Living in the Age of Misinformation
All of us are susceptible to misinformation, including the so-called educated elite.
I grew up in Baghdad, Iraq, under multiple regimes. Over the course of twenty years, the country moved from just three state-owned sources of information during Saddam Hussein’s reign, to more than one thousand owned by various political parties. Each harbored agendas that fueled divisions and ignited hatred between people of different sects. This resulted in tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of deaths during the civil war. One of them was my brother.
Growing up, these varying sources of information heavily influenced how I understood the first Gulf War, as everything was filtered through the lens of the government. Hussein and his henchmen fed those of us living inside Iraq a particular narrative about the war that was far from the truth. Falseties were carefully curated and distributed to Iraqi citizens on a daily basis. Those living outside the country or near the borders, however, knew what really happened.
Thirty-one years ago, Saddam Hussein led the Iraqi army to invade the neighboring country of Kuwait. I did not know the truth of the matter until fourteen years after the fact, in 2004, when I watched a documentary on YouTube that explained the war in more detail, showing the Iraqi soldiers being defeated and sometimes captured by the US military as prisoners.
I remember being shocked that I had been so deceived. We were taught that the battle was called “أم الـمـعـارك”, which translates to “the mother of all battles,” and that Iraq claimed victory in the war against thirty-three aggressors. There was barely any mention of the invasion of Kuwait, and the “proof” that we won the war was that Saddam remained in power. With little to no access to other sources of information, how could we be expected to believe anything else? Seeking the truth in Iraq, particularly during those times, was dangerous.
Satellite television was strictly forbidden in Iraq. If you were not well connected and didn’t know how to hide the equipment, those three state-owned channels were all you had to choose from. I remember when my dad and I used to listen to radio broadcasts that came from outside of Iraq under cover of night. The signal was good, and no one could see us. Those of us born and raised in Iraq were familiar with disinformation campaigns. It reached such a level that it became increasingly challenging to discern fact from fiction, and it became hard to trust even your neighbors and closest friends. Sowing division and distrust was Hussein’s bread and butter. It was how he maintained control.
The Middle East/North Africa (MENA) region is not a monolith. However, other than a few stable and advanced countries, most people in the region are monolingual, live under brutal regimes, and face crippling levels of unemployment. Humanitarian disasters are common and educational systems often based in religious fundamentalism intentionally limit access to knowledge and kneecap critical thinking skills. This combination creates a vulnerable general public so eager for answers that they are susceptible to misinformation. They seek answers wherever they can find them.
I have seen firsthand the consequences of this type of top-down media strategy, which is why I find the hyper-politicization of American media outlets in recent years so troubling. When corporations and government bodies knowingly capitalize on the chaos that ensues when misinformation is widespread, the inevitable next step is for the citizenry to turn against one another. To silo themselves off into the corner of the media that speaks to them and their concerns, regardless of the facts. When the truth comes secondary to ideology or political incentives, the public’s trust in media institutions and each other dwindles. Most American citizens are neither interested in nor have time to “do their own research” about each piece of news they consume. This is the perfect storm for bad and blatantly false ideas to spread and dangerous ideas to follow. We see this manifest in the form of increased conflicts between groups as the divide widens, and the consequences are dire. Whether in the form of right or left-wing extremism, we are floating further and further away from our democratic ideals every day we continue to engage with a media ecosystem that is hell-bent on dividing Americans. When shared basic truths are no longer agreed upon, all meaningful conversations come to a screeching halt.
Until recently, Americans had a reasonable amount of faith in media institutions to tell them the truth. That is no longer the case. From Fox News to MSNBC to even the Washington Post, it is often the case that each story is carefully curated to advance a political agenda, ideology, or corporate interest. Rather than laying all the cards on the table and trusting the American polity to think critically about the facts and arrive at their own conclusions, a select few picks and chooses which stories to cover, how to cover them, and who to market them to. The truth is often far more boring than we’d like to believe, which is bad for ratings and profit. The incentive of these outlets to garner more viewership and readership necessitates the sensationalization of matters that should be taken seriously and considered thoughtfully.
The recent Twitter files exposé by journalists Matt Taibi, Bari Weiss, and Michael Shellenberger exemplifies the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the danger of allowing politics to infiltrate our media and social ecosystems. These outlets have incredible power and influence regarding how we vote, approach public policy issues, make crucial life decisions, and interact with our neighbors. While it might not be Saddam Hussein in the control room in this case, the outcomes of this kind of cross-pollination of media and political interests are the same: trust deteriorates, neighbor turns against neighbor, and misinformation and disinformation spread like wildfire.
Growing independent and fact-based journalism is attempting to fill the void that has opened between the public and the truth, but in reality, that is not sufficient. Every day Americans deserve to have a modicum of truth and decency broadcast into their living rooms. We can’t allow ourselves to be pawns in this way and mindlessly accept the divisive rhetoric that is designed to polarize us further. Let's take an honest look at the trajectory of American media. We will see how its devolving makes it much less likely that the American experiment will continue to succeed. We might fancy ourselves more advanced than those in the Middle East living under dictatorial regimes, but human nature runs through all of us, and democracy is fragile. No one is immune to falling for falsehoods at the expense of culture and democratic values, even the so-called educated elite.
There is no one solution to the problem of misinformation in free societies, but Iraq should serve as a cautionary tale as to where polarization and divisive rhetoric get us. I believe the media, as in any other industry, responds to incentives. If we, as citizens of both America and of the world, value truth and critical thinking and reject confirmation bias in pursuit of the truth, the charlatans and crooks who seek to divide us will have a much smaller market to pander to.
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