The insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6 was fueled by disinformation created and disseminated by Donald Trump and QAnon adherents, among others.
Our democracy came under assault because people believed and acted on lies generated by the former president and subversive conspiracy theorists. Information literacy, the ability to evaluate the accuracy of data and to distinguish between lies and truth, could have prevented the attack.
Fundamental to democracy, information literacy is a multidimensional concept that encompasses the ability to identify data needed as well as the skills to conduct a data search and then assess the credibility of information found.
It could not be clearer: The Biden administration and the 117th Congress must address this issue.
To live in a democracy means to be a caretaker of democracy, and that requires an informed citizenry. The people must be equipped with the skills necessary to evaluate the credibility of the source and the accuracy of the information. Decisions based on truth are better decisions than those based on falsehoods, and it is easier to resolve disagreements when both sides have accurate information.
Today we face a challenge reminiscent of the one addressed by Congress in 1958 when it passed the National Defense Education Act. That was in response to the Soviet Union's launch of the satellite Sputnik on Oct. 4, 1957, and was quickly followed by two additional Soviet satellite launches. Hoping to be the first country to launch a satellite, we were caught unaware by their achievement.
After an unsuccessful attempt in December 1957, we launched Explorer in January 1958. But we recognized that our national security was dependent upon new technology which would require additional resources for both our space program and our educational system. The report language recommending passage of the National Defense Education Act stated: “...the very survival of our free country may depend in large part upon the education we provide for our young people now.”
Those words are equally true today, but the challenge has become more complicated.
Globalization and advances in technology have increased the complexity of the policy challenges we face. To be an informed citizen in the 21st century requires an understanding of what is happening around the world, as well as at home.
With the development of smart phones and social media, we now receive messages from many more sources than in the past. In this age of ever-changing technology, we all need to be skilled at assessing the quality of information coming from these new and varied sources.
As people have turned to social media for information, the potential for spreading falsehoods has increased. Professional journalists follow a code of ethics with strict parameters that enhance transparency and minimize conflicts of interests in reporting. But much of what gets posted on social media receives little or no review.
Even more worrisome is the launching of new social media platforms, such as Parler, that hold no accountability to truth.
Finding and accepting the truth is not always easy. Research conducted at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found falsehoods travel faster and more broadly through social media than does the truth. The problem is even more pronounced when the “news” is political in nature.
And research conducted at the Affective Brain Lab at University College London also found the more people lied, the more comfortable they became telling lies.
The ability of our citizens to distinguish fact from fiction is critical to our national defense. U.S. intelligence found that Russia used social media in 2016 and 2020 to influence our elections to favor Trump. Any foreign interference in our elections is a threat to our democracy, as is any attempt from within to overturn an election and the will of the people.
The independent Institute of Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education can provide the expertise necessary to develop an information literacy program suitable for K-12 education. Additionally, there must be adequate levels of federal grant funding for developing and administering such programs in all our schools across America.
Those who breached the Capitol on Jan. 6 did not have the ability to distinguish fabrication from fact. Advancing information literacy is not the complete answer for addressing the falsehoods spread through social media. But a well-informed population who can knowledgeably assess the credibility of information is one of our best defenses against the threat to national security posed by domestic or foreign disinformation campaigns.
Jill Long Thompson is a former member of Congress, USDA undersecretary and CEO of the Farm Credit Administration. She is a visiting scholar at the Ostrom Workshop at Indiana University. The opinions expressed are hers and do not necessarily reflect those of Indiana University.