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….