The election of 2016 marked an deep downward pull for American democratic traditions. After the election the institutions that make up government became under attack by the President and the cabinet members. Each American agency seems to have been sapped of leadership, undercut, and in many cases, the people working at the State Department or the NEH found themselves directed to work 180 degrees opposite the purpose of the agency. The Environmental Protection Agency for instance:
EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, said he was freeing oil and gas companies from “burdensome and ineffective regulations.” By rolling back an Obama-era policy designed to curb gas leaks at pipelines and wells, the EPA administrator was essentially giving energy companies the go-ahead to release much more climate-warming methane into the atmosphere.MSN – https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/politics/another-giveaway-to-polluters-from-the-trump-epa/ar-BB18ecp1
Let’s not pretend that the United States confidence in government was very strong before all this. But you pile on the increasingly refined ways that people gather news and form opinions and the genuine cynicism that everyone seems to share, and we face a deeper problem.
We risk losing the inability to discern fiction from truth – (and I’m a postmodernist), or the ability to debate complex ideas. I’m sure that the basic skills still exist on college campuses and the nod toward some shell of debate and rigorous argument can be found in corners of youtube.
Joshua Yaffa writes in the New Yorker about the continued focus on Russian propaganda (Yaffa outlines how much of this should be considered a threat) and the more problematic impact of the President and Fox News reporters muddying the waters over the significance and response to Covid-19.
Yaffa writes: “When it comes to COVID-19, the apparent result of the combined disinformation campaign of Trump and Fox News has been devastating. A working paper released by the National Bureau of Economic Research in May analyzed anonymous location data from millions of cell phones to show that residents of Zip Codes with higher Fox News viewership were less likely to follow stay-at-home orders. Another study, by economists at the University of Chicago and elsewhere, suggested a disparity in health outcomes between areas where Fox News viewers primarily tuned in to tucker Carlson, who, among Fox hosts, spoke early and with relative urgency about the danger of COVID-19, and places where viewers preferred Sean Hannity, who spent weeks downplaying its severity. The economists found that in March, viewership of Hannity over Carlson, in the locales they studied was associated with a thirty-two-per-cent increase in infections, and a twenty-three-per-cent increase in COVID-19-related deaths(Yaffa, Joshua.”Believe it or Not.” New Yorker. September 14, 2020, p. 29)
With these kinds of numbers, we need to be making the connection that information literacy is a public health investment. In 2020 being able to discern if a source is lying to you is a survival skill. Fortunately it is one that a couple of hundred thousand teachers can resolve with some investment and support.