How Does America Solve Its "Fake News" Crisis?

So if we can’t regulate the “news” or even stop foreign trolls from stirring up Americans, how can we activate the “immune system” of democracy?

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America is now in the midst of a “truth crisis” that threats to tear us apart and end the American Experiment in democratic governance; Finland is implementing a solution to “fake news” that we should seriously consider. Back to that in a second.

Minneapolis Star Tribune reporter Patrick Condon notes, in a great deep-dive analysis article, that:

National polls show large numbers of Republicans continue to believe Trump was the election's real winner. The staying power of this alternate history of recent events is driving a wave of restrictive new voting laws in Republican-led states around the country, and driving concerns about long-term damage to the U.S. democratic system.”

That “damage” is massive, and it’s an open question now whether America will remain a functioning democracy (and improve on that by strengthening our democratic institutions) or if we’ll follow the path of Hungary, Russia, Turkey and other countries that have slid from democracy to oligarchy and autocracy.

And, to a large extent, that depends on having an engaged and accurately-informed populace.

Yesterday on my radio program, a caller laid some misinformation on my listeners and in the moment I didn’t know if it was right or wrong (he said the Catholic Church owned residential rental property and was making money on it, tax-free; in fact, the Church pays taxes on such income). Today I’m correcting that on the air.

I reported the news on WITL in Lansing, Michigan in the early 1970s and learned “the truth” must be media’s highest standard. Generally, “major” media outlets agree; they employ people who check stories for their accuracy before they get to air or in print, and when they get things wrong, they correct them on-air or in print.

Sadly, that’s not the case with the rightwing media ecosystem that’s resulted from Lewis Powell’s infamous 1971 “Memo” urging big business and billionaires to get together and seize control of the institutions of America — including the media — to stop “socialism or some form of statism.”

These outlets specifically and intentionally misinform their listeners, viewers and readers, all to increase the power and influence of billionaires and the industries that made them. “Truth” and “fair and balanced” are simply slogans for these folks, not realities.

Giant corporations that have allied themselves with rightwing extremists within the Republican Party own over 1500 radio stations across the nation that carry exclusively rightwing talk and “news” programming.  One of the largest networks of television stations in the country with over 200 stations runs exclusively rightwing commentary.

Fox News has millions of viewers a day who believe things they hear on television. Literally thousands of websites disguising themselves as “news” pour rightwing propaganda poison into the bloodstream of the American part of the internet every day.

When a high school student working on a paper — or any other American — plugs virtually any topic into a search engine, from trade to medicine to history or Covid, the first 20 hits are dominated by rightwing sites.

Rightwingers relentlessly edit Wikipedia and other open-source information sites to give themselves an edge in the neofascist “information wars.”

They’ve established a huge beachhead on Facebook.

And social media outlets’ algorithms relentlessly drive people deeper and deeper into insane conspiracy theories after they nibble on a single hook like a somewhat-rightwing clip or article about Trump or any other topic that even remotely involves politics.

Open advocates for turning America into a white-supremacist neofascist ethnostate run websites, Facebook groups and even appear as prime-time commentators on large national platforms like Fox News.

Most deadly of all, multiple nations that have rejected democracy in favor of oligarchy, authoritarianism or outright kingdom now run well-funded stealth operations to fill American social media and the internet with trolls pretending to be citizens. These apparently “average people” post a steady stream of messages denigrating democracy and arguing “both parties are the same” so “there’s no reason to bother to get involved in politics or vote.”

The result is now clear. A third of Republican voters today think Donald Trump will be reinstalled as president in August, and about the same number believe Democrats are up to satanic activities that include drinking the blood of Christian children. This is a frightening echo of the antisemitic blood libel of the Russian Tsar’s 1903 disinformation campaign spearheaded with the publication of the fraudulent Protocols of the Elders of Zion that Hitler used to justify his “final solution” of the Holocaust.

Large quantities of Republican voters now openly reject democracy and have become convinced that a white-dominated ethnostate as advocated by Donald Trump should be the future of our nation.

America is experiencing a crisis of democracy, and disinformation and blatant lies from both foreign governments and domestic “dark money” groups are the main forces driving it.

