The Answer to Combatting Disinformation Is Education

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5 mins read

Journalist Ben Kesling said this:

I’ll add that Finland (which declared independence from Russia in 1917) knows a thing or two about fighting Russian disinformation campaigns and successfully resisting them.

It’s not a coincidence that the same people who spread disinformation are not interested in funding public schools. While doing research for my book on disinformation, I learned about Kari Kivinen, a head teacher in Finland who explained how Finland combats disinformation.

In math, they teach students how easy it is to lie with statistics. In art, students learn how an image’s meaning can be manipulated. In history, they analyze notable propaganda campaigns.

Language teachers show how words can be used to confuse, mislead, and deceive. In primary schools, they use fairytales. “Take the wily fox who always cheats other animals with his sly words. That’s not a bad metaphor for a certain kind of politician, is it?” Kari Kivinen said.

In the U.S. we have people suggesting less education for those in important positions, rather than more. This is from author J.D. Vance: 

The other problem is the anti-intellectual “don’t-listen-to-elites” schtick that the Republican Party has been pushing for some time. When people like Ted Cruz (who has a law degree from Harvard) and Josh Hawley (who has a law degree from Yale) tell people not to trust “elites,” it invites mockery on left-leaning social media. But “Don’t Trust Elites” is a dangerous message that erodes confidence in democracy, government, and education while encouraging people to line up behind a Trump-like figure, who decides what is true and what is not.

America has a history of this kind of anti-intellectualism. For example, just before the Civil War, a Northern antislavery party arose called the American Party. They were also known as the Know-Nothings because they started as a secret order, and when asked about their party affiliation, said they knew nothing. 

The American Party was antislavery, also anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant. Until 1840, Protestantism was the dominant religion in America. After about 1840 came the first large waves of Catholic and Asian immigrants. The Know-Nothings wanted to restrict immigration. Their members viewed these new immigrants as strange, foreign, less American, and of course, less white. The party slogan was “Americans must rule America,” where “Americans” were understood to be people of northern European ancestry. Interestingly, or ironically, the No-Nothings called themselves “Native Americans,” based on the idea that white Protestant settlers were the first and true Americans.

Do these ideas sound familiar? It’s almost like the modern Republican Party took notes. It’s because America has a long history with this sort of thing.

A minority party with shrinking demographics has several tools for maintaining power. One, of course, is to suppress the votes from the opposing party. There can be partisan gerrymandering. Another way is by keeping their supporters in a disinformation-propaganda media bubble.

They can also keep people uneducated and distrustful of those with advanced education, and one way to do this is to underfund public schools and make college unaffordable to most people. I wrote a biography of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was raised in a very affluent family, and what was clear in his early years was that the wealthy had a pipeline to places like Harvard and anyone who wasn’t wealthy or privileged would have a difficult, if impossible time, securing even a college education. We made progress, and now, the reactionaries want to roll us back.

That brings me back to one of the most important things we can do — stay involved at the local level. Every election matters, particularly who is on your local school board. That lesson came home to me last summer when our local school district was trying to decide what to do about the pandemic, before there was much guidance, and one member of our school board told me that he thought the virus was a hoax. 

That’s also why one of the most encouraging things I read about the future of our democracy was this:

[The content in this blog post is also part of my video series here.]

Originally posted here.


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Teri has written novels, short stories, nonfiction for both young readers and adults, and lots of legal briefs. She is currently working on a book on disinformation to be published by Macmillan Publishers. Her political commentary has appeared on the NBC Think Blog and CNN.com. Her articles and essays have appeared in publications as diverse as Education Week, Slate Magazine, and Scope Magazine. Her short fiction has appeared in the American Literary View, The Iowa Review, and others. For twelve years she maintained a private appellate law practice limited to representing indigents on appeal from adverse rulings. She believes with the ACLU that when the rights of society's most vulnerable members are denied, everybody's rights are imperiled. She also believe with John Updike that the purpose of literature is to expand our sympathies. Teri lives with her family on the beautiful central coast in California.

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