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Don't let them tell you what to think

A protest

Last year I wrote a little about how I hope AI will be used, using the GPS navigation in my car as an analogy:

I like my GPS. I use it pretty much every time I drive. But it’s not going to make the final decision about which way I go.

Perhaps it seems obvious, but I’d like to extend that analogy to news, media, and influencers.

We all need journalism — and particularly investigative journalism — to inform us and help us make better decisions. We need to take in sources, form opinions based on them, and vote accordingly as a baseline. But democratic participation doesn’t start and end with voting: we also need to know how to use our voices, spend our money, organize our communities, and, in areas we feel particularly strongly about, protest.

I do think we all need to use our voices. I’m wary when people are silent: whether this is their intention or not, silence is acquiescence to the status quo. If our government is doing something harmful on our behalf and we don’t speak out about it, or an atrocity is taking place somewhere and we choose not to speak up, our lack of action is an endorsement. Change only happens when people speak up.

But this only makes sense when we make up our own mind. If our opinions that copy what’s popular, or what a particular news outlet has to say, then we’re not exercising our democratic rights at all. We’re handing over that power to someone else. When we let someone make our mind up for us, using our voice is just amplifying their voice.

When people complain that we’re not all watching the same newscasts anymore, that’s the world they want to create: one where we’re all getting the same narrow band of information and forming opinions in the same way. That’s not democracy; that’s homogeny. It’s worth considering whose voices could be heard in that world. How diverse was it? Who was really represented?

Similarly, while there is certainly disinformation put out in the world that’s designed to coerce people to exercise their democratic rights in a particular direction (often towards fascism), some people have also used the words “misinformation” and “disinformation” (or “fake news”) to describe reporting that they simply don’t like.

This is the playbook of Trumpworld. When all of journalism is painted as biased and “fake news” — as Trump has taken pains to do — supporters are left with the officially-endorsed channels like Fox News, OANN, and Newsmax. They receive a narrow band of information that becomes the basis of their opinion-making. For example, during Trump’s presidency and beyond, these channels frequently pushed narratives that undermined trust in mainstream media, labeled critical reports as conspiracies, and even presented alternative facts about significant events like the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2020 election results. This systematic discrediting of journalism fosters an echo chamber that isolates its audience from opposing viewpoints and critical analysis.

But there’s a streak of this in Democrat-land, too: a subset of the community that’s sometimes been described as “blue MAGA” for its use of similar rhetoric. Here, any voice that criticizes Biden is also described as fake news, or even a Putin plot. For instance, when progressive commentators or journalists critique Biden’s policies on immigration or healthcare, they are sometimes met with accusations of undermining the Democratic agenda or aiding Republican narratives. This phenomenon isn't as pervasive as Trumpworld’s approach, but it highlights a discomfort with internal criticism within certain Democratic circles. While I’d clearly prefer a Democratic America to one run by Trump, this dismissal of uncomfortable sources as being fake because we don’t like them is no less undemocratic.

And, of course, the same goes for people who learn how to vote and what to think from their places of worship. In some religious communities, congregants are encouraged to vote in line with specific doctrinal beliefs, which can limit their exposure to broader societal issues and alternative viewpoints. It’s a hell of a waste of a free mind and a democratic bill of rights.

We need to consume information from a variety of sources, be critically aware of the biases and origins of those sources so that we can properly evaluate and contextualize them, and then make up our own minds, regardless of whether our conclusions are popular or not.

Making up our own minds has gotten a bad name lately through people who “do their own research” and end up promoting ivermectin for covid, believing that vaccines cause autism, or that climate change isn’t real. I’m not arguing for abandoning critical reasoning or scientific fact here; quite the opposite. The antidote to this kind of quackery is stronger critical thinking and source evaluation, not — as some have argued — restricting our information diet to a few approved sources.

New voices and sources matter. The world changes. Lots of things that were wildly unpopular and sneered at in the past are now part of ordinary life. For example:

  • Abolition
  • Women’s suffrage
  • Access to birth control
  • Interracial marriage
  • Marriage equality
  • The 40 hour work-week

Each of these things were hard-won by people who were very much outside the mainstream until they weren’t. Consider what it would have meant to be silent while each of those struggles for basic rights were underway, or what it might say about a person if they stayed silent because doing otherwise would affect their job prospects or earnings potential. These ideas weren’t popular to begin with, but they were right.

Even the internet was dismissed as a weird fad in the nineties. The mainstream press didn’t think it would catch on; people inside newsrooms had to fight to establish the first news websites. Memorably, one British magazine called it “the new name for ham radio” — just a few years before it took over the world.

What matters is not adherence to the values of a tribe. We aren’t better people if we demonstrate that our values are the same as an accepted set. The world isn’t like supporting a sports team, where you put on a red or a blue jersey and sing the same songs in the stands. It’s nuanced, and each of us can and should have our own nuanced perspectives that are informed by our lived experiences and those of the people around us, and a set of diverse, freely-reported information sources.

For the avoidance of doubt, my values are vehemently anti-war, pro-immigration, and fiercely on the side of diversity, equity, and inclusion. I believe in the right to choose. I believe that trans women are women and trans men are men. I believe that too-small government leads to big corporate power, and too-big government leads to authoritarianism, so a continual balance must be found. I believe that universal healthcare is a fundamental human right. I believe guns must be controlled. I roll my eyes when people complain about socialism in America, because usually what they mean when they use that word is what I’d consider to be basic infrastructure. I think there needs to be a ceasefire in Gaza and in Ukraine. I dislike patriotism because I think it encourages people to care more about people who are geographically close to them. I believe Ayn Rand’s “morality of self-interest” is an excuse to act without compassion. I like startups and believe in the right to start and run a business — and that they can be the vehicle for great change. I think climate change is not just real and behind many of the geopolitical decisions we’re seeing playing out today. I believe that the civil rights marches and movements of the 2020s are the signs of really exciting progressive change. I believe Trump must not become President. I believe a progressive world is a better world.

And I believe in talking about those things and why I believe them. Loudly. Even when it’s uncomfortable. There is no media outlet I’m aware of that publishes based on that exact set of values. You might nod your head in agreement with some of them and be angered by others.

The news I read and the information I gather is my GPS. I appreciate the signal, and it will certainly inform my actions and beliefs. I’m still going to find my own way.

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