Finland Leads The Way

I don’t think it is hyperbole to say that misinformation, disinformation and propaganda are at the heart of all of the other problems we face. After all, as any medical practitioner will tell you, prescribing a remedy requires an accurate diagnosis of the problem, and to the extent that our informational Wild West misleads us, such accuracy eludes us.

Worse, the Internet’s multitude of “facts” allows us to choose a “diagnosis” based upon our ideological preferences–we believe what we want to believe. If the problem is lazy poor folks, there’s no point raising taxes on the rich. if the problem is greedy rich folks, higher tax rates will be part of the solution.

If my own diagnosis is correct–if all of our problems are rooted in or exacerbated by our population’s growing inability to separate truth from fiction, wheat from chaff–is there a prescription for that?

Finland’s approach looks promising.

Finland ranked No. 1 of 41 European countries on resilience against misinformation for the fifth time in a row in a survey published in October by the Open Society Institute in Sofia, Bulgaria. Officials say Finland’s success is not just the result of its strong education system, which is one of the best in the world, but also because of a concerted effort to teach students about fake news. Media literacy is part of the national core curriculum starting in preschool.

The article, from the New York Times, began with an example:

A typical lesson that Saara Martikka, a teacher in Hameenlinna, Finland, gives her students goes like this: She presents her eighth graders with news articles. Together, they discuss: What’s the purpose of the article? How and when was it written? What are the author’s central claims?

“Just because it’s a good thing or it’s a nice thing doesn’t mean it’s true or it’s valid,” she said. In a class last month, she showed students three TikTok videos, and they discussed the creators’ motivations and the effect that the videos had on them.

Her goal, like that of teachers around Finland, is to help students learn to identify false information.

The United States was not included in the survey, which was limited to European countries, but there’s plenty of evidence that misinformation and disinformation are widespread in the U.S.  Polls show that Americans’ trust in the news media is at record lows.

A survey by Gallup, published in October, found that just 34 percent of Americans trusted the mass media to report the news fully, accurately and fairly, slightly higher than the lowest number that the organization recorded, in 2016. In Finland, 76 percent of Finns consider print and digital newspapers to be reliable, according to an August survey commissioned by a trade group representing Finnish newspapers that was conducted by IRO Research, a market research company.

If we Americans were inclined to learn from others–not a noticeable national trait, unfortunately–we might take a lesson from the article’s description of what Finland has going for it, including a public school system that ranks among the best in the world, free college, high trust in government, and even higher respect for teachers.

Ah, well…..

In all fairness, there are some Finnish advantages we don’t share: Finnish is spoken only by about 5.4 million people, so disinformation produced by foreign speakers or bots is more  easily identified because of grammatical or syntax errors. In the U.S., not only do we have millions of people for whom English is a second language, we also have tens of millions of native English speakers whose command of grammar, spelling and syntax makes this former English teacher weep. So some clues that are available to Finns aren’t available to us.

And unlike far too many Americans, Finns evidently believe it is the proper goal of the schools to equip students with intellectual tools–not  to indoctrinate them with a particular view of their country or the other people who inhabit it. The article quoted one Finnish teacher who explained that she believed her job was to teach students “methods they can use to distinguish between truth and fiction. I can’t make them think just like me,” she said. “I just have to give them the tools to make up their own opinions.”

I’m sure those misnamed “Moms for Liberty” would disagree. Strenuously.

In the U.S., the goal of too many self-identified “patriotic Americans” isn’t to equip students to think, or to spot disinformation–it’s to ensure that they accept the correct disinformation.

No wonder so many Americans believe “facts” that just aren’t so.


Why I Love David French

I make it a point to read anything I come across from David French, whose writing I love because it is both eloquent and thoughtful–and admittedly, for the same reason most of us like writers: he shares my own beliefs and concerns. (Come on–admit it. We all prefer the folks we consider wise because they agree with us.)

In a recent essay for the New York Times, French focused on one of my longstanding and primary obsessions: the American public’s lack of civic literacy, and the consequences of that pervasive lack.

French used what he aptly termed the the “Articulate Ignorance of Vivek Ramaswamy” as his jumping off point, using reactions to Ramaswamy’s glib ignorance as an example of the way “in which poor leadership transforms civic ignorance from a problem into a crisis — a crisis that can have catastrophic effects on the nation and, ultimately, the world.”

French refers to the research that I have often reported on this site:

Civic ignorance is a very old American problem. If you spend five seconds researching what Americans know about their own history and their own government, you’ll uncover an avalanche of troubling research, much of it dating back decades. As Samuel Goldman detailed two years ago, as far back as 1943, 77 percent of Americans knew essentially nothing about the Bill of Rights, and in 1952 only 19 percent could name the three branches of government.

