We have just concluded what was one of the most tumultuous and divisive decades in our nation's history. I've been thinking about what made this period so difficult. Unexpected and, in some cases, uncontrollable events certainly played a role. The 2000 Presidential election, the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, and the housing bubble and the resulting financial crisis come to mind. But every decade has its tragedies, controversies, and conflicts, and they don't devolve into the current zeitgeist of mistrust, anger, and polarization that exists today. There was something more elemental than simply a series of unfortunate events that lead us to this uncomfortable place in America's national storyline.
As I did my best impression of Sherlock Holmes looking for clues to this mystery, I kept returning to one word: information. I concluded that it was the not the newsworthy events of the last ten years that produced such a seismic shift in the tone of our national conversation. Rather, the information that we garnered from them and how that information shaped our beliefs and reactions to those events was the real culprit. And not just information, but lack of information, incomplete information, ambiguous information, conflicting information, misinformation, disinformation, and just plain lies that really struck at the heart of this new information age.
The problem is that there is no longer any source of objective and trusted information. In previous generations, Americans could turn to reliable sources of information, for example, reportage from newspapers, television, and radio news departments. Who wouldn't trust Edward R. Murrow or Walter Cronkite to tell us what was really happening in our world. These days, you can't find "fair and balanced" news anywhere.
Too much information these days is tainted with an agenda, whether political, religious, economic, or some other. The influence of this information is so powerful that some people are believing and supporting policies that are not in their best interests.
There are many causes of inaccurate information, some are inadvertent and just part of being human. We are vulnerable to cognitive biases that shape how we interpret information, for example, the Bandwagon effect in which we believe things because many other people do. Or the Confirmation bias where we look for information that confirms what we already believe. Or the Base Rate Fallacy in which we favor our own immediate experiences over research findings. Or cognitive dissonance where we tend to discredit information that is inconsistent with our own ideologies.
Other causes of inaccurate information are more pernicious. This disinformation serves a specific purpose, usually to justify or forward a self-serving set of interests or goals. Political or religious ideologies, corporate strategies, and fascist governmental control are the most conspicuous examples of this type of manipulated information. Though typically in the guise of "This is fact." or "This is in your best interests" messages, its true benefactors are those who convey the disinformation. This transmission of disinformation usually occurs in several ways. It is portrayed as truth, yet grounded less in fact and more in emotional hot buttons. It comes from on-message sources who are well respected by the targeted audience. These spokespersons not only ignore opposing viewpoints or data, but also demonize those with whom they disagree, making it less likely that their audience will ever hear other perspectives. The result is an audience who believes fervently in the message and is highly resistant to persuasion to the contrary, regardless of the facts of the matter.
Let's be realistic, though, information has always been misinterpreted and misused to further self-serving goals. Yet our national discourse remained mostly civil and cooperation between those of opposing viewpoints was still evident. So what has changed? It's no accident that this new age of misinformation coincides with the new age of information technology and the emergence of the Internet and new media as potent forces in our society. In the past, there were only a few tightly controlled conduits (i.e., television, radio, print media) through which people could express their views or acquire information. Today, anyone with an Internet connection can not only receive an unending and seemingly infinite flow of information (however erroneous it may be), but also has the ability to create their own conduit with which to convey information regardless of its veracity or value.
The explosion of web sites, bloggers, Facebook, Twitter, and other new media has provided fertile ground for individuals and groups of every ilk and along the entire spectrum of legitimacy to provide information to a wide and diverse audience. The upside is that there is now more opportunity than ever for people to become well informed about all sides of issues. The downside, and more apparent scenario, is that those with extreme or self-serving agendas who, in the past wouldn't have registered on the national radar, now have the ability to influence others to a far greater degree than they deserve.
This post is obviously not directed toward that audience. The reality is that, for these extremists, when ideology comes face to face with the facts, facts are the victim. You need look no further than the daily news to watch or read about people who have a profound disconnect between fact and belief.
This post is directed toward everyone else, those who, whether a Republican or Democrat, Christian, Jew, Muslim, or atheist, environmentalist or industrialist, socialist or capitalist, are reasonable people who believe that truth should trump ideology, who are interested in separating fact from fiction, and want to know both sides of an issue before forming thoughtful and well-supported opinions. Just look at the health-care legislation. Decent people can disagree about what is the best health care system for America, but that determination should be based on facts, such as how many people will be covered and what will the costs be, not on ideology or prostituting to special interests.
Here is my proposal to return fact-based reality to our national dialogue (note: please don't miss my ironic tone): The federal government should create a Department of Information whose responsibility it is to determine the facts behind any decision that confronts our country. I know what you're thinking: This sounds like something that belongs in a totalitarian regime. But the reality is that someone has to decide on what is factual and what is not. So who can we trust to give us the most accurate information available? Big Business? Traditional media? The blogosphere? I certainly wouldn't trust any of them.
Though our government is far from perfect, it does exist, at least in theory, to serve the best interests of the American people. That's more than can be said for any other influences in our society; everyone else has a self-serving agenda. And our government already decides what is factual in many areas, whether the Office of Management and Budget deciding how much a proposed legislation will cost, the Federal Reserve describing the state of our economy, or even the decisions handed down by Supreme Court (though, interestingly, they are called opinions not facts). I know, budget estimates are often wrong, the Fed has made glaring economic-policy mistakes, and the Supreme Court can make some lousy decisions, but those mistakes may be more a reflection of the complexities of life and honest disagreement on ambiguous issues than of intentional misinformation.
Here's the next part of my proposal. Anytime there is a factual dispute, the Department of Information would render a decision on what the facts are. Those parties who come out on the short end of those decisions would not be allowed to use their "facts" any longer (just like having potentially dangerous drugs or products taken off the shelf). If they do, there would be fines levied to punish the transgressors. This system would not only make clear what the facts are and empower those who want the facts to be known, but it would also discredit the lunatic fringe and reduce the influence of their views on the majority of people.
Uh oh, you may be thinking, now I'm trampling on our First Amendment rights. But we don't actually have unfettered free speech. As Oliver Wendell Holmes so famously quoted (and was so often misquoted) in Schenck vs. United States in 1919, "The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic" (italics added). Well, that's what people with agendas do; politicians, any groups that begin with "Big," television and radio talking heads and, of course, the lunatic fringe falsely yell fire in the theater of American life and it is causing a panic in our country.
Okay, so maybe a federal Department of Information isn't going to fly. But the real purpose of my post is to emphasize how important it is for us to embrace accurate information to not only help us make decisions that are in our own and our country's best interests, but also to use it as a cudgel against those who wish to distort or ignore the facts and impose their extreme ideologies on others.