With the rise of social media, the rapid decline in local newspaper coverage, the expansion of media echo chambers, and the rapid proliferation of “fake news”, the American people have been spoonfed a warped sense of reality through their news. The wide public acceptance of fabricated news stories is often not intentional, as they can appear reliable, but it is a dangerous byproduct of the media system we have allowed to take hold in the nation. The question becomes: how do we inform ourselves in light of these stumbling blocks prior to the 2020 election?
Since the rise of social media in the early 2000s, Americans have begun supplementing their news intake using these sites. A Pew Research Center study released last year found that 55% of US adults are now getting their news from social media “often” or “sometimes.” The Pew Research Center also found that 88% of Americans recognized that social media companies have some control over the mix of news they see every day. This study demonstrates that the public is moving away from the more traditional forms of news such as television and print, switching to news blurbs via social media delivered to their fingertips, in order to stay informed. Unfortunately, the Pew Research Center discovered in a separate study that the people using social media as their primary news outlet actually have the lowest levels of political knowledge and engagement compared to individuals who seek out other news sources.
While it may be more convenient to use the news sources most readily available, how do we find the balance between convenience and correctness? The lack of a gatekeeper on social media is part of what makes it so attractive, but at what point do we notice that the information we are consuming is not fully accurate? Following the 2016 election, 23% of surveyed Americans admitted to sharing a fake news story. What is even more damaging is that these inaccurate, and even sometimes entirely fabricated, stories frequently receive more media attention on social media than factually correct stories.
Additionally, the rise of news deserts, which the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media defines as “a community, either rural or urban, with limited access to the sort of credible and comprehensive news and information that feeds democracy at the grassroots level,” has decreased our ability to have an informed populace. The Brookings Institute last year explained how the decline of local news impacts national voting patterns, which can have serious democratic implications, as we have already seen said decrease in local newspapers contribute to political polarization. The vacuum left behind by these local newspapers has been filled with partisan reporting.
The media echo chambers created by partisan reporting is a clear threat to the citizens’ ability to stay informed and to our democracy as a whole. The New York Times just released an article detailing the “pay-for-play” news network that has arisen from the ashes of local news. This system hires journalists to write specific, highly partisan articles on a subject or politician. These networks instruct the journalists on who to contact and how exactly to frame their article. Clients, usually partisan operatives, think tanks, and corporate executives, pay to have these articles with baseless claims written to endorse or destroy political figures of their choosing. With nearly 1,300 sites following this model, it seems impossible to know what is real and escape the world of fake news. Given the challenges of news deserts, the rise of social media, and “pay-for-play” websites purporting to be legitimate news sources, can individuals sort through the noise to discover truthful, honest journalism and reputable sources of information? More importantly, do we as citizens and voters have an ethical responsibility to be informed and seek truth prior to heading to the ballot box?
In short, the answer is yes. Voting comes with certain intrinsic responsibilities, referred to as epistemic responsibilities, one of which is the responsibility to make decisions in a sufficiently informed manner. How we vote has a significant impact on political outcomes that affect many more people than just ourselves. Because of its far reaching results, we have the moral obligation to become sufficiently informed before casting our ballot. Not only do we have a formal ethical obligation to stay informed, but we also have a voluntary responsibility to do so as American citizens. When detailing the rights and responsibilities of American citizens, the US Citizen and Immigration Services lists “stay informed on the issues affecting your community” second only to “support and defend the Constitution.” American representative democracy works best when our voters are educated, thus we have a civic duty to do so. Although this responsibility to be properly informed is not explicitly listed in the Constitution, staying informed is still a critical voluntary responsibility of citizens, especially prior to voting.
With an election less than a week away, how do we ensure that we are well-informed? The issue may not be entirely attributed to the news source. We must also take into account a person’s media literacy. If you are going to pull your news from social media, where anyone can publish anything, you must be wary of the fact that not every story will be accurate. After the 2016 election, NPR published an article advising readers how to catch fake news on their social media timeline. The article instructs readers to look at domain names and URLs, read the “About Us” section, and pay attention to quotes. This, however, requires a fine tooth comb. More broad measures one could take to assess the validity of a story found on social media would be to cross reference the story to more mainstream news sources. For partisan reporting, looking at quotes and cross referencing the information in the article is essential. Although these traps may seem unavoidable with the news sources at our disposal, it is still necessary to take precautions to see if what you are reading is actually correct.
Thomas Jefferson famously wrote, “a well-informed electorate is a prerequisite to democracy.” For the sake of our democracy, take an active part in educating yourself before hitting the polls on November 3.