That number rose to a still dispiriting 38 percent in 2011, a year in which almost twice as many Americans knew that Randy Jackson was a judge on “American Idol” as knew that John Roberts was the chief justice of the United States. A 2018 survey found that most Americans couldn’t pass the U.S. Citizenship Test. Among other failings, most respondents couldn’t identify which nations the United States fought in World War II and didn’t know how many justices sat on the Supreme Court.

Unlike my periodic rants on the subject, French isn’t sharing these statistics to bemoan public ignorance. He wants to make a different argument, namely

that the combination of civic ignorance, corrupt leadership and partisan animosity means that the chickens are finally coming home to roost. We’re finally truly feeling the consequences of having a public disconnected from political reality.

Simply put, civic ignorance was a serious but manageable problem, as long as our leader class and key institutions still broadly, if imperfectly, cared about truth and knowledge — and as long as our citizens cared about the opinions of that leader class and those institutions.

French reminded his readers of the time that Gerald Ford’s gaffe about Soviet domination of Eastern Europe made a huge difference in that campaign. As he says:

Note the process: Ford made a mistake, even his own team recognized the mistake and tried to offer a plausible alternative meaning, and then press coverage of the mistake made an impression on the public.

Now let’s fast-forward to the present moment. Instead of offering a plausible explanation for their mistakes — much less apologizing — all too many politicians deny that they’ve made any mistakes at all. They double down. They triple down. They claim that the fact-checking process itself is biased, the press is against them and they are the real truth tellers.

He follows up with several examples of Ramaswamy’s blatantly, factually incorrect (and actually ridiculous– but articulate!) statements–and the reaction of the GOP, which  “deemed him one of the night’s winners.”

He sums it up:

The bottom line is this: When a political class still broadly believes in policing dishonesty, the nation can manage the negative effects of widespread civic ignorance. When the political class corrects itself, the people will tend to follow. But when key members of the political class abandon any pretense of knowledge or truth, a poorly informed public is simply unequipped to hold them to account…

A democracy needs an informed public and a basically honest political class. It can muddle through without one or the other, but when it loses both, the democratic experiment is in peril. A public that knows little except that it despises its opponents will be vulnerable to even the most bizarre conspiracy theories, as we saw after the 2020 election. And when leaders ruthlessly exploit that ignorance and animosity, the Republic can fracture. How long can we endure the consequences of millions of Americans believing the most fantastical lies?

I told you so…..


The Truthers Of The GOP

In your search for truth, you can find pretty much anything on the Internet. (As I used to tell my Media and Policy students, if you wonder whether aliens really landed in Roswell, I can find you five internet sites with pictures of the aliens…)

Every so often, a commenter will angrily dispute something I’ve written here by citing to “proof”– an internet site. Now, it is entirely possible for yours truly to make mistakes, but I do take pains to research and confirm the accuracy of data posted here, and when I’ve clicked on links supplied by the naysayers, I generally wind up with rather obvious propaganda.

Which brings me to Paul Krugman’s recent column addressing the issue of intentional misinformation–aka lying.

What Richard Hofstadter called the paranoid style in American politics is no longer a fringe phenomenon: Bizarre conspiracy theories are now mainstream on the American right. And one manifestation of this paranoia is the persistent dismissal of positive economic data as fake when a Democrat occupies the White House.

During the Obama years there was a large faction of “inflation truthers,” who insisted that deficit spending and monetary expansion must surely be causing runaway inflation, and that if official numbers failed to match that prediction it was only because the government was cooking the books.

Krugman says we have fewer inflation truthers now;  instead, we are seeing  the emergence of what he dubs “recession truthers” — a significant faction that seems frustrated by the Biden economy’s refusal, at least so far, to enter “the recession they have repeatedly predicted or insisted is already underway.”

The new group is dominated by tech bros, billionaires who imagine themselves focused on the future rather than the golden past, more likely to be crypto cultists than gold bugs…Indeed, the most prominent recession truther right now is none other than Elon Musk.

Krugman explains how we can know that these particular truthers are wrong. He points out that  America’s statistical agencies are highly professional– staffed and led by civil servants who care a lot about their reputations for integrity. As he says, we can be “pretty sure that if political appointees were cooking the books we’d be hearing about it from multiple whistle-blowers.”

Beyond that, while official data is still the best way to track the U.S. economy — no private organization can currently match the resources and expertise of the Bureau of Labor Statistics or the Bureau of Economic Analysis — there are, in fact, many independent sources of evidence on the economic state of the nation. And they all more or less confirm what the official data says.

He proceeds to identify several.

What’s true of economic data is also true of crime statistics–despite the GOP’s Trumpian distaste for the DOJ and FBI, federal statistics on crime remain trustworthy.

