• United4Information

It's so comfortable being lazy...

... on misinformation, democracy, and what Kant's got to do with it.

In the history of mankind, there has never been a time in which man could vote and have a political say as much as we do today. More than half of the world's countries are democracies, and elections themselves are becoming increasingly transparent and fair. Younger generations in many countries are growing up in an ecosystem in which going to the polling station on election days is just as normal as going to the supermarket when they are out of milk. Nonetheless, in recent years, some democracies have felt decreases in voter satisfaction and general political engagement. When having something that seems as natural as voting does to many, it is often easy to take that thing for granted. Many believe that voting as a natural, fundamental part of life is a right that they are entitled to. Others might cast it off as a burden, perceiving their going to the polling station as effortful and time-consuming with little hope for success. Some might even doubt the entire system, presuming corruption or getting angry and frustrated with the way government is run. After all, they live in a democracy, and therefore things should go the voters’ way, right?

Right. At least parts of it. After all, the idea behind a democracy is that political decision making is guided by public opinion. Voting is therefore a fundamental right of any citizen of age in a democracy. However, voting is not only a right - it is also a responsibility. Democracy is no one way street - while it offers great freedoms such as full respect for human dignity, freedom of speech and of religion and a multiparty system - to name a few -, it does not work without the interest and involvement of its people. The starting point of any democracy is the public. This political system can only function properly with the interest in its workings of the people affected by them – only when people actively inform and educate themselves in order to be able to form sound opinions, a democratic state can live up to its full potential. Naturally, democratic decision-making works best when the public bases their opinions and beliefs on neutral, correct information that is available to all - with the same or at least similar prerequisites, the outcome of votes and elections can more accurately mirror the needs and wants of the voters.

At this point, however, we encounter a number of difficulties. One of those will be discussed further in this blog post: the fine line between wanting to be involved and not being self-motivated enough to actively do something – put differently, the line between wanting to have a say but being too lazy to do your own research. In Immanuel Kant's words, we are encountering the problem of "self-imposed nonage", the “inability to use one's own understanding without another's guidance“. In his essay What is Enlightenment*[1]***, Kant consciously differentiates between those that lack of understanding (and therefore cannot do anything against their nonage) and those whose "indecision and lack of courage to use one's own mind without another's guidance" leads them to fail to educate themselves. This issue can be broken down into simple terms: it is more comfortable for people to do as they are told than to work hard to build their own system of opinions and beliefs. Laziness, cowardice and comfort hold back mankind in its attempts to free itself from this self-imposed nonage. Or, as Kant put it: "It is so comfortable to be a minor".

And this is exactly where the issue with misinformation kicks in: While mainstream media can often seem dull and overwhelming, misinformation and fake news tend to invoke emotions and are quicker and easier to understand. Misinformation is designed to grab the readers' attention and play with their feelings, resulting in a deeper emotional connection to misinformation than to mainstream media. Additionally, mankind has a tendency to seek and believe information that supports pre-existing beliefs and to avoid information that counters those beliefs - when you already believe in something, you will be tempted to believe anything that supports that matter and discard anything that does not. Finally, seeing a piece of misinformation more than once will then create the perception of group consensus that can result in collective misremembering. Once a piece of misinformation spreads so that opinions, values, beliefs and ultimately votes and elections are based off untruths, the politics of a country no longer accurately portray what society would do or want had it known the facts.

Misinformation is a powerful tool to harm democracies by hampering the ability of citizens to take informed decisions.

This, in turn, creates and deepens tensions within society and undermines democratic electoral systems. Additionally, this polarisation of the masses is followed by mistrust in traditional media, journalists and other institutions, leading to a vicious circle where people that mistrust traditional media outlets will again be more likely to trust misinformation - society is spiralling down a "misinformation black hole". It really seems like a Brave New World out there.

The good news is: just as well as we all have the right and responsibility to vote, we also have the right and responsibility to inform ourselves. While the internet is widely responsible for or intensifying the problems we have with misinformation and fake news, it is also an ever-increasing hub of credible sources, thought-provoking comments and opportunities to inform oneself. When looking online, there are different questions you can ask yourself whenever you think you might be reading false news:

  • What type of content is this? What is its format? - you should gather different impressions and information from caricatures than from a piece of political analysis.

  • Where is it published? Who else reads these posts? – often, the author and audience says more about a piece of information than the piece itself.

  • Who benefits from this piece of information being published? – who benefits and who loses from a piece of information clearly outlines powerplays.

These questions can be used as helpful guidelines to identify misinformation or at least as a prompt to look at different sources to compare storylines and arguments. You can also have a look at our U4I Source Blacklist and Whitelist for a comparison of credible sources and fake news websites. And as a general rule of thumb: if you have a weird gut-feeling, look at a few other sources to make sure.

Anyone able to vote should equally appreciate the rights and responsibilities that come with living in a democracy. Even if it can be overwhelming at times and even though it is impossible to research every topic there is, small steps are possible and necessary. At the end of the day, every vote in a democracy counts – and yours should be an informed one.

After all, "The ignorance of one voter in a democracy impairs the security of all."[2] - John F. Kennedy

United, we inform.

#stopfakenews #misinformation #election #vote #democracy

Written by Kea C.

[1] Immanuel Kant, What is Enlightenment?, 1784; translated by Mary C. Smith; last opened 24. July 2020 10:48am CEST

[2] 24. July 2020, 10:53am CEST

Sources helpful with research: 24. July 2020, 11:11am CEST 24. July 2020, 11:13am CEST

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