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. 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. These days, purveyors of fake news get paid to mislead the public. Outside of criminal activities like bribery, it’s hard for me to imagine a greater disservice to our country.
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. In 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 figuring out what to do about false news so difficult. When misinformation has spread in the past, we’ve always been able to depend on the truth catching up and eventually prevailing. Now, 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 adviser for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government. He represented Indiana’s 9th Congressional District as a Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.