Opinion

Democracy is fragile. We all play a part in staying informed.

The slope between informed, functioning democracy and mob rule is a slippery one, writes Full Fact chief executive Will Moy.

PROUD BOYS marching in front of the US Supreme Court along First Street between Maryland Avenue and East Capitol Street, NE, Washington DC on Wednesday morning, 6 January 2021. Image credit: Elvert Barnes/Flickr

In Washington, a mob breaks into the US Capitol in a violent attempt to overturn a democratic election. One wears a horrifying ‘Auschwitz Camp’ top, and another carries a Confederate flag as he walks the halls.

But we shouldn’t kid ourselves into believing assaults on democracy are unique to the United States. On the same day, in Hong Kong, China began rounding up democratic politicians under a so-called ‘national security law.’

And here in the UK, it has been just a few years since Jo Cox MP was murdered by a far right extremist with links to US neo-Nazis.

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Democracy is fragile and we should be angry at people who are careless of it—people who distort facts, encourage conspiracy theories, or rely on bluster and bullshit when we need hard information. Even when those people run the country.

Like it or not, the internet’s intrinsic borderless nature makes bad information a problem for all of us.

One of the driving forces behind the mob in Washington was QAnon, a sprawling US conspiracy theory. What began with a single narrative—that President Donald Trump was working against a cabal of child-abusing elites—expanded to encompass a litany of pre-existing conspiratorial and anti-authority beliefs: anti-5G, anti-vaccine and—in the midst of the pandemic—anti-mask.

This was egged on by Mr Trump, who used every platform available to him, from social media to newspapers to television, to spread false information and encourage conspiracy theories.

In 2020 we saw UK-based internet users and protestors begin almost unconsciously parroting Q-inspired phrases and slogans, even while entirely detached from the movement’s US right-wing political roots. 

Authorities in New Zealand linked a Covid outbreak with misinformation spread online by a US church, and the Minister of Health warned about the “repeated, deliberate and malicious spread of misinformation”.

But you do not need to be outlandish to be misinformed about the pandemic. Full Fact’s investigation into whether the NHS had the personal protective equipment (PPE) it needed to tackle the pandemic pitifully concluded that “authorities did not have timely accurate information about the true PPE supply levels”. Good information saves lives, and who knows what those gaps in our information has cost us?

Right now, there is an important debate going on about the lockdown policy. Serious choices need serious scrutiny, amid the daily tragedy of lives and livelihoods being lost in large numbers. 

We have to talk honestly about the amount of uncertainty in these choices. 

Yet as we fact checked the arguments, we found a familiar malady—claims which are “often expressed with overconfidence, or without vital context”.

The slope between informed, functioning democracy and mob rule is a slippery one. As we have witnessed in recent years, the slide to the bottom can happen frighteningly quickly—and it requires thousands of quiet acts of integrity and self-restraint every day just to maintain our perch. 

We all have a part in keeping democracy informed. This comprises fairly mundane actions, like deciding who to vote for, and what to ask of them. It can even be the act of simply double-checking information before sharing it online.

Thankfully, we do see these acts all the time. Some MPs and journalists have corrected the record when Full Fact has pointed out errors. Even better—some go out of their way to check their facts before they speak, and resist the natural temptation to cherry pick or exaggerate their case.

We all have a part in keeping democracy informed. This comprises fairly mundane actions, like deciding who to vote for, and what to ask of them. It can even be the act of simply double-checking information before sharing it online. As citizens and taxpayers, we make good information possible by paying for and defending independent official statistics and information.

For all that, we may still have more in common with the mob in Washington than we like to think—in that we largely share their sense that those in power cannot be trusted. Every year Ipsos MORI asks: “Do you generally trust politicians to tell the truth?” and for decades, each year only about one in four of us (or fewer) has been willing to say yes. 

That’s reasonable: we are misled and misinformed often enough that only a fool would blindly trust a politician. But blind cynicism is just as dangerous. The trouble with having low expectations of our leaders is that we invite them to live down to those expectations. And look how that’s working for us.

Full Fact set out ten years ago to cut significantly the prevalence of misrepresentation, evasion, biased selection, bluffing, exaggeration, oversimplification, distortion and sometimes creation of facts by political elites at the expense of the ordinary citizen.

The world has changed since then, and there are dangerous gaps in the assumptions and rules made in a previous era, when owning a newspaper was the only way you could routinely misinform millions of people.

The fact that politicians can now reach millions of people while bypassing journalistic scrutiny and only answering questions they choose is bad for voters, whether it is Mr Trump inciting the mob, or Boris Johnson preferring to take carefully chosen questions from the public to independent questions from elected MPs or journalists.

This year, the government will bring forward legislation to tackle misinformation online. It will be an important debate but we must remember that this crisis is above all about political behaviour—not just the internet.

We must expect more of ourselves in a democracy, and we must expect more of those with power and responsibility.

Will Moy is chief executive of Full Fact, the UK’s independent fact-checking charity.

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