The Danger of Disinformation and Anti-Intellectualism in Today’s Society

A netizen was found to have posted more than 200 statuses based on fake news about the COVID-19 pandemic

Dr. David Childs, D.D., Ph.D.
Northern Kentucky University

One of the troubling aspects of the times that we live in is that many people do not trust long established institutions because of the proliferation of misinformation. Indeed, reputable organizations and institutions such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, well established universities and the American Academy of Arts and Science are challenged by the general public and written off as biased and dangerous institutions. As a result, many people struggle with differentiating between valid and invalid sources. When people do not have the ability to differentiate between valid and invalid sources they become susceptible to disinformation and misinformation. In light, of this we would like to post an article we published a few years ago on the topic of disinformation.

Originally Published May 20, 2020
“There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”
Issac Asimov

Anti-Intellectualism is the cryptonite of a democracy. In other words, an uneducated, ignorant citizenry can greatly weaken or completely kill a democracy. Indeed a lack of respect for education can render a society unrecognizable as a democracy and actually usher in a totalitarian government. When we as a society begin to discredit knowledge and intelligence, and undermine the value of education we relegate ourselves to a great loss of freedom. The mistakes made at that point would have great economic consequences, which will ultimately cost lives. The citizenry are all left to their own whim. There is a biblical passage that states “everyone did what was right in their own eyes.” This is our lot if we continue to castigate the learned, discredit educational institutions and even cut funding for public education and institutions of higher learning.

We have written about the deliberate effort of the Russian government to sow discord in the US political process by spreading false information on social media. You can view our previous article on the topic here.

These efforts have an even more sinister effect when false information is spread about how we should combat a deadly virus. Consider the article Hatred going viral in ‘dangerous epidemic of misinformation’ during COVID-19 pandemic that discusses all of the information available on how to combat COVID-19 that goes against medical science and common knowledge.  

Ads Appearing on Google’s Network Alongside COVID-19 from Misinformation

Hitler and misinformation
The idea of operating from a political platform of deliberate lies and advancing mistruths to cover up one’s own failures and missteps is nothing new. Hitler was one of the first in modern times to intentionally mislead the public for his own political advantage. The New York Times sheds light on this little known topic in their article entitled “How Hitler Pioneered Fake News”. In the US we have to ensure that we do not make the same mistakes and allow leaders to shun education and scientific research.

Mao Zedong and Re-education
Mao Zedong in his cultural revolution and specifically his great leap forward shut all of the schools down in China in 1960’s and used his political platform to berate and discredit all of the educated in society (including young people) and had them do hard labor in the countryside as a sort of reeducation. He classified the educated elite (The so-called bourgeoisie) as enemies of the state. What can we learn from Mao Zedong and his attack on education that will help us fight against misinformation in the US today?  

Educators can help students study history to understand the present and not repeat the same mistakes we have made in the past. Studying the past is a great way to educate our youth and help them understand the value of knowledge. Teachers should prepare units and lessons that help students understand how to determine whether information is valid or not. Here are some resources and lessons exploring more historical examples and the dangers of misinformation:

Misinformation and Democracy
Misinformation is a Threat to Democracy in the Developing World
Impact of Misinformation on the Democratic Process
From the National History Center: Democracy and Misinformation

Education and Democracy
On Education & Democracy – 25 Lessons from the Teaching Profession
Standing on the Frontlines for Democracy 25 Lessons Learnt on Education and Democracy
Lesson Plan #1: Introducing Democratic Education
Teaching Tolerance: A Call for Democratic Education

Resources and Lessons on Chinese Culture Revolution
Lesson Plan #1 – Cultural Revolution: “Reality vs. Government Claims”
Lesson plan for “State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda” poster set
China’s Cultural Revolution, Explained
Resources for Teaching about the Personality Cult of Chairman Mao
The Cultural Revolution: all you need to know about China’s political convulsion
China’s Cultural Revolution
Mao Zedong, Freedom of Speech and Re-education

1 Comment

  1. The quote from Issac Asimov towards the beginning of the article is extremely powerful, saying that “There is a cult of ignorance in the United States…” and that “democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge”. I feel like that is a perfect summary of the narrative of almost every in American discourse today. People will constantly discredit those who’s job it is to find and report the truth (even if that comes with some bias) because of the institution they represent or the opinion that may be intertwined with their representation of the truth. Nowadays, people will use that as an excuse to believe the Tik Tok they saw saying that “Obama legallized governmental propaganda back in 2013” and think that it must be true because the idea doesn’t have any apparent institutional backing behind it (and yes this is a real conversation I had with someone the other day). It is a very difficult phenomenon we have to navigate these days, regarding what is true and what is not.

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