Democracy in the United States is in crisis due to the proliferation of false news stories on social media in the latest presidential election. Some of the false news may have been created by right-wing Clinton opponents (and a few left-wing Trump opponents), some may have been spread by profiteers (many from foreign countries), and some may have been created by foreign governments hoping to determine the winner of the Presidential election. The overall impact of false news is to destroy the nature of political discourse in a democracy. And without effective political discourse free and informed elections cannot take place.
What is especially disheartening is that many Americans believed the false news, and seemed to have no framework for differentiating between valid information supported by evidence and hyperbolic fantasies intended to mislead and confuse. The average person may not have time to cross-check and investigate each story they hear or read. But when false news is mixed with nonfalse news, the result can be confusion, doubt, and ambivalence about what to believe and not to believe. That confusion and doubt undermines the effective functioning of democracy. The more confused a person is, the less he or she may be willing to expend effort in learning what is true and untrue. The more confused a person is, the more likely he or she is to believe that everything is biased, that conflicting and often contradictory information always exists, and that there is no way to tell what is true or untrue. Confusion and doubt leads to an anti-intellectualism in which evidence is ignored and everything is considered to be opinion of equal value. The result is the erosion of political discourse and democracy.
In a democracy, reasoned judgment about who to vote for and what course of action the society should follow results from political discourse. The purpose of political discourse is to create a shared understanding of the issue being considered and a shared reasoned judgment as to what course of action society should take. It is not enough for a citizen to have an opinion and advocate a position; a citizen must be able to back up his or her opinion with reasons and evidence. Those reasons should then be scrutinized for the quality of the information and logic they contain. Political discourse consists of the following steps (Johnson, 2015): Formulating an initial reasoned judgment (this involves collecting the relevant information, weighing the evidence, and organizing it into a logical order to derive and then support one’s position), presenting it to persuade others to agree, listening to and being challenged by conflicting points of view, giving opposing positions critical scrutiny that exposes the strong and weak points of their argument (i.e., determining the validity of their information and logic), stepping back and viewing the issue from all perspectives, and then forming a new and improved reasoned judgment. When citizens engage in political discourse their knowledge about and understanding of the issue is expanded, their position expands beyond self-interest, and a policy is agreed upon that all citizens can be legitimately expected to follow. Political discourse is a type of shared inquiry in which the final reasoned judgment depends on the expression and consideration of diverse views. The quality of political discourse depends on the quality and veracity of the information used to formulate a reasoned position and its supporting rationale. In almost every case, if erroneous information is used to formulate a position, then the position will be false. In addition, if false information is presented as the rationale supporting a political position, trust in the person advocating the position and in the political process itself may be destroyed. Without trust there can be no cooperation, and without cooperation there can be no democracy.
Effective political discourse can only take place among citizens who wish to cooperate with each other in determining the most effective course of action to solve a problem the society is facing (Johnson, 2015; Johnson & Johnson, 1989, 2009). Cooperative endeavors tend to be characterized by concern for both self and others’ well-being and for the common good of all members of their society, trust and liking for fellow citizens, frequent, complete, honest, and accurate communication, accurate and constructive perceptions of fellow citizens, willing to respond helpfully to each other’s wants, needs, and requests, and a mutual recognition of the legitimacy of each other’s interests. Thus, in political discourse citizens seek for solutions that accommodate the needs of all sides. If political discourse is perceived to be a competitive endeavor, however, citizens tend to focus on differential benefit, striving to maximizing their own benefits at the expense of other citizens, distrust and dislike other citizens, either avoid communicating with citizens who have opposing interests and perspectives or communicating primary in terms of threats and misleading information, misperceive and distort other citizen’s positions and motivations, and basically deny the legitimacy of other’s wants, needs, and requests. Effective political discourse has to be a cooperative endeavor aimed at finding the best possible course of action for society to take to solve a compelling problem.