This is a particular challenge for a nation founded on a free press and a nearly absolute right to political free speech.

We don’t want the US government to decide what’s “news” and what isn’t because when the GOP gets the next Donald Trump in power a wannabee autocrat like Rick Scott or Tom Cotton would simply use that power to pull the plug on real media and exclusively promote their allies’ neofascist propaganda. It’s a conundrum.

As one of our Founders noted in 1786:

“The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers & be capable of reading them.”

Reading is relatively universal in America but understanding how propagandists can twist and distort reality is largely lacking, as we can see with the millions of Americans who’ve bought into patently false rightwing neofascist conspiracy theories.

So if we can’t regulate the “news” or even stop foreign trolls from stirring up Americans, how can we activate the “immune system” of democracy?

Some folks think that bringing back the Fairness Doctrine that Reagan stopped enforcing and Obama finally removed from the IRS code is the answer. But that only required “equal time” to rebut statements and editorials presented by the owners or management of media outlets; it didn’t deal with the content of on-air talent or the way news was presented.

Breaking up media monopolies and bringing back local ownership rules blown up by Congress and Bill Clinton with the 1996 Telecommunications Act would be a big step toward bringing back a healthier American media ecosystem, but it won’t deal with the problem of naked lies and misinformation.

Instead, we have to figure out a way to help Americans spot open lies or realize how bizarre, antidemocratic and destructive to democracy is so much of the rhetoric coming from these trolls and sites.

Finland believes it has found the answer.  They’re actively teaching their people how to spot propaganda and media disinformation, starting with schoolchildren and extending all the way to the oldest of their citizens.

It all began a bit more than a decade ago when Finland was overwhelmed by online and social media trolls, many coming out of Russia and aligned nondemocratic countries, pushing the idea that bringing Syrian refugees into the country would “pollute” the nation’s gene pool and destroy their “Christian heritage.” It was a onslaught reminiscent of Trump’s and Fox News’ hysteria about the “caravans” of brown people coming to “invade” our southern border just before the 2018 midterm elections.

This was followed by a propaganda campaign from the same sources (along with the Brexit campaigners) pushing the idea into Finland (and every other European country) that the European Union was a terrible idea and should be broken up.

Then came another wave of propaganda pouring into Finland trashing the NATO alliance, a treaty that was originally designed to help Europe push back against potential Soviet aggression.

At that point, the Finnish government acted, putting together media literacy programs to teach in schools from top to bottom.  As the Chief Communications Officer of the Finnish Prime Minister’s office noted, “The first line of defence [against fake news] is the kindergarten teacher.”

Finnish first-graders are “guided in finding information from different sources and communicating it” and considering “the fact that each text has its author and its purpose.” They learn to spot hidden agendas.

By fifth grade, students learn to “analyze fiction, nonfiction and argumentation and recognize the difference between them,” and by seventh grade this media literacy is integrated into coursework on “writing, rhetoric, and argumentation.”

This, says Mikko Hartikainen with the Finnish National Agency for Education, is specifically designed to create “constructive interaction [as] a way to strengthen democratic participation and prevent hate speech and violent radicalism.”

The Finns have embraced this anti-propaganda effort with gusto; even video games from for-profit publishers that are played by Finnish kids, and Finnish-made television dramas for adults have started incorporating anti-propaganda strategies and memes.

Recognizing propaganda is now a common theme on Finnish TV. Politicians speak proudly of their fellow Finns’ ability to spot trolls, lies and logical fallacies.

Now other European countries are jumping on the bandwagon; the United Kingdom rolled out a similar program just 18 months ago.

America should copy this model.

Since Reagan’s Secretary of Education gutted civics education in our public schools, two generations of Americans have grown up without understanding basic concepts like critical thinking skills, recognizing propaganda, and even knowing how a republic should work.

While having a populace “capable of reading” is important (don’t tell Texas, with their 19% illiteracy rate), understanding what you’re reading is critical.

This should move to the top of Education Secretary Miguel Cardona’s agenda now. And what’s left of America’s “truthful” media must begin to teach media literacy by embedding such concepts in its reporting.

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