The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Are we becoming too stupid to govern ourselves?

Misinformation surrounding the safety of vaccines is not new, but social media helps it spread more widely than ever, which can lead to dangerous consequences. (Video: The Washington Post)
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Measles was declared eliminated in 2000, but so far this year 940 individual cases have been reported throughout the country. All because a growing number of parents, in thrall to “anti-vaxxer” conspiracy theories, refuse to follow medical advice and immunize their children.

This is terrifying, and not just because measles is a life-threatening disease. The revival of measles is an indication of a serious political problem. The case for democracy is that voters in the aggregate will make better decisions than a lone monarch or dictator would. But does majority rule still work when so many people believe so many things that simply aren’t so?

Many people, of course, have always been irrational. In the 16th and 17th centuries, as many as 60,000 people were executed in Europe as suspected witches. But it would be nice to think that centuries of advances in science and education have made people less prey to phantasms and falsehoods. I suppose it’s progress that the “witch hunts” today are strictly metaphorical.

Despite the evidence, the anti-vaccination movement is gaining strength. (Video: Luis Velarde/The Washington Post)

But the Internet hasn’t delivered on exaggerated expectations that it would spur universal enlightenment. “We will create a civilization of the Mind in Cyberspace,” the Internet evangelist John Perry Barlow vowed in a 1996 declaration. You don’t hear that kind of techno-utopianism anymore, and for good reason.

It’s true that the Internet has put a lot of information online. Anyone anywhere — as long as you live in a country that does not censor the Internet — can now read this newspaper. But like diners passing up a healthy salad for an artery-clogging cheeseburger, many information consumers are instead digesting junk news. One study of the 2016 election found that the 20 top false articles combined on Facebook were shared, reacted to or commented on more widely than the 20 top mainstream news articles combined.

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The measles outbreak can be traced to the social media myth that vaccines cause autism. “The modern anti-vaccine movement began about 40 years ago in response to legitimate concerns about the side effects of a pertussis (whooping cough) vaccine,” The Post recently reported. “But it has metastasized into something far darker in the echo chamber of Facebook chat rooms, WhatsApp and YouTube — especially against a backdrop of rising suspicion of elites, including drugmakers, doctors and public health officials.”

Anti-vaxxer propaganda is only one tiny part of the bedlam online. Grass Valley, Calif., recently had to cancel a school fundraiser for fear of an armed attack. See if you can follow the chain of illogic: It all began when former FBI director James B. Comey posted on Twitter a list of five jobs he had held in the past with the hashtag #FiveJobsIveHad. According to the New York Times, some imaginative conspiracy-mongers determined that “by removing letters, the hashtag could be shortened to ‘Five Jihad.’ . . . And a search for the abbreviation formed by the first letters of the jobs he listed, G.V.C.S.F., led to the Grass Valley Charter School Foundation, whose fund-raiser was scheduled for this weekend. Mr. Comey, they concluded, was broadcasting an attack, perhaps as a distraction from other pending news.” School officials feared some gun-wielding lunatic would show up in anticipation of this supposed attack — just as a man with an assault rifle had shown up in 2016 at a Washington pizza parlor that was rumored to be part of a child abuse ring run by Hillary Clinton.

Can it get any crazier? Actually, yes. Researchers at Texas Tech University found an increasing number of people have been convinced that the Earth is flat by YouTube videos with titles such as “200 proofs Earth is not a spinning ball.” So a belief that should have disappeared 500 years ago has been given fresh life on the Internet. This isn’t the Information Age. It’s the Misinformation Age. There is a seemingly endless supply of suckers online — and just as many grifters and cranks eager to dupe them.

Granted, Flat Earthers remain a tiny minority. They aren’t taking over the country. But do you know who has taken over? The 38 percent of respondents who in a Washington Post-ABC News survey said President Trump is “honest and trustworthy.” Yes, this is the same president whose 10,000th falsehood was recently recorded by the Post Fact Checker. Whether you support Trump or not, his dishonesty should not be a matter of dispute. But roughly 40 percent of voters seem to have suspended their critical faculties to get on the Trump train.

Irrationality may be more prevalent in the party of climate denial, but it isn’t limited to Republicans. One of the leading anti-vaxxers is Democratic scion Robert F. Kennedy Jr., and liberal actress Gwyneth Paltrow has made a fortune peddling “jade eggs for vaginas, $30 sex ‘dust,’ and body stickers that ‘promote healing’ ” despite scientific exposés showing that these New Age tchotchkes don’t work. Quack remedies retain their allure even in an age of gene therapy.

Democracy remains the best form of government if only because all the alternatives are worse. But the resurgence of irrationality at a time when people should really know better is testing the faith that I have always had in government of, by and for the people. Could we reach some critical mass of collective madness where democracy no longer functions? Maybe we already have.

Read more:

Juliette Kayyem: Anti-vaxxers are dangerous. Make them face isolation, fines, arrests.

Molly Roberts: Tech platforms must move against the anti-vaxxers now

Scott C. Ratzan, Barry R. Bloom, Lawrence O. Gostin and Jonathan Fielding: States are failing on vaccinations. The federal government must lead.

Rose Branigin: I used to be opposed to vaccines. This is how I changed my mind.

The Post’s View: YouTube used to be a haven for misinformation. That might now be changing.