One of my great loves is Dewey. I share his belief that an educated engaged populace is crucial to democracy and democracy is crucial to the profession of those teaching in democracies. I think part of what we need to do is make sure all citizens have the tools they need to sort news from noise and speak truth to power.
At the same time, often when I speak to people, the questions come up — sure, media literacy is good, but how do we reach the people who drop out of high school, the people who don’t go to college. And so on.
Have I said enough that this is important? Well, here’s the other shoe dropping: our most pressing problems are not caused by Joe or Jane the Mechanic not getting a GED. They are caused by people in power — mid-level gatekeepers and up — who are allowing institutions to be corrupted by misinformation.
You can leave all the complaints about that formulation in the comments. I’ll admit that elites have always been prone to elite misinformation (see Iraq, Vietnam, Climate Change). But I would assert that such history shows the disasters that result when institutions become corrupted. The current configuration feels unique to me and other misinfo experts I talk to. The speed and frequency with which lies are created god knows where and then pushed up the chain to people with professional and political power is what’s frightening. High school dropouts are not your problem. Trump supporting gas station owners or conspiracy-minded baristas are not your problem. Your problem is the FBI agent consuming Twitter nonsense, the politician that not only uses disinfo but comes to believe it, and the blue checkmarked mid-level elites that are unwitting vehicles pushing that stuff relentlessly into the view of those who act on it.
I started off with Dewey, and Jane the Mechanic. Here’s the relation. While mass education is good and should be pursued as a long-term solution, if I was going to target our online literacy immediately and had a limited number of seats, I would target it at everyone that will find their way to positions of influence. Politicians. Policy leads. Product managers at tech startups. Future FBI agents and social workers and department heads. I would look at the gears of democratic institutions — political, civic, administrative — and see who has their hands on the levers, from the mid-level bureaucrats to the top.
I’m committed to implementing our program broadly, but if you think the misinformation problem is Jane the Mechanic and her one vote every four years you’ve got it backwards. For immediate impact target those who make and enforce decisions and those who influence them, and stop scapegoating those without power or influence.
I need to think about this too in terms of how we grow the Digital Polarization Initiative. We’ve had good success in first-year programs, and we need to continue that. But the nature of our moment (and our limited resources) may require us to think about how to target this more efficiently as we expand. If people have some ideas of the sort of college programs we should be trying to get this training into, let me know in the comments. We probably need to also tap into the fact that the core of the American Democracy Project is still students who plan to go into those positions of influence and power and the faculty who teach them. More later I think.