Whichever definition you prefer for democracy, at the base of it are the people and the vote. In his 1956 book A Preface to The Democratic Theory, political scientist Robert Dahl provided a handy and widely cited 8-point list of conditions to measure majority rule, which, unlike pregnancy or your love or hatred for cilantro, has varying levels of strength and weakness. After establishing voting in the first four conditions, Dahl's 5th condition is that “all individuals possess identical information about the alternatives.”
This might seem kind of obvious until you pause to think about news information and the past year in politics (and subsequently throw your hands in the air in exasperation.) Identical information for everyone despite wide differences in education and access? And how about truthful, fact-based information? The very term, post-truth is one of Oxford Dictionaries' 2016 words of the year for its spikes in usage around both the Brexit vote in the U.K. and the presidential election in the U.S. This presents a profound challenge for our democracies, yet it is not a new one.
Writers love to use the expression of “drinking from a fire hose” which aptly describes today's media environment with infinite choices and overwhelming amounts of information. Much of it is nothing more than mere click-bait, more entertainment than information, put together by someone trying to make a buck. There's also a lot of propaganda—let's definite it as the deliberate attempt to manipulate perceptions in order to achieve a desired response—by interested parties.
A great example of both Brexit and U.S presidential campaign propaganda was distributed by the Patriot News Agency run by James Dowson, a British far-right activist and Vladimir Putin fanboy. Endingthefed.com has also been a constant source of fake news and lets not forget Trump's right hand man, Steve Bannon, who is a well-known master of the dark arts. Not only has he served as executive chairman of the alt-right Breitbart news, he is also the founder of GAI, a right wing investigative news agency that feeds kernels of truth to mainstream media in hopes of developing negative narratives about their opponents, such as Hillary Clinton. While these folks may be quite innovative in terms of developing, distributing and littering our Twitter and Facebook feeds with this content, attempts to manipulate how we perceive the political world isn't all that new or shocking.
We get nostalgic about news anchors like Walter Cronkite, and long for the days when there was a more generally accepted “truth” in the news. While it may be true that there was a more generally accepted truth, there was also a lot less choice, leaving consumers at the mercy of one of three major TV networks. As far back as 1950, Newt Minow famously admonished TV as a “vast wasteland” in his 1950 speech to the U.S. National Association of Broadcasters. The idea was that these private businesses were able to broadcast via public airwaves and therefore had a responsibility to inform citizens but his well-intentioned speech didn't change much. While there is good work to be found on TV news, but we have to be realistic about their objectives, which is maximizing audience to maximize profits. We, as consumers play a part in that vicious cycle.
Though we put print news on more of a pedestal, newspapers were originally printed by political parties. Therefore, so-called walled-garden was really alive and well in the 19th century and the idea of objective news didn't come along until it was smart business model: news agencies wanted to be able to sell their stories to all newspapers regardless of their political bent.
So while Republicans in the U.S. started crying foul on a so-called “liberal media” in the aftermath of the televised Vietnam War, that certainly wasn't the start of any real departure from some sort of formerly unbiassed news. Yet over the years, they found liberal media bias to be a popular rallying cry for their base, despite the lack of documentation to prove it. Fox News rose out of that, followed by online media such as Breitbart Media and the Drudge Report as places where conservatives could find “fair and balanced” news.
News bias and propaganda are old news and yet, citizens do need and deserve to be truthfully informed. 2016 has been a disturbing year for those who appreciate the liberal word order and the role of international institutions. One looks at Brexit, the vote against the peace agreement in Colombia and the U.S. election and wonders if voters have lost sight altogether of what's in their own best interest. If voters are so misinformed that they vote recklessly, then what of democracy? Of course, this recklessness is in the eye of the beholder and many beholders just don't care about the truth.
What should we do about this post-truth world we're living in? Given that it's altogether unrealistic to expect the governments or elected officials to be totally transparent, we are left with two choices: blame the media or blame the people.
Throwing the blame at the media is choosing a very popular target for citizen anger. This entails looking for ways to regulate the media and make them more truthful and some worthy efforts are underway. 2016 was marked by furious fact checking, which played an important role in debates, interviews and rallies. It's cumbersome to include in a broadcast, but some ran it on the chyron and some journalists were better than others and on-the-spot fact checking, a difficult task at best, just ask Matt Lauer.
There have also been media watch dog groups such as the left-leaning Media Matters and the conservative Media Research Center, that have called out the news organizations on uneven and shoddy coverage. The thing is, there are so many companies and organizations putting out news, each with their own business model, values and objectives, it's impossible to keep up and these watch dog groups tend to train their ire on the ones that draw the biggest audiences. Many in the so-called mainstream media have noted that this whole post-truth trend provides them with a responsibility and also a great opportunity to prove themselves trustworthy news brands in the face of so many unknown sources. But this is quite the uphill battle when so many citizens just don't trust mass media—a Gallup poll from September 2016 showed just 32% of Americans have a great deal or fair amount of trust in them.
Much of the so-called fake news found it audience through Facebook, which has vowed to take action, but this is where it gets tricky because any form of censorship is equally damaging to democracy, which depends upon free speech. This is the big paradox: while our democracies depend on thorough and truthful information, our democracies also depend on free speech, which isn't always so.
On the other hand, we can ask citizens to become better consumers of media but this is profoundly problematic because, as many psychologists have shown that people aren't rationally-thinking truth seekers. You don't have to look much further than Donald Trump's twitter feed (Hillary Clinton's popular vote lead is because of people who voted illegally) or the Brexit leave campaign bus with its 350 million figure that turned out to be complete baloney.
Jonathon Haidt explains how we make decisions, especially more ones, in his book, The Righteous Mind, using a metaphor of a small rider sitting atop an elephant, with the rider being our rational thinking and the elephant our intuitive sense. The elephant will go where it wants to go and what the rider does is come up with the rationalization afterwards. In other words, we are not the rational creatures we like to think we are.
This has a profound effect on how we consume media because we lead with our intuition and are ready to believe stories that fit into our established belief systems. For those of us interested in truth, knowing this and being even more skeptical of information that we like is one way to combat it.
A popular—but false—meme on Facebook throughout the election showed a picture of Trump with the quote “If I were to run, I'd run as a Republican. They're the dumbest group of voters in the country. They believe anything on Fox News. I could lie and they'd still eat it up. I bet my numbers would be terrific.” At first glance, it is a very appealing quote to anyone on the left, yet I took a few minutes to research it and then spent a lot of time telling folks it was false every time it popped up on my feed. While there seems to be a larger tendency towards fake news on the right, the left can also fall into that trap.
It may just be a post-truth world and even though the term is new, the problem isn't and it poses a fundamental threat to democracy. If we are going to cherish citizen participation, then they need to be informed. Chipping away at free speech—even if it is fake—while right-wing anti-establishment populist movements rail against the establishment only serves to further weaken democracy. Asking folks to become more conscientious consumers of news, while not especially tenable, is the only answer that can strengthen it.
The Spanish-language version of this article was originally published in EsGlobal.