Social Media 'Misinformation' Endangers Democracy, Historians SayHistorians in the News
tags: racism, social media, civics, journalism, Fake News, 2020 Election
False or misleading information shared on social media platforms regarding this year’s presidential election, along with racial and social unrest nationally, has some historians and others worried about the damage done to the democratic process.
Howard Schneider, executive director of Stony Brook University’s Center for News Literacy, said a polarized United States helped fuel "misinformation" during the contentious race between President Donald Trump and now President-elect Joe Biden. Underlying the polarization, which continues to flourish on social media, in chat rooms, on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, is America’s fraught racial history, some scholars believe.
"We’re in a situation where people are trusting their political and partisan group identity more than they are the news media," said Schneider, a former editor of Newsday. "This is a real problem for the country. How do we educate people … who are so fixed and set in their ways, who won’t believe fact-based information? This is a national calamity."
Peniel Joseph, a history professor in the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, had a similar view.
"Racial division is at the core of this political divide," Joseph wrote in an email, "more specifically anti-Black racism and racial resentment," which he said Trump "amplified" and "weaponized."
Trump's press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, asked in a White House press briefing Oct. 1 whether the president denounced white supremacy "in all its forms," said the president had done so on many occasions, listing several past quotes. For example, she said in August 2019, Trump said, "In one voice our nation must condemn racism, bigotry and white supremacy."
Joseph, who is founding director of the university's Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, said ultimately, "We have to center racial justice while forging a new national consensus around what citizenship, freedom and democracy mean in the 21st century."
Karl Jacoby, a professor of American history at Columbia University and director of its Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race, said: "It’s a really scary moment for the United States."
He pointed to Trump’s attempt on social media and in the courts to overturn his loss to Biden by taking aim at voters in majority Black and Latino cities such as Detroit, Philadelphia, Milwaukee and Phoenix.
"My feeling about it is it’s frankly racism, if you’re going to try to think about it in as clear a way as possible," Jacoby said.
"All of this has made me realize how fragile American democracy is," he added. "The peaceful transfer of power is the essence of the democratic process. Never in our history have we had the president call into question the peaceful transfer of power as Trump is doing."