't mean he is innocent, even if the legal system does not hold him accountable.

A bill might pass, allowing or disallowing something. That does not tell us whether that thing is right or wrong. It only tells us what has been decided for the time being.

Information is complex and nothing is 100% infallible.

When we see information we have the immediate job of understanding what we're being told and deciding if it's truthful.

We also might think about whether it's valid.

Some people come to that conclusion more easily than others. Many have been trained their whole lives to see a piece of information and consider it gospel. Especially if it comes from a particular source.

There are some who think very little about stepping outside of these bounds- particularly those deeply intrenched in certain religious groups.

But here's where we have gone wrong.

The moment we consider anything infallible, we have failed.

Now that may not sound practical, and perhaps it's not. It's the far end of the conversation - the ideal. So, perhaps for our daily lives we can take a few steps back.

But without at least acknowledging the importance of using logic, education, our gut, and our humanity at the same time, we are falling short of our human rights, and most importantly, our ethical responsibility.

Disinformation is dangerous- especially when it is supplied by people thought of as trustworthy. But at the risk of sounding incredibly cynical, no one should be heralded as 100% trustworthy. Even Snopes, kids!

We rely on Snopes to tell us if something is a scam, but what if Snopes turns out to be wrong?

What would you do if someone wrote an essay on Medium about how the world was ending today? You probably wouldn't be too concerned. You might check to see if the story was tagged as satire, but as long as you googled and did not find similar stories online, you'd feel safe.

What if The Washington Post published that same piece- the world is ending today! To be fair, I think I'd be concerned. I'd again confirm whether other sources were saying the same thing. Then I suppose I'd go into an immediate panic.

And why? Well, to begin with, I'm working with the knowledge that The Washington Post is among the largest and most influential media sites. So, if it were a hoax, someone would be majorly getting fired. And, as far as I am aware, no similar hoax has ever occurred.

What if you heard about the end of the world on the radio? Are you familiar with The War Of The Worlds? It was a novel from the late 1800s that was dramatized in a 1938 radio broadcast. Listeners freaked out, logically assuming that the news broadway they heard on the radio was as scholarly as any other story. It's easy to laugh at them and say you'd know better, but would you?

If it came from the right source, would you know better?

Whether it feels urgent in an end-of-the-world sort of way, or it feels urgent because it challenges our beliefs about human rights and social justice, we are constantly presented with information.

I don't care how scholarly the source is - we must still hold ourselves and each other to a higher standard of how to process this information.

I anxiously await what Barack Obama and those striving for better practices to determine what to do about Deep Fakes and other threats to democracy. I don't dispute these issues or their seriousness.

But while we must fight disinformation, we cannot rely on that fight to help us keep democracy alive. Because we do live in a free country and our first amendment is free speech.

I don't suspect this will be the solution we come to, but can you imagine if the way we ultimately fought dangers of Disinformation was with some sort of crackdown? Sort of a bigger version of Snopes?

Like what if everything deemed "scholarly" had to have a little seal on the top left hand corner - a little White House emblem. Approved by America.

This would make you feel safe, wouldn't it?

What would happen when the people making that seal of approval were wrong? What would happen when the people making that seal of approval seemed to be operating out of a different position than you - when they seemed to be forwarding a point of view you did not see as ethical or humane?

Disinformation is an ongoing threat that, in a lot of ways, is bigger than all of us.

Ignorance is our daily threat and it's bigger than anyone gives it credit for. And what's the way out? Education.

The only way out of misinformation is through. We don't end disinformation by burning the books- we end it by reading them and speaking up about what we find.

The convention of Banning Books has been back in the news recently. Go take a look at the specific books in question and you'll see some trends.

We're not going to agree on everything. Maybe not even most things. But on the ground level of our lives it's not because we're receiving incorrect information, it's because we are not being properly taught how to determine right from wrong and lies from truth.

So while the big kids like the ex-presidents and the government are out fighting this big fight for us, let's do our part.

Educate yourself. Educate your children.

When something does not feel good or moral, ask yourself why.

When someone tries to ban a picture book that teaches children not to judge others, think about why they feel the need to do that and whether they're upholding freedom or perpetuating oppression

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Bonnie Joy Sludikoff

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