Franklin Roosevelt once said, “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely.” He was talking about why education matters in a representative democracy, but it’s a safe bet that had he known about fake internet news, he’d have said the same thing — except maybe with more pointed words.
Our representative democracy depends on ordinary people making sound judgments about politicians and policy. This is hard to do at the best of times. Issues are complex. Being able to sort out what matters and what’s a diversion takes knowledge and judgment. Being a full citizen in a representative democracy depends on accurate information — and the ability to discern what’s reliable and what’s not.
To fold into that mix deliberately false news makes the citizen’s task much more difficult — maybe even impossible. Yet astoundingly, that’s where we find ourselves now. Millions of people see patently false stories about undocumented workers pouring across the border or Hillary Clinton being involved in the assassination of JFK — and some number of them believe it. Meanwhile, people across the globe — teenagers in the Balkans, disinformation specialists in Russia, entrepreneurs in the U.S. — all seem to be cashing in.
I’m well aware that some critics argue that “fake news” is nothing new. They cite such well-known fabricators as Jayson Blair at The New York Times and Janet Cooke at The Washington Post. Fair enough. But when Blair, Cooke and others like them were caught, they were fired and drummed out of journalism.
These days, purveyors of fake news get paid to mislead the public. This is new. These are fantasies masquerading as “news” — misleading, disingenuous and removed from context. They’re outright lies generated without regard for the commitment to accuracy that real journalism strives for. This is very, very dangerous. Outside of criminal activities like bribery, it’s hard for me to imagine a greater disservice to our country.
Americans care about being informed. When I’m in front of an audience, invariably someone asks me to recommend the most reliable source of information I know — because there are a lot of choices out there. People know that they have political decisions to make, that their votes matter, and that they shouldn’t make them in a vacuum. False news makes the basic responsibilities of citizenship much harder.
On the positive side, responsible media outlets are increasingly aware of the problem and are seeking ways to counteract it — as well as to call out politicians who blatantly traffic in misrepresentation. There is no question that in the coming years, real journalists’ ability to identify bogus stories, rebut ignorant claims that go viral, and stymie efforts at misinformation will be a vital part of their responsibilities. Similarly, the platforms that have given an outlet to fake news — Facebook and other social media — are recognizing their obligation to fight it without compromising users’ access to the real stuff.
Which, of course, is what makes what to do about false news so devilishly difficult. As a nation, we thrive on a multitude of voices and news sources. We don’t want to discourage the sharing of information or opinions, nor do we want to restrict Americans’ access to it.
When misinformation has spread in the past, we’ve always been able to depend on the truth catching up and eventually prevailing. Now, however, the circuits are being overloaded — not just by the proliferation of platforms and sources of information, but by people who are using the tools of democracy to undermine it. We must strive for an environment in which truth wins the day in the war over information.
I can’t pretend to know how we will ultimately help Americans sort through what’s truth and untruth, what’s serious argument and what’s propaganda, but I do know that this is one of the key battles of our time. Fake news is a threat to our system, a land mine that can cripple representative democracy by making a mockery of its most basic tenet: that the people will make the right decisions. This is a challenge we need to address head on and without delay — the future of our representative democracy is at stake.
Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.