In this piece, Thomas E. Patterson explains why not and what really needs to change to end the pandemic of misinformation we are living through. Patterson is a professor of government and the press at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, and the author of a new book that has a title that captures our times: “How America Lost Its Mind: The Assault on Reason That’s Crippling Our Democracy.”
The book is a powerful statement, seen at the very start of his preface:
Dystopian titles are often nothing more than marketing tools, but such a title is necessary for this book. How America Lost Its Mind describes the sorry state of our democracy at this point in the twenty-first century. The corruption of thought, information, and common sense is eroding governing institutions and traditions that took more than two centuries and ten generations of Americans to build.
Here’s his piece on civics education.
Misinformation is at its highest level in the history of polling. On crucial issue after crucial issue, staggering numbers of Americans have views of reality that are wildly at odds with the facts.
In the lead-up to the 2003 Iraq invasion, a majority of Americans falsely believed that Iraqis helped carry out the 9/11 attacks. During debate on the 2010 Affordable Care Act, a third of our citizens falsely believed that the legislation included “death panels” — government-appointed committees with the power to deny medical treatment to elderly patients. Millions of Americans today falsely believe that illegal immigration and free trade are the leading cause of factory job loss. More than 80 percent of job loss is attributable to automation — the replacement of workers by machines.
And then there’s climate change. People elsewhere in the world accept the scientific consensus that the climate is changing and that it’s due to human activity. Not so in America. Polls indicate that large numbers deny that it’s happening or attribute it to sunspots and other natural causes.
Misinformation has no boundaries. It infects Republicans and Democrats, men and women, young and old. But it’s more prevalent among some groups than others. Younger adults tend to be more misinformed than older adults and have more difficulty distinguishing between fact and fake.
Would the revitalization of civics education in our schools help young adults to fend off misinformation? The onset of standardized testing two decades ago hastened what was already a declining emphasis on civics education. Through the 1960s, American students typically took three courses in civics, democracy, and government. By the early 2000s, the norm was a single semester-long government course. In a joint report, the American Youth Policy Forum and the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development claimed that “the recent preoccupation of the nation with reshaping academics and raising academic performance has all but overpowered a task of equally vital importance — educating our young people to become engaged members of their community as citizens.”
However, despite claims to the contrary, civics courses do not have a large impact on how high school graduates behave as adults. Studies show that they slightly increase voting rates but there is nothing to indicate that they would shield citizens from false beliefs.
America’s misinformation problem is due not to a lack of civics education but to a corrupted information system. The United States did not have a misinformation problem in the days when citizens got their news from their local paper and the broadcast networks. The news provided an “information commons”— a shared set of facts and ideas about the country and the challenges it faced. Not everyone derived the same meaning from the news, and the reporting had its blind spots. But it was a balanced, evidence-based version of public affairs.
Our information system began to devolve in the late twentieth century with the elimination of the Fairness Doctrine and the advent of cable and the Internet. The transformation unleashed sources that had no hesitancy in twisting the facts. Hyperpartisan talk shows are among the worst offenders. Spawned by elimination of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, they now number in the hundreds and have a combined weekly audience exceeding 40 million. Listeners are fed what the writer Kurt Andersen called “a sociopathic alternative reality” —— an incendiary mix of half-truths, misrepresentations, deceptions, and outright lies.
As our information system was changing, our party system was becoming increasingly polarized, giving citizens a motive to seek out sources that would tell them what they wanted to hear. Many citizens now reside in “echo chambers” where they’re treated to a slanted version of politics that reinforces what they already believe.
Any effort to reverse the trend would have to address America’s information environment. Unless it changes, no amount of civic education will be enough.
We need political leaders to stop lying with abandon. We need traditional news outlets to stop serving as a megaphone for false claims. We need social media platforms to block disinformation sites, foreign and domestic. And we need citizens to recognize the danger of relying on sources that tell them only what they want to hear.