The Threat of Misinformation on Our Democracy

By Carolyn Foote

In recent years, libraries across the country have been under attack in an unprecedented way. As a librarian, I’m on the front lines of fighting misinformation, which has become a true threat to our democracy.

This April was School Library Month. The United States was built on the foundation of libraries. Founders like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, businessmen like Andrew Carnegie, and women in small rural communities founded and manned small community libraries to educate their own communities.

Our democracy’s health depends on an informed citizenry, but easy access to disinformation and misinformation, much of it willfully created, presents real harm to the survival of our democracy. I had the fortunate opportunity to work with young people almost everyday. We teach media and information literacy to help students wade through the misinformation that is rampant online and on social media so they can be engaged citizens themselves one day. Our students want to be able to look up to their leaders as examples, but how can they do that when some of these same leaders are knowingly espousing misinformation?

To be blunt, political leaders who should be models for our younger generations should hold themselves to higher standards.

On a recent visit to the Capitol, my first in 25 years, I waited in line, went through security and waited on my turn for a tour. As the tour was ending, I found myself standing in the Capitol rotunda, when it suddenly hit me that those were the doors where extremists shattered windows and broke into our nation’s Capitol. It took my breath away to think of the level of misinformation those Americans must have been prey to that would lead them to such a violent violation of a historic and sacred place to their fellow citizens.

Certainly, each individual may hold different points of view or opinions about issues. But there’s a difference between that and intentionally misleading the public with false information. And it’s hard to have common ground to discuss issues if we aren’t dealing in facts or willing to have civil debates based on a consensus of proven information.

Much like during the McCarthy era, triggering language is used to instigate a reaction rather than fostering healthy conversations. As misinformation creates distrust in any kind of reliable or traditional media and our public schools and libraries, this bubble drives us to unvetted resources, biased media or far-fetched theories, or worse, propaganda meant to mislead. Extremist politicians too often play on emotions and the ignorance of the public to the detriment of our democracy, which is only strong when we reinforce the truth. Triggers cause us not to think carefully or do our homework because they play on our emotions, our fears, our deep worries instead of our sense of reason and diligence. And once we have bought into those triggers, it’s hard to admit we’ve done it, and easier to resist facts that we can see with our own eyes than to admit we made a mistake.

Former President James Madison once said “a popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it is but a prologue to farce or tragedy or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives.”

The information in libraries gives us the opportunity to access ideas with a variety of viewpoints, have our stories be seen and heard, and have access to vetted factual information and professionals who can help us do research. Attacks on libraries are attacks on the history this country was built upon. We’ve seen that throughout history in autocratic countries where knowledge was restricted as a means to shut down freedom. We cannot have a functioning democracy if we cannot have civil discourse rooted in factual truths. But unfortunately I, like so many, see our country slipping further and further away from this foundation.

Our pathway out is several fold. 

We have to call on our leaders to have the courage to reject misinformation, reject political violence, and have the backbone to stand up to those within their own party who threaten the sanctity of our democracy. We need to embrace information and media literacy programs in our state and local curriculums. We need to examine our own triggers and instead of reacting, be willing to listen to opposing ideas and consider them prior to reacting. We must value our democracy, and understand that it cannot thrive in a climate of misinformation.

What does that look like? 

Hold your elected officials accountable for spreading misinformation about politicized events like January 6. Call on your local leaders to invest in our schools so that young people have access to accurate information. Talk to your neighbors and loved ones about misinformation, social media usage, and what’s at stake for our democracy. Convene civil conversations in your communities about political issues to seek more understanding about complex issues. The shelves of our libraries offer the opportunity to learn more on various sides of issues from experts and laypersons alike.  

Misleading rhetoric and misinformation is what led people to the Capitol that day and has led to attacks on our other public institutions like schools and public libraries. Let’s do our part as a country to secure our democracy for future generations by uplifting what should always matter the most, the truth.