The Internet has fostered the rise of an “alternate reality” that provides MAGA folks with “data” more to their liking. The Internet is a wonderful resource, but there is no denying that it has enabled what pundits delicately call “misinformation.” Promulgating that misinformation–i.e., baldfaced lying– is the primary strategy employed by today’s GOP.

And now, a rogue judge in Louisiana has just made it more difficult to address the problem. As NPR reported:

The government’s ability to fight disinformation online has suffered a legal setback that experts say will have a chilling effect on communications between federal agencies and social media companies.

A Tuesday ruling by a federal district judge in Louisiana could have far-reaching consequences for the government’s ability to work with Facebook and other social media giants to address false and misleading claims about COVID, vaccines, voting, and other issues that could undermine public health and erode confidence in election results.

District Court Judge Terry Doughty, who was appointed by President Donald Trump, issued a preliminary injunction on Tuesday that bars several federal departments and agencies from various interactions with social media companies.

The judge endorsed QAnon conspiracy theories and argued that conservative views are being censored. (Actually, critics insist that social media sites aren’t  doing enough to police disinformation and false claims.)  A complete explanation of the truly bizarre ruling–which has been appealed–is at the link.

Judge Doughty is one of the loony-tune, reliably rightwing judges put on the bench by Trump. He calls the federal government the “Ministry of Truth,” he’s blocked vaccine mandates for health care workers, and he overturned the ban on new leases for oil and gas drilling. 

As one pundit wrote, random district judges “decanted out of Federalist Society cloning tanks” are seizing control of giant chunks of federal policy, based on lawsuits filed by totally deranged activists.

No wonder people don’t know who or what to believe.


Speaking Of Deplorables…

I’ve been enjoying the obvious struggles of Elon Musk, who looks more and more like the dog who caught the car as he tries to change Twitter into whatever it is he thinks it should be. (Some of you will remember “The Peter principle”…)

America is awash in misinformation, and Twitter–both before and after its overpriced acquisition–is a significant contributor. But it’s only fair to note that the pollution of the information environment isn’t simply a consequence of social media. A regular reader sent me a recent, unfortunately representative example of Republican contributions to  the cesspool that has replaced so much of our public discourse.

A November 5th article from the New York Times was titled “How Republicans Fed a Misinformation Loop About the Pelosi Attack,” and I am reproducing much of it below.

Within hours of the brutal attack last month on Paul Pelosi, the husband of the speaker of the House, activists and media outlets on the right began circulating groundless claims — nearly all of them sinister, and many homophobic — casting doubt on what had happened.

Some Republican officials quickly joined in, rushing to suggest that the bludgeoning of an octogenarian by a suspect obsessed with right-wing conspiracy theories was something else altogether, dismissing it as an inside job, a lover’s quarrel or worse.
The misinformation came from all levels of Republican politics. A U.S. senator circulated the view that “none of us will ever know” what really happened at the Pelosis’ San Francisco home. A senior Republican congressman referred to the attacker as a “nudist hippie male prostitute,” baselessly asserting that the suspect had a personal relationship with Mr. Pelosi. Former President Donald J. Trump questioned whether the attack might have been staged.

The article provided a list of elected officials and pundits (“prominent figures”) who spread fabrications and really vile speculations about the attacks.

The flood of falsehoods showed how ingrained misinformation has become inside the G.O.P., where the reflexive response of the rank and file — and even a few prominent figures — to anything that might cast a negative light on the right is to deflect with more fictional claims, creating a vicious cycle that muddies facts, shifts blame and minimizes violence.

It happened after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, which was inspired by Mr. Trump’s lie of a stolen election, and in turn gave rise to more falsehoods, as Republicans and their right-wing allies tried to play down, deny or invent a different story for what happened, including groundlessly blaming the F.B.I. and antifa. Mr. Pelosi’s attacker is said to have believed some of those tales.

“This is the dynamic as it plays out,” said Brian Hughes, a professor at American University who studies radicalism and extremism. “The conspiracy theory prompts an act of violence; that act of violence needs to be disavowed, and it can only be disavowed by more conspiracy theories, which prompts more violence.”

The article reported on the parade of Republicans and right-wing media personalities (including, of course, Tucker Carlson and Elon Musk) who abetted the viral spread of lies about the attack, “distorting the account of what happened before facts could get in the way.”

The article proceeded to document the “dark web” source of scurrilous speculation, and the movement of that speculation from those sources to the mainstream.

Many Republican leaders did denounce the violence and a couple expressed sympathy for the Pelosis, but “none of them publicly condemned the falsehoods their colleagues were elevating or did anything to push back on the false narrative. That left others to fill the void.”

