Well-informed citizenry crucial for healthy democracy

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If you haven’t heard about “Pizzagate” let me give you a very brief rundown: a man fired off gunshots at Comet Ping Pong, a pizza joint in Washington, D.C. Why? Because he read a fake news article that said the pizzeria was running a child-trafficking ring led by Hillary Clinton and her campaign operatives. Fortunately, nobody was harmed. This whole episode is outrageously stupid. I think it’s fair to assume that this guy “investigating” these bogus “Pizzagate” claims wasn’t a fan of thinking, in general, and critical thinking, in particular.

The scourge of fake news and the spread of misinformation has been going on for awhile now. While Facebook and Google have said they’ll do what they can to curtail the bogus stories, they can only do so much. Even after “Pizzagate” was debunked, people online continued to pursue the theory. Conspiracy theorists are a notoriously tenacious bunch and attempts to disprove the theories are seen as “part of the conspiracy.” But, since we’re living in this “post-truth” or “post-fact” climate, dealing with misinformation is an exasperating, yet important endeavor.

I know I’ve harped on this before, but combating misinformation really does come down to how much critical thinking people want to do in their day-to-day lives. Reading or listening to a wide variety of credible news sources would be a good start to combating this onslaught of corrosive misinformation. Perhaps, this also involves asking your uncle or cousin or friend to examine a little more deeply why they believe the things they believe. Maybe it involves asking somebody to provide a credible source for a specific statistic they cite in some argument instead of letting it go unchallenged.

It helps, too, when journalists probe dubious claims. Recently, President-elect Trump tweeted that millions of people illegally voted for Clinton without providing a shred of proof. When someone from the Trump camp is questioned by journalists on this lack of evidence, a typical response is “nobody really knows,” or “you can’t prove that it’s not happening.” That’s not how this works. I can’t say “dragons exist” and then when questioned, flip it on you by saying, “can you prove that they don’t exist?” The burden of proof is on the one making the claim. If you have no proof, don’t make the claim.

Maybe journalists need to go even further and call a spade a spade. Regarding the voter fraud comments, maybe the headline there should be something like “President-Elect Trump Makes Unsubstantiated Claim About People Voting Illegally.” Wouldn’t that be more accurate?

Though it may be difficult to stop, another way to mitigate the problem of fake news and the spread of misinformation would be to have Trump unequivocally condemn it for the sake of the country. I know this may seem naive (and even stupid of me) to expect considering Trump has been one of the biggest purveyors of misinformation and false claims around. Nevertheless, Trump has a lot of influence with his followers and if he were to do an about-face and retract some of his more outlandish claims, perhaps some of them would listen and think before sharing bunk news stories.

But by saying and doing nothing – and even actively disseminating misinformation – President-elect Trump is contributing to the dumbing down of society and, quite frankly, the erosion of democracy. A well-informed citizenry is crucial for a healthy democracy to function. When people are so grossly misinformed, debacles like “Pizzagate” are the pathetic outcome.