The High Cost of Misinformation

By Derek May:

Copyright 2021 Bloomberg Finance LP

The events of January 6, 2021, enraged me. Not because I was particularly surprised to see a group of mostly White Trump supporters, many in quasi-military gear and no masks, storming the cradle of our country’s democracy but because of what led them there. If we go back weeks, months, years even, we can see the trail of breadcrumbs that made this horrific insurrection practically inevitable. As the FBI and other law-enforcement agencies are coming to discover, this was not a sudden rush of fervent exuberance—for many, it was planned. But even for those caught up in the moment, they followed the same trail.

Particularly over these last four years, Americans have struggled to talk to one another. But why? I mean, it’s not like disagreements are anything new to the human race.

So why should this particular time feel so unusual, our conversations so divided by what appears to be an impassable gulf?

That’s the question that’s been on my mind so much lately. And I keep coming back to the same answer. Rational discourse requires both parties to agree on certain fundamental truths. We can debate, for example, whether daylight savings should continue or not, but the points are typically argued from two sides that agree that time and seasons are dictated by the revolution of a round Earth in orbit around a spherical sun at a scientifically measurable pace. Arguing daylight savings with a flat-Earther is a non-starter, because you couldn’t possibly get to the relevant parts of the argument without being bogged down in a dozen nonsensical tangents.

Perhaps I’m looking through rose-colored glasses, but it seems to me that previously the idea of arguing with a flat-Earther was sort of like winning the lottery: the chances of it happening were pretty slim. I mean, those used to be the people lurking in dark corners, either real or virtual, posting their specious conclusions to a tiny group of followers too small to matter, except for the occasional single extremist who pops up to do real damage. When John Hinkley Jr. shot Reagan for Jodie Foster, we say that dude’s crazy, he’s a one-off. When you heard that Ted Kacynski bombed buildings because people wouldn’t listen to him, we said, “What a kook!”

The difference I see now is that the kooks aren’t isolated. The ideas aren’t confined to a few crazies. Lies, deceptions, conspiracy theories, and misinformation are EVERYWHERE. And they’re not being repeated only by the socially awkward slobs in the basement, they’re being spread like wildfire by our families, our friends, our leaders, by a former president of the United States. Our greatest resources for connection and information have been twisted into avenues to enforce agendas and confuse the masses.

That’s terrifying.

But why should it be? This is a free country, right? People have the right to say what they want and believe what they want, don’t they? Well . . . not exactly. This is one of the many problems here. People screaming at the top of their lungs about “Freedom” don’t seem to really understand what that means. The United States is not a free-for-all; you cannot just do and say anything you want. We are a constitutional republic governed by a plethora of laws, most of which the average person doesn’t understand.

Ask any random citizen to name five Amendments. Most can immediately rattle off the first two, and after that . . . ? Yeah.

Let’s take those two for a moment. Freedom of Speech, for example, has limits. You can’t yell “Fire!” in a crowded theatre. You can’t specifically threaten another person. Freedom of Religion doesn’t mean only your religious beliefs are protected, it means they ALL are, and that takes a balancing act sometimes. And the venerable Second Amendment doesn’t mean you can instantly have any gun you want without any oversight; it says a “well regulated Militia” has the right to keep and bear arms. Curious how many of us with high-capacity fully automatic machine guns are up on our militia dues? But the point is, there are limits to our freedoms, and it’s important to understand what our rights actually are and what restrictions are placed on them before we go rallying others to righteous anger—and potential violence.

Because the question then becomes whether we’re trying to persuade someone to a reasoned point of view or if we’re just angry and want other people to be angry with us.