In more detail, the five steps of effective political discourse are (Johnson & Johnson, 2015). First, in formulating their initial position citizens need to have access to valid information. In order to determine how credible and valid information is, they must know the difference between facts and opinions. They must understand about degrees of evidence. They must know how to weigh evidence and place it in a logical structure. And they must understand that if a citizen formulates his or her position based on falsehoods (i.e., false news), then all resulting conclusions and opinions will be false. Care must be taken, therefore, to establish the veracity of the information being used to formulate a position.
Second, the citizen presents a persuasive case for his or her position, assuming that all citizens will listen with an open mind. Listening with an open mind is based on the belief that the presenter is honest and that the information being presented is as valid and accurate as the presenter can make it. If the information is false, the advantages of one course of action over another cannot be determined. If a citizen’s position is based on false news, then instead of using evidence, the citizen may appeal to authority (i.e., it says so on Facebook or Candidate X would never say it if it were not true), use logical errors (i.e., the person is a woman and therefore is incompetent), use errors like over-generalization (i.e., “I think the person lied about X, therefore everything the person says is a lie”), or simply attack the candidates’ character (i.e., the person is a crook). Such strategies lead listeners to close their minds and discount most if not all of what the citizen is presenting. False information promotes a loss of credibility and results in closed-mindedness in the listeners. It also promotes faulty decision making, as effective decision making tends not to result from erroneous information and opinions. When the opposition deliberately presents erroneous information, it undermines the trust, cooperation, and political discourse needed for a democracy to function.
Third, each citizen is expected to critically analyze the validity of the information and logic underlying the opposing positions. Doing so requires a thorough understanding of the information and logic (i.e., rationale) underlying the opposing points of view. The more completely an opposing position and its supporting rationale is understood, the more comprehensive a critique of that position will tend to be. When a position is based on false news, there is no underlying information and logic to analyze. It is simply a belief system with no evidence to support it.
Fourth, citizens need to step back and view the issue from all possible rational perspectives. A perspective is rational to the extend that it is based on valid evidence. If there is no valid evidence, then the perspective is not rational (it is a belief or ideological position). False news creates a situation in which it is difficult if not impossible to take the opponents’ perspectives as the perspective underlying the false news may be simply hate, dislike, fear, or a way to make money off a website.
Fifth, based on an understanding of all rational perspectives, citizens are expected to jointly come to agreement on the person to be elected or the course of action society should follow. The agreement should reflect the best reasoned judgment possible based on the current information and logic; when new information arrives, the judgment may be changed. Reaching agreement based on the current information and logic strengthens democracy and builds trust among citizens. When citizens present false information and come to conclusions based on that false information, trust is destroyed and further political discourse and cooperation tends to be abandoned. If there is no trust, cooperation becomes improbable, and democracy cannot function. It does no good to discuss an issue or a candidate with a person who knowingly or unknowingly lies and presents false information. Trust in the other person’s integrity and cooperative intentions is broken. In addition, if an election is won on the basis of false information, then trust in the outcome of the election is destroyed.
Thomas Jefferson stated that conflict among ideas leads to inquiry, and inquiry leads to truth. If people become convinced that all ideas are biased and that there is no way to determine the truth, no inquiry will result and, therefore, the opportunity to discover the truth may be lost. Doubt, ambivalence and confusion about objective evidence corrodes democracy by destroying trust among citizens and preventing effective political discourse. Rational reasoning, where evidence is sought out and effort is expended to determine the truth, will be considered to be impossible to do.
It has often been said that democracy will only exist until the people in power realize that they can vote themselves money from public funds. The resulting corruption (i.e., giving money to special interests) destroys democracy. One might also say that democracy will only exist as long as citizens honestly and with integrity advocate rational positions based on valid information and logic. Once falsehoods become commonplace, and false news replaces or becomes equal to factual news, political discourse becomes impossible. Without political discourse, democracy cannot exist.
Johnson, D. W. (2015). Constructive controversy: Theory, research, practice. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.
Johnson, D. W., & Johnson, R. (1989). Cooperation and competition: Theory and research. Edina, MN: Interaction Book Company.
Johnson, D. W., & Johnson, R. T. (2009). An educational psychology success story: Social interdependence theory and cooperative learning. Educational Researcher, 38(5), 365-379.