What Troubled Me Most About the Election
Last week as I was getting ready for work, there was a news story covering Donald Trump’s criticism of the recount efforts being led by former Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein. In a series of several tweets in particular, Trump alleged that millions of fraudulent votes had been cast in Virginia, New Hampshire, and California, a claim that had no basis in fact whatsoever. Despite being unequivocally false, the statements have since between retweeted by tens of thousands of people.
It reminded me of what has troubled me most about the 2016 election. I was not bothered by disagreements over policy or platform, or which direction people thought was best for America. I can live with others expressing an alternative worldview. Instead, what disturbed me the most was an apparent disregard for facts, a trend we can expect to continue if the above tweet is a harbinger of things to come.
Considerable attention has been placed on fake news sources and the role they may have played in determining the outcome of the election. Although these sites certainly make it easier to spread misinformation, what if the source is the President himself? What are the implications if individuals believe it in the face of facts to the contrary?
Holding public officials accountable has traditionally been the responsibility of the media, but Americans distrust it more today than any time in recent history. This is somewhat understandable, as it has become increasingly difficult to find objective news, and the lines between reporting and editorializing are often blurry. Bias in the media is unavoidable to a certain degree because the individuals who write the news are human. But a fact does not change simply because of who states it. There is a difference between arriving at a different conclusion based on one’s interpretation of the facts – Democrats and Republicans have been doing this for decades – and disregarding the facts altogether.
All information – whether it originates from the mainstream media or the President himself – should be scrutinized for its accuracy and reliability. We have at our fingertips the totality of human knowledge, a resource that is now available to almost every individual in the United States. We are on the cusp of an era where being misinformed is possible only when one chooses to be. So how do we convince people to choose the alternative?
It appears we may need to begin by teaching students how to tell the difference. In a recent study conducted by the Stanford History Education Group, 4 out of 5 middle school students could not discern “sponsored content” from a real news story. A similar number of high school students were unable to differentiate between real and fake news on Facebook. College students were no exception. Most could not detect the potential for bias in a statistic cited by an organization with a political agenda, and many were unable to recognize information originating from a fringe source.
I was alarmed by the group’s findings, which can be read in their entirety here.
But these statistics should be alarming to everyone, because facts aren’t just for clinicians, or educators, or researchers. Facts are for any individual who makes decisions of consequence, and electing the President is no exception. American progress has been built upon individuals using facts to make the critically important decisions necessary for driving advances in everything from engineering to medicine to civil rights.
Let’s not turn back now.