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Fascism Thrives on Misinformation

Democracy requires real information that fascism rejects.

Key points

  • Fascists use misinformation about history, identity, leaders, conspiracies, and destiny to gain and retain power.
  • Democracy requires replacing misinformation by real information by using critical thinking, motivational interviewing, and political action.
withGod/Shutterstock
Source: withGod/Shutterstock

Democracy depends on real information that people need to make good decisions about their governments and society. For example, voting for political candidates requires evaluating their claims about how they will deal with economic problems, where evaluation requires information about both the candidates and the economy. Fascism opposes democracy in demanding autocratic government by charismatic leaders assisted by violence. Fascists use misinformation about history, identity, leaders, conspiracies, and destiny to gain and retain power. Replacing misinformation with real information is therefore crucial for retaining democracy and fighting fascism.

Real Information Differs from Misinformation

Real information is true, accurate, and valuable, whereas misinformation is false, inaccurate, and misleading. Information results from four general processes: acquisition from the world, inference that extends knowledge beyond the world to identify causal relations, memory that stores and retrieves information, and spread of information among people.

When these processes are done well, the result is real information that represents facts about the world, derived by reliable acquisition methods such as perception, systematic observations, and controlled experiments. Evidence so acquired can be extended by inference methods such as careful causal reasoning that identifies the best explanation of observed correlations. Real information can be retained by reliable storage and retrieval, and spread by careful communications practices in which people evaluate the credibility of messages before sending them to others and evaluate messages sent by others before believing them. Unfortunately, misinformation abounds because these practices are violated.

Fascism Exploits Misinformation

Fascism relies on five kinds of misinformation to ensure that people are well-controlled, rather than acting democratically in their own interests.

  1. Mythic past. Leaders such as Mussolini and Hitler talked of a made-up time when their nations were great in ways that they pretend to recover.
  2. Glorious leader. The autocrat deserves control because of the infallible ability to always make good decisions.
  3. National and racial superiority. Nationalism is justified because foreigners, minorities, and immigrants are inherently inferior to the predominant national or racial identity.
  4. Dangerous threats. Violent actions are required to protect the nation from contrived conspiracies.
  5. Inevitable destiny. The nation, under its autocratic leader, is guaranteed to have a magnificent future.

These convictions are made up for political purposes and have no evidence acquired from interactions with the world by perception, systematic observation, or controlled experiments. Evaluations and inferences are based only on autocrats’ goals rather than on acquired evidence.

Misinformation spreads because politicians exploit people’s susceptibility to motivated inference and thought-distorting emotions such as fear, anger, and hatred. Early twentieth-century fascists could only spread misinformation slowly, through print, radio, movies, and rallies, but today misinformation is rapidly and effectively transmitted by social media such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube, whose algorithms value emotional engagement and advertising revenue over truth and democracy.

Defending Democracy

How can democracy resist the threats posed by fascist uses of misinformation? The most promising strategies are critical thinking, motivational interviewing, and political action. Critical thinking is a two-step process of error detection followed by remedial reasoning. Error detection draws on psychological research on inferential biases and philosophical work on fallacies to identify mistakes made in support of misinformation. For example, myths about a splendid history, eminent leader, or guaranteed destiny can be identified as based on motivated inference that supports personal goals rather than on objective evidence. Claims about national and racial superiority can be marked as faulty causal inferences. Incendiary claims about threats from internal and foreign conspiracies can be assessed as based on fear rather than evidence.

Once thinking errors are detected, remedial reasoning can use reliable forms of evidence collection and inference to supplant misinformation. Sound historical research can debunk claims about a mythic past and undermine clams of inevitable destiny. Careful causal reasoning can replace unsubstantiated claims about national and racial superiority with evidence-based assessments. Judicious applications of inference to the best explanation of good evidence can revise assessments of autocratic infallibility and conspiracy dangers. Hence the one-two punch of error detection plus remedial reasoning can help to transform misinformation into real information.

Unfortunately, critical thinking is not always effective in changing people’s minds, which are as much driven by emotional values as they are by perception and cognition. A second strategy is motivational interviewing, which uses empathy and support rather than critical thinking. It could be used against fascism through the following subtle interventions.

  • Understanding people’s political concerns by asking them open-ended questions and empathizing with their fears and insecurities.
  • Being affirmative, reflective, and non-judgmental about their concerns.
  • Identifying discrepancies between people’s current and desired behaviors, such as treating people equally rather than with nationalist or racist prejudice.
  • Summarizing the issues and informing people while respecting their autonomy.

Whether motivational interviewing could be used to draw people away from fascist-supporting misinformation remains to be empirically determined. But studies should be done to determine whether it can work in combination with critical thinking or independently to help people adhere to democratic values in the face of fascist threats.

The third strategy is that of political action to change society in ways that retard the spread of misinformation. The USA and other countries are currently reviewing legislation to make social media responsible for ensuring that accuracy is more important than inflammability in how information is transmitted. Another democracy-supporting political action is to use legislative and judicial means to support fair voting rules, for example blocking laws that make it hard for some groups of people to vote or that dilute their voting power by gerrymandering electoral districts. Fair voting procedures are essential for ensuring that people have the opportunity to choose representatives based on real information. I hope that a combination of critical thinking, motivational interviewing, and political action can defend democracy against fascist uses of misinformation.

References

Albright, M. (2018). Fascism: A warning. New York: HarperCollins.

Eatwell, R. (2003). Fascism: A history. London: Pimlico.

Stanley, J. (2020). How fascism works: The politics of us and them. New York: Random House.

Thagard, P. (2019). Mind-society: From brains to social sciences and professions .New York: Oxford University Press.

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