Truth Is the First Casualty in Taking Down Our Democracy

Misinformation and disinformation have taken over our political system, according to a new poll of five Western states by Morning Consult, conducted for the bipartisan Frank Church Institute at Boise State University. (The full survey is available here.)

More than 80 percent of the 1,899 U.S. adults polled in the five states of Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Utah and Nevada said they are worried about “misinformation” (with 54 saying they are “very worried”). And 83 percent are worried about the “misrepresentation of facts.”

It seems we are way beyond former Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s reported admonition that “you are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.”

Too often, we Americans don’t seem to trust in the truth or even the pursuit of the truth. We accept “alternative facts” that conform to our beliefs rather than acknowledging that, very simply, facts are facts.

The concern about misrepresentation of facts dovetails with the respondents’ concern about the health of democracy — 85 percent of respondents indicated they are worried about democracy in America.

For decades, we have seen the growing distrust and cynicism about government and politics spread to other institutions such as business, religion and education. Now that distrust has seeped into almost all our sources of information — including the news.

The era of Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite and Huntley/Brinkley is long over in time and substance. As Yogi Berra might say: If they were alive today, they would turn over in their graves!

From the evening news to local news to the internet, and especially when it comes to social media, large majorities believe misrepresentation of facts is spread far and wide. A full 73 percent believe that misrepresentation is “spread a lot” on social media, while 58 percent say the same about the internet and 48 percent about regular news media. Virtually everybody believes we are living in an age of misrepresentation of facts.

It is interesting that both Democrats and Republicans seem to pretty much agree on the spreading of misinformation on social media and the internet, but there is a real difference in their views of the regular news media. Sixty percent of Republicans believe that a lot of misinformation is spread, compared to just 26 percent of Democrats. Clearly the attacks by former President Donald Trump and others regarding “mainstream (or ‘lamestream’) media” has taken its toll.

So, who is to blame for this misinformation? Not surprisingly, in these mostly Republican Western states, 22 percent hold liberal media responsible, while 14 percent point the finger at conservative media, and 46 percent blame both.

We can’t be shocked to see that 44 percent of Republicans blame the liberal media and 37 percent of Democrats blame the conservative media. This is just an example of the political polarization exhibited in the survey — especially regarding the election of 2020, perceptions of President Joe Biden and Trump, and the events of Jan. 6. While 79 percent of Democrats believe that Trump was responsible for the violence at the Capitol, only 13 percent of Republicans said the same.

Despite the polarization in the country, and the tendency to divide up into warring camps, one encouraging finding is that by almost a 4-1 margin (66 percent to 17 percent), respondents in these five Western states believe that elected officials should find compromise and common ground rather than stand their ground and push their own party’s agenda.

As our country struggles with how to enhance democracy and see to it that it survives and thrives in the 21st century, we should consider focusing on tackling the problem of misinformation, disinformation and the spread of falsehoods and false narratives. If we can begin to agree more on what is clearly true and what is clearly false, we may begin to come together on how best to solve the problems that confront us.

There is growing consensus in Congress and across the country that social media and ubiquitous sites like Facebook have resulted in the spread of misinformation and falsehoods. Regardless of whether you are a Democrat, a Republican or an independent, a conservative or a liberal, there is common cause in doing our best to embrace what is true and reject what is false.

The threat to our democracy is put on steroids when our leaders and our media deliberately misrepresent what is true. The public understands: Democrats and Republicans (84 percent and 83 percent, respectively) agree that “fake news” is used purposely to mislead people and 3 in 4 respondents said that politicians use it to dismiss facts that are actually true.

This is a growing cancer, and it is up to both political parties, the media and the people, to confront it. If we shrink from this responsibility, our democracy will go from the emergency room to intensive care in a nanosecond. Pressure must be put on politicians and media outlets who put out lies and falsehoods — whatever their party or ideology. We can’t dismiss this as “politics as usual”; it is far from it.

Whether it is the unsubstantiated accusations against Trump in the Steele Dossier, or the lie that Obama was not born in the United States and therefore was not eligible to be president, or the dangerous falsehood that the 2020 election was rigged and Biden was not legitimately elected — or many more — these conspiracy theories, driven by misinformation, encourage violence and the breakdown of confidence and established order in our country.

We need leaders, especially on the Republican side, who have the courage to confront those who dominate the news and whom they know deliberately mislead people and disseminate falsehoods that undermine democracy. History will judge us by what we do now to turn back this trend and rekindle what our founders envisioned.

Peter Fenn is a longtime Democratic political strategist who served as a top aide to Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho), co-founded the Center for Responsive Politics and is on the boards of the Church Institute and the Dole Institute.

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