“Just produce the police body cam, — why is that so hard?” Mr. Carlson demanded on his show on Wednesday night. Addressing those criticizing the conspiracy theorizing, he added: “We’re not the crazy people; you’re the liars. There’s nothing wrong with asking questions, period.”

The disinformation surrounding the attack on Mr. Pelosi presented many of the standard elements of alt-right conspiracy theories, which relish a culture of “do your own research,” casting skepticism on official accounts, and tend to focus on lurid sexual activities or issues related to children, often driven by a fear of society becoming immoral.

The truly depressing bottom line:

Nina Jankowicz, a disinformation expert, said no amount of evidence — be it police body camera footage or anything else — could get in the way of such falsehoods in the eyes of those who do not want to believe facts.

“It doesn’t matter when there are documents or sworn testimony claiming something is, in fact, not the case,” Ms. Jankowicz said. “There will be an elaborate reframing effort. If the footage was released, people would claim it was fabricated. There’s no bottom.”

Welcome to life in the cesspool.


The Story Of Our Age

Jeffrey Goldberg is the editor of the Atlantic, one of the more credible and informative publications I read, and he recently transmitted an email to subscribers titled “Notes from the Editor-in-Chief.” I am going to take the liberty of quoting large portions of that message, because I entirely agree with him about the nature and extent of the danger we face.

Last week, a Michigan congresswoman whose existence had not yet entered the rest of the country’s consciousness credited Donald Trump with having “caught Osama bin Laden,” among other terrorists. It is difficult to forget that night in 2011 when Barack Obama told the world that, on his orders, a team of Navy commandos had killed the al-Qaeda leader. But Representative Lisa McClain, a first-term member of Congress, showed that, with effort, and with a desire to feed Trump’s delusions and maintain her standing among his supporters, anything is possible.

In ordinary times, McClain’s claim would have been mocked and then forgotten. But because these are not ordinary times—these are times in which citizens of the same country live in entirely different information realities—I put her assertion about bin Laden on a kind of watch list. In six months, I worry, we may learn that a provably false claim made by a single unserious congressional backbencher has spread into MAGA America, a place where Barack Obama is believed to be a Kenyan-born Muslim and Donald Trump is thought to be the victim of a coup.

Disinformation is the story of our age. We see it at work in Russia, whose citizens have been led to believe the lies that Ukraine is an aggressor nation and that the Russian army is winning a war against modern-day Nazis. We see it at work in Europe and the Middle East, where conspiracies about hidden hands and occult forces are adopted by those who, in the words of the historian Walter Russell Mead, lack the ability to “see the world clearly and discern cause and effect relations in complex social settings.” We see it weaponized by authoritarians around the globe, for whom democracy, accountability, and transparency pose mortal threats. And we see it, of course, in our own country, in which tens of millions of voters believe that Joe Biden is an illegitimate president because the man he beat in 2020 specializes in sabotaging reality for personal and political gain. This mass delusion has enormous consequences for the future of democracy. As my colleague Yoni Appelbaum has noted, “Democracy depends on the consent of the losers.” Sophisticated, richly funded, technology-enabled disinformation campaigns are providing losers with other options.

The Atlantic has joined with the Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago, and the two entities staged a conference focusing upon disinformation of all sorts. (The conference is available online.) The Institute of Politics was founded by David Axelrod, who has expressed his opinion that the “future of this country—and of our democratic allies around the world—depends on the ability and willingness of citizens to discern truth from falsehood.”

Goldberg was forthright in admitting to the nature of the challenge disinformation poses for “big-tent” magazines like the Atlantic.  He reiterated his belief that citizens of democracies require  a wide variety of views and opinions, and insisted that

We strive for nonpartisanship at The Atlantic, and we aim to publish independent thinkers and a wide variety of viewpoints. But this most recent period in American history has presented what might be called “both-sides journalism” with serious challenges—challenges that have prevented this magazine from publishing many pro-Trump articles. (After all, our articles must pass through a rigorous fact-checking process.)

Long-term, the emergence of our citizens from the Tower of Babel we currently inhabit will require a co-ordinated effort. My own repeated calls for more and better civics education–leading to greater levels of civic literacy– obviously point to an important part of that effort, but civics education alone cannot address the economic and psychological insecurities that make so many Americans receptive to the lies and hatreds being promoted by would-be autocrats and their enablers.

I don’t know what it would take–what policies could impose at least a minimum of coherence and integrity to the Wild West that is our current information environment without sacrificing the First Amendment– but as Goldberg  and Axelrod clearly understand, figuring that out is obviously job number one.

I’m on vacation without reliable Internet access, but when I get home, I intend to click through and watch that conference….