How Sharing Fake News Threatens Our Democracy

It's time to take responsibility.

Posted Dec 25, 2016

As I pointed out in my previous post, a significant percentage of the electorate is in the thrall of fake news, and has basically chosen to switch off both their brains, and sense of responsibility, in the act of proliferating disinformation and accelerating the dumbing down of America. Why does this pattern of behavior not bode well for our democracy? Hannah Arendt, in “The Origins of Totalitarianism," asserted, “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the dedicated communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction, true and false, no longer exists." This is what is happening. If you point out that a “news story” is not true, many folks these days simply shrug their shoulders, and say “That’s your opinion,” or “Who cares? It’s what I believe.”  

We all should care. Here’s why:

“Fascism didn't rise in the 30s because it was strong. It rose because democracy was weak.” — Steve Schmidt, GOP strategist, October 18, 2016

Checking the twitter feed in response to this powerful, meaningful quote, I was flabbergasted. Trump supporters simply (as in, they were simple) countered with sentence fragments like “All liberals FASCIST!”, the equivalent of Pee Wee Herman’s “I know you are, but what am I?”, thinking they had won a rhetorical victory or demonstrated uncommon wit, when they clearly showed that they did not know what they were talking about, in terms of basic political science or political theory. When tracking comments sections or FB threads, it’s clear that we have sunk to a new low in terms of common sense, being well informed, and employing critical thinking skills. Why is this a problem?

According to Steve Schmidt, the president-elect attacked “at a foundational level how we pick our leaders in this country....We’ve had uninterrupted transitions of power in this country, where the loser validates the result and legitimizes the winner since 1797. There has never, ever, ever, ever been a presidential candidate, three weeks before an election trying to delegitimize the result of the election” This isn’t a socialist, progressive talking. This isn’t a Hillary Clinton supporter speaking. This is Steve Schmidt, lifelong Republican. And he’s right to be worried.

As the New York Times reported, Yascha Mounk and Roberto Foa developed a three-factor formula that works something like a stress test, a way to detect that a democracy is ill before it develops full-blown symptoms:

  • Factor 1 is public support: “How important do citizens think it is for their country to remain democratic?”
  • Factor 2 is public openness to nondemocratic forms of government, such as military rule.
  • Factor 3 is whether “antisystem parties and movements — political parties and other major players whose core message is that the current system is illegitimate — are gaining support.”

According to their early-warning system, the eroding of democracy in the United States and many other liberal democracies is already underway.  In countries like Australia, Britain, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Sweden and the US, the percentage of people who say it’s “essential” to live in a democracy has dropped precipitously, and is particularly low among younger persons. But that’s not all.

Support for autocracy is also on the rise. The share of Americans who say that army rule would be a “good” or “very good” thing was 1 in 6 in 2014, compared with 1 in 16 in 1995. Fifty-three percent of older persons thought a military takeover would be illegitimate, but only 36 percent of millennials said that it would be wrong.  

It’s not old farts like me that are going along with this autocratic crap; it’s younger people who are beginning to subscribe to nondemocratic values in growing numbers. Democracy, is, admittedly, the grand experiment, and is inherently messy. Perhaps some folks would like to hand over their inefficient democratic government to a brutally efficient dictatorship—at least “the trains would run on time.” Another source of worry is how trivial pursuit in politics, e.g., daily tweets, and subsequent labored analysis, can be effective distractions from the fundamental dangers to our democracy. “It’s not just about what Trump will do to the E.P.A.,” Mounk said. “It really is that Trump may try to undermine liberal democracy in the United States.” 

“Look, this stuff is already going on in other places,” Mounk added. “If there’s one task that we have as journalists, as academics, as thinkers, it’s to drive the stakes of this home for people” (New York Times, November 29, 2016).

So, when folks say, “Let’s all take a deep breath, and give him a chance”; “How bad can it be?”; or, “Couldn’t be any worse than Obama," a centrist, or a person who loves country over party, could respond with: “Did an Obama transition team explicitly state we were entering a post-facts era, where facts no longer exist?” “Did President Obama attack people on Twitter, so that they would receive death threats from virulent haters?”  “Did Democrats attempt to sow discontent and distrust in our democratic institutions and processes?” “Did Obama nominate persons to cabinet positions who had expressed their specific desire to dismantle or eliminate the very departments they were selected to lead?” “Did Obama side with a Russian leader against the findings of 16 U.S. intelligence agencies?”


2017 is upon us, and this is not business as usual. Trump is appointing an antigovernment Cabinet, and persons (Michael Flynn, nominee for head of the NSA) who have tried to sway public opinion with fake news stories and retweets from conspiracy theorists, white supremacists, and Islamaphobes. Not only is this not business as usual, it is not healthy for our democracy. If you are not comfortable with military rule, and the undermining of our democratic institutions and processes, but believe democracy is crucial to who we are and our way of life, speak up, and challenge the eroding of democratic practices and values. Any process (proliferation of fake news, subscription to autocracy, etc.) that can slide us into fascism should be resisted explicitly and wholeheartedly, not taken in stride, or seen as the “new normal." It’s not.

Good night, and good luck.

Kyle D. Killian, PhD is author of  from Columbia University Press.


Robinson, Eugene. (December 12, 2016). Trump is assembling an anti-government. Washington Post. Retrieved December 25, 2016 at

Taub, A. (November 29, 2016). How stable are democracies? "Warning signs are flashing red." New York Times. Retrieved December 24, 2016 at