Most of my friends are keen newshounds, at least in their areas of interest, and keep up on general trends through critical reading. Few of them complain that they don’t know what to believe. As one might suspect, they test for verification and are comfortable taking things as provisionally true based on the information available. They’re not easily misled by remote possibilities and elaborate conspiracies.
Others of my acquaintance are certain about what they believe because they rely on sources feeding their ideological prejudices. They label all other sources as fake. When they claim to have done their research, it turns out never to have left the echo chamber of likeminded voices. Once having committed to something as true, it’s nearly impossible to convince them otherwise, no matter the evidence. Some portion of the public has always been that way, but they had only a few friends and buddies at the local pub with whom to share their beliefs. Now they have internet access to an entire cosmos of others to share with and be reinforced by. The idea that something might be provisionally true is anathema.
The result is a cacophony of voices causing a great many to say they just don’t know what to believe. What can be verified looks a lot like what is mere allegation, especially if the allegations appeal to present fears and anxieties. I suspect that when forced to make a decision, as at the ballot box, they go with whatever recent message most effectively played on their anxieties with promises that all would be resolved for the better if so and so gets elected.
The first group of friends, well informed critical thinkers, are not as easily swayed by such tactics, but they can come off as arrogant elitists, which does them no good in the realm of public opinion. The second group of acquaintances, convinced of the rightness of their prejudices, are unpersuaded by whatever the first group says, just out of stubborn pride if nothing else. Their minds are made up no matter what the evidence says. What about the third group?
One would like to believe that better public education of the public, especially about history and civics, would make a difference, but I have my doubts. Consider that anti-democratic rumor mongers such as Cruz, Gaetz, and others have educational pedigrees from prestigious schools. Education alone confers neither wisdom nor morality. Yet better public education is a preferable path than the one we are on, and could make a difference in the macro sense. Is it possible? I have my doubts.
It would require the most popular forms of public media to be diligent in offering verifiable information, and labeling opinion as opinion. Without wide spread adherence to voluntary standards, regulations might be necessary, and that runs into First Amendment issues.
We’ve always made a place for crackpot opinions to be expressed. More than toleration, they’ve been a source of entertainment. The steps of the public library and park corners have been occupied for centuries by speakers bellowing the weirdest of fantasies, conspiracies and end of the world prophecies. Everyone within a few hundred feet could hear them. Now they have the internet and can bellow out to millions world wide. The First Amendment protected them as long as they didn’t create a serious public nuisance. Can it tolerate them on the Internet? If there is a boundary, where is it? I don’t think there will be an answer in my lifetime.
What is the alternative? I think it has to be an overwhelming surge of responsible media, a tsunami of verifiable news and opinion washing over every form of social media. And it has to be clever at discerning public anxieties, addressing them directly with information that injects them with reality and hope. Anxieties are driven by fear of the unknown. When the unknown is made less unknown, even if it’s bad news, there is less to be anxious about. There is a psychological principle that when every other path is cut off, even the wishy-washy will make commitments they really believe in. When responsible media illuminates dead-end alleys of falsehood, they move the herd toward verifiable, if provisional, truth. The weakness of the metaphor is that the responsible end is always one where open debate and negotiation for workable decisions takes place. It’s a messy arena that lacks the artificial certainty authoritarian autocracy promises.
To preserve our democracy, that’s where we need to go. There is